For most travelers, planning a trip has more to do with the destination rather than the people one is bound to meet along the way. That’s hardly the case for Olivia, a San Francisco-based company and leader in the lesbian travel industry. When a traveler signs up for one of Olivia’s cruises she knows she’ll be gaining both photos and friends.
Olivia has gone way past providing memorable vacation experiences: They’ve created a lifestyle. “We change lives and minds wherever we go, and our collective power is an awe-inspiring thing that has led to many memorable moments,” explains Olivia President and Founder Judy Dlugacz. Today, Olivia serves millions of lesbians through cruises, adventure travel excursions and high-end luxury vacations. Yet, 40 years ago, Olivia operated on a much smaller scale.
It all began in 1973 with a group of ten women who dreamed of changing the world through music. They launched Olivia Records, a record label that released LPs of acoustic folk for women, by women. Backed by a humble $4,000 investment, the team recorded a 45 with Meg Christian and Cris Williamson and sent it to all the rich and famous people they thought might further fund the album.
The plan didn’t work, but it didn’t matter. Olivia Records had already found its audience. Women around the country wanted to pick up the album, so Dlugacz and her team took it upon themselves to ship the record themselves, making a cool $11,000 in profits. With no distribution channel to access at the time, Olivia then created its own distribution model, eventually expanding to a network of 80 women who were passionate about the project.
In an age before social media, many lesbians sought out each other through Olivia’s musical productions. It bonded the community together, giving women an avenue for self-expression and a glimmer of hope for a more open-minded future.
At the same time, lesbians turned to music as an emotional outlet. “We paralleled the women’s movement. It was the ability to reach women and have a profound impact and it literally changed their lives. If they were isolated in a small town, and thought they were the only women who were lesbian in the world, they bought this music and it changed their lives,” remembers Dlugacz.
After about 15 years in the music business, Dlugacz began pondering her next step. Coincidentally, after an Olivia-produced Seattle concert, a woman approached Dlugacz and nonchalantly mentioned how thrilling it would be to host a concert on the water. In that instant Dlugacz’s wheels began turning. An all-lesbian cruise might have seemed like a bold move for anyone else, but for Dlugacz it was a natural progression.
As successful as Olivia’s cruises are today, breaking into the travel market had its fair share of obstacles. “At first no one wanted to charter a ship to lesbians. They didn’t know us or understand who we were,” states Dlugacz. The cruise industry was unsure of what their regular customers would think of a company chartering a ship full of lesbians. The ship’s staff, too, had to be introduced to the lesbian community’s needs.
Dolphin Cruise Lines agreed to host the first Olivia cruise, and its first vacationers were women who already supported Olivia’s music. The Olivia team sold out the first week almost immediately, and then they added a second week that sold out just as quickly. Dlugacz and her team knew they were onto something big. In February 1990, the 600-passenger ship Dolphin IV left Miami and headed for the Bahamas on a couple of back-to-back four-night cruises.
Olivia provided a comfortable vacation environment for the lesbian community free of judgmental stigmas. With no fear of being stared at or hearing offensive remarks, Olivia’s clients got the most out of their cruise experience. The next step was hiring a dedicated female staff to run on-board activities ranging from dance lessons to solo programs.
Part of Olivia’s appeal is the welcoming atmosphere lesbian travelers have come to expect from the brand. If Judy’s opening tagline, “welcome to the way the world should be,” doesn’t get people excited, the high-energy and personable lesbian staff of stand-up comics, musicians and other entertainers will do the trick. Never straying far from Olivia’s roots, the company sees travel as a means to reach women around the world and change their lives for the better.
Many of Olivia’s customers come back again and again for different travel experiences. Doreen Anderson, one of Olivia’s frequent travelers, first booked with Olivia in January of 2012 for a May 2012 trip to Cancun. Blown away by her Mexican trip, Anderson now recommends Olivia to her friends. “It is amazing to be part of this wonderful family/community and never have to watch over your shoulder or feel different. You really can be yourself, and also try things that you have never done before and step out of your 'comfort zone' in a safe and supportive environment,” she says.
The feeling of freedom one gets from an Olivia vacation is a driving factor in transitioning from a one-time customer to a frequent traveler. While Anderson asserts that she is “very out” in her everyday life, she says that Olivia lifts an invisible weight from one’s shoulders.
Donna Shands-Island, another regular Olivia cruiser, also touches on this same sense of freedom experienced during her trips. “Through Olivia I have found a greater sense of who I can be,” she says. After being inspired by other Olivia travelers, Shands-Island began to view her own life as one with endless opportunities. She is now an activist who speaks at various events about LGBT travel.
Anderson and Shands-Island are not alone in their high opinion of Olivia. A reported 96-98 percent of solo and coupled travelers, hailing from all over the world, say that they would book another vacation with Olivia. There is even a solo program specifically tailored to singles.
Another ingredient to Olivia’s winning recipe is its ability to turn any challenge into an opportunity. During a 2000 trip to the Bahamas, for example, Olivia cruisers were met by an angry group of anti-gay protesters. While hardly an ideal way to kick off a vacation, Olivia turned this unfortunate situation into a platform for raising awareness about the LGBT community. They called for the Bahamas government to make an official statement condemning the group of protestors. Like clockwork, the government held a press conference the next day asking Olivia and other gay and lesbian travelers to return to the island nation. The Bahamas’ Minister of Tourism even went so far as to climb aboard the ship and personally apologize for the protestors’ behavior.
On the other end of the spectrum, Olivia was praised after a trip to Turkey that very same year. No less than four major Istanbul newspapers celebrated the cruise ship’s arrival with front-page headlines about how Olivia’s lesbian travelers had rescued the Turkish economy by spending over half a million dollars in three separate ports of call within a three-day span. In this regard, Olivia cruises have helped boost the economies in many countries, as so many nations depend on tourism.
With a creative and positive outlook, the company has given back on a number of occasions. After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Olivia partnered with gay companies Atlantis Events and RSVP Cruises to form the American Red Cross LGBT Haiti Relief Fund, an effort that raised a generous $250,000 to rebuild the affected communities. Similarly, their Olivia Gives program provides donations, such as much-needed school supplies to children in Honduras, Mexico, Africa and the Dominican Republic, all of which are areas where Olivia tours operate. Giving back to the communities where Olivia travelers visit adds value to Olivia as a company, Dlugacz believes.
To celebrate the diversity of the Olivia community, the Sisters at Sea and Friends program aims to encourage more women of color to travel with Olivia.
With so many of the company’s goals already exceeding expectations, their momentum shows no sign of slowing. Today, Olivia offers more than 150 vacation packages, ranging from tropical cruises to culinary-themed trips and adventurous African safari tours. They also offer Ultimate Escapes to exotic destinations like Tahiti and the Galapagos Islands. Tailored to the ultimate adventure travelers, these once-in-a-lifetime experiences continue to expand travelers’ horizons.
Under the leadership of Dlugacz, Tisha Floratos, Jill Cruse and the rest of the Olivia team, the company will soon offer an even more extensive inventory of travel destinations with further customizations available in an effort to connect, transform and celebrate the lesbian community. Olivia aims to treat each customer as a member of the family for years to come.