The newest lesbian travel company’s global galavanting is the brainchild of openly lesbian do-gooder leaders Jen, 45, and Shannon, 40, hatched the idea while walking their dogs on a California day.
“[Sweet is] a dream that has come true and it’s going to keep coming true for a very long time,” gushed Jen, founding partner of the travel company. Jen is also president of her late father’s foundation, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation.
“I’ve never been so naturally high,” added Shannon, Sweet’s CEO, at a press conference onboard a Sweet cruise to the Caribbean.
Sweet evolved out of a desire to combine the two women’s love of travel, building community, and working on social and environmental issues that they care about, they says. Many of Sweet’s initial voluntourism excursions were inspired by Jen and the foundation’s projects.
In 2009, more than two years after Shannon’s first vision, it became a reality when a ship filled with women and a few good men set sail out of New Orleans for Sweet’s maiden voyage. The cruise made stops in Costa Maya, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; Roatan, Honduras; and Cozumel, Mexico before returning to New Orleans eight days later (see Cruising the Sweet seas).
The inaugural voyage through the Caribbean was noteworthy not only for being filled with celezbian’s, such as, actress Meredith Baxter, who came out as a lesbian in several publications and an appearance on the Today show several weeks after the inaugural cruise, and Kelli O’Donnell, ex-wife of openly lesbian entertainer and Sirius Radio host Rosie O’Donnell, and co-founder of r family vacations, among others.
Aside from notable lesbians on board the ship were Sweet’s more than 300 passengers out of 1,200 were turned into ambassadors not only of the LGBT community, but America, for the week.
Sweet provides its passengers with volunteer activities at the ports wherever it ventures. Guests spend part of the trip giving back to local communities by planting trees, cleaning beaches, decorating hospitals and schools, donating supplies and toys to children, as a sample of the types of volunteer projects offer.
“This is not the future of lesbian travel, this is the future of all travel led by lesbians,” says Charlie Rounds, president of RSVP Vacations.
He applauded Sweet’s creators for making passengers ambassadors of the LGBT community and America and in the process, revolutionizing the future of the travel industry.
In spite of the praise of queer travel pioneers, creating Sweet wasn’t an easy voyage for Jen and Shannon. Shannon navigated the company that hopes to emerge as another big player in lesbian travel, through rough waters both at sea and onshore.
“No one is going to say I was a genius on choosing when to start this company,” Shannon told SheWired.com about beginning a start-up, luxury, lesbian, eco-friendly, “voluntourism” company during an ongoing struggling economy. It also wasn’t easy being the new kid in the sandbox with reigning queen of lesbian cruises, Olivia, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, already an established brand.
Judy Dlugacz, founder and owner of Olivia, recognized the challenge Sweet faced with the downturn of the economy.
“They came in a very tough time of the economy, that’s tough for them,” Judy says in 2009 before the launch of the inaugural cruise.
For their part, Sweet’s founders says they are not in competition with Olivia.
“I’m really glad that the comparison can die down now that people see the different product. We are not trying to do Olivia’s business,” says Shannon, who once worked at Olivia. “There is no bad blood with Sweet and Olivia.”
“My greatest hope is that other businesses take this idea. What’s good for the environment is good for people and what’s good for people is good for the environment. All of that is good for the world and good for business,” Shannon added.
Just two California girls
So, who are these two women who think they have the ovaries to bring travel into a whole new era?
Traveling and volunteering is simply in these two San Francisco Bay Area girls’ blood.
Jen is a veteran volunteer since childhood when she would feed the homeless at Thanksgiving with her mother.
“My mom was really good about infusing meaning into a lot of the things that we [did],” says Jen, who is now a mother herself. Jen has two sons,10 and 12, with her partner, Frances “Franco” Stevens, founder and former publisher of Curve Magazine (Avalon Media purchased Curve in 2010).
Jen, who grew up in Walnut Creek, Alamo, and finally landed in Piedmont, is also now more than a volunteer: she’s the philanthropist behind Sweet’s volunteer projects inspiration.
“That’s why she’s such a hippy,” Shannon joked as the two women laughed.
Several years ago Jen became president of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, a private family foundation, created by her late father the foundation’s namesake, a scientific and medical products company entrepreneur. The foundation originally operated as a philanthropic fund for an estimated 11 years, but in 2007, after Kenneth Rainin’s death, Jen and her brother, Jesse Rainin, set the course for the philanthropic fund to become a major foundation.
In 2008, the foundation funded $1 million worth of projects selected by the Rainins and one other board member, Eric Rodenbeck. In 2010, the foundation was set to fund $2 million in projects in its focused granting areas: education, the arts, and medical research. Currently, the foundation is working on improving literacy in Oakland, Calif., partnering with the San Francisco Film Society to support films that address social justice issues; and medical research for Chronis Disease.
Each year the foundation will increase its funding and eventually will grant nationally, Jen says.
“It’s an unbelievable gift that he’s left behind for me. He basically left me a fairy godmother,” says Jen.
Volunteering on vacations is a new thing for Jen, who always thought it would be a “really neat thing to do,” but didn’t know how to go about doing it. An avid traveler who enjoys the opportunity to connect with people who have very different life experiences from hers and bringing “out the passion in other people” that traveling provides.
Traveling not only opens her eyes to other places and cultures, but also exposes her to other people, which is one of the inspiration points of Sweet.
“People who have a problem with gay folks don’t know gay people [and] they don’t have experiences with gay people,” says Jen. “The way to heal that is to show the world that lesbians are just people … with big hearts who care about the world around them [and] who want to make the world a better place.”
Shannon agreed with Jen about the importance of face value.
“I don’t believe discrimination exists when you look someone in the eye,” says Shannon, who was born and raised in Concord. “It’s about making human connections.”
A seasoned traveler, Shannon a former journalist and marketing director of PlanetOut, with stints at Olivia and Care2.com before venturing into Sweet, also has fishery worker in Alaska and Australian laborer for food and shelter on her resume. Shannon’s favorite trips were when she spent the summer of 1993 in Alaska and tripped around Australia in 1999.
A community activist and environmentalist since her teens, Shannon never lost her edge or passion to fight for what was right. She only learned how to bring her vision to a wider audience.
Not a “packaged travel” type of gal, Shannon’s gallivanting style played a huge influence developing Sweet to make it a packaged “non-packaged” type of adventure.
“I want to get out and interact and not have [the], ‘let’s show the tourists what they want to see,’ kind of tour. I want to actually see what life is like in these places and interact with the community,” says Shannon, who wishes Sweeties, Sweet’s travelers are affectionately called, and she could stay longer in the ports.
“I love learning new things … that other people don’t know or get to see,” says Shannon, became the legal guardian of an 18 year old college freshman, who was born with HIV, five years ago. Shannon declined to disclose the girl’s name to protect her privacy.
Sweet’s inaugural cruise was extra sweet for Shannon. She met her girlfriend on the maiden voyage.
The recession got Jen and Shannon’s creative juices flowing. Shannon developed programs to attract younger travelers, made the ship accessible and welcoming to a variety of guests, including those with disabilities and those in recovery. The women also tried to help ease travelers’ stress over tightened wallets.
But mostly, the globetrotting duo proved that businesses can be wise and sensitive to their customers’ and their own bottom lines without sacrificing the environment and the communities touched by businesses. Sweet partnered not only with local communities and governments, but with Carbonfund.org, a carbon reduction and offset organization supports high-quality verified renewable energy, energy efficiency and reforestation projects.
“I believe this is the largest carbon-free cruise ever,” says Shannon, quoting estimates from Carbonfund.org that calculated the cost at $20 per guest on the cruise and airlines and $1.50 per guest at the hotels to offset carbons released into the atmosphere.
Jen and Shannon also got Norwegian Cruise Line on board with Sweet’s mission by helping them organize the volunteer excursions with local guides and tour companies.
In doing so, Sweet also tapped into a new market of travelers: politically conscious consumers looking to have fun and do good.
“We wanted to attract these politically conscious persons,” says Shannon. “What we wanted were people who wanted to make a difference in the world and to have fun at the same time.”
“It couldn’t have been more beautiful. Lesbians you are such good problem solvers,” added Shannon with admiration.
Women representing 10 countries from around the globe conquered sea sickness from Hurricane Ida, reptiles and bugs of all sorts, swamps and trash laden beaches, homophobia and sexism, and swarms of excited screaming children whose lives were brightened by cartoon painted walls and piles of books, school supplies, and toys brought to them by Sweet passengers.
Wentworth foresees Sweet’s voluntourists driving future projects, she says.
“What we really want is for our guests to tell us what they want to do, what they can do,” says Shannon. “[Sweet’s guests] want us to push the envelope more.” Shannon isn’t just planting seeds hoping that they grow. She continues to keep Sweeties in the know about the impact they make with the projects.
The ship barley left a port before local governments and communities reported the impact of the projects and invited Sweet back, Shannon says.
Sweet’s voluntour excursions aren’t a one day stand for the travel company. Shannon plans on continuing to build Sweet’s relationship with the local communities and governments.
“We have every intention to invest in these communities every few years so we can build on this stuff, we can really see our work grow, and we can see the dialogue grow about gay and lesbian issues in these ports,” says Shannon, who chose the port cities based on the cruise route that makes it easy to return in the future, in spite of anti-LGBT laws in most of the countries of port.
Sweeties feel the same way. Our voluntouristas came home from our cruise motivated to continue spreading that goodwill, says Shannon.
Inspired and touched by the communities they volunteered in, some of Sweet’s volunteers haven’t stopped giving to the schools. Sweet cruiser Denise Johnson, 49, a lesbian IT specialist from Chicago has since continued to give to the E-Learning Centers of Roatan, one of the four volunteer projects she participated in that included painting classrooms, and cleaning beaches, Denise started the Roatan Computer Project and donated seven more computers to the center. She is only one of other Sweet voluntourist who continue to give long after they return from their vacations.
“I absolutely loved it. Honestly, it took Sweet to get me on a cruise,” says Denise. “The beauty of this cruise was the opportunity to give back and that’s exactly what got me on my first cruise.”
“We would never put our guests in danger,” says Shannon, aware of the political situations in Belize and Honduras when asked. But she didn’t want to get into politics.
“I want to have fun, save the world,” she says.
Sweet’s vacation wasn’t all work and no play. Sweeties had plenty of time to party and relax. Find out where Sweet is going next.