Lesbian’s gallivanting around the world isn’t a new adventure, but lesbian travel is and while women-only vacations – queer or straight – are still a young industry Olivia Travel paved the road and sailed the wide open seas for women’s travel.
The world has changed during the last four decades since Olivia started out as a women’s music company and transformed taking women all over the world on luxury vacations. Many stereotypes about queer women have fallen away due to celesbians such as: Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi appeared on the cover of People Magazine in their wedding galore, Lindsay Lohan and celebrity DJ Samantha Ronsen heated up the nightlife, Suze Orman, Rachel Maddow, Melissa Etheridge, Jane Lynch, and the list continues to grow. Not to mention the queer media blitz with cable shows, such as the “L Word” and “Queer as Folk”, even “Sex and the City” highlighted power lesbians and Sapphic chic. Increasingly out celesbians grace the covers of glossy magazines and LGBT stories appear regularly in major newspapers and the plethora of websites that have popped up on the Internet.
Today, lesbians are out and proud and taking on the world, traveling to every corner of the earth. Olivia was Pandora’s Box. The company opened up new possibilities for lesbians to travel and inspired travel opportunities geared towards queer women and their straight friends, such as Sweet, that are charting their own paths in the lesbian travel market.
Olivia “taught a lot of women to travel and now they’re world travelers,” she says.
Four decades ago, Judy pulled back the curtain giving the stage and recording studios to women musicians and entertainers. It was revolutionary. Twenty years later, she tapped into a new revolution, envisioning vacations where queer women could be free to be who they were without being hassled. Her vision came to her when she realized the only place she wasn’t “out” in her life was while she was on vacation, she told USA Today two years ago when she celebrated Olivia Travel’s 20th anniversary.
Judy, 59, revolutionized the women’s music industry as president of Olivia Records, which she co-founded with nine partners in 1973 at the tender age of 20. She became sole owner of the women’s music production company in 1990.
That same year she launched the company’s lesbian luxury travel company. Olivia Cruises and Resorts was built on Olivia Records entertainment rolodex and 30,000 fan list. The first two back-to-back four-day trips that took 1,200 guests to the Bahamas with the company’s artists were sold out and Olivia Travel was born.
A few years later, Olivia Records closed the lid on the turn table of the company that produced an estimated 40 albums and sold several million records in favor of hitting the high road for lesbian vacationing.
As Olivia enters its 40’s the company is still going strong, in spite of navigating through some rough waters in recent years. In 2007, the company’s former executive team filed a legal suit against Judy. The complaint settled in late 2008, just as the market crashed and the economy took a nose dive. Olivia faced more challenges as younger competitor, Sweet, launched by former Olivia employees, entered the market in addition to r family vacations, founded by Kelli Carpenter, former wife of celezbian Rosie O’Donnell, and her business partner Gregg Kaminsky, who send queer families cruising. Olivia had competition in the market it defined and dominated for nearly 15 years.
Judy doesn’t see other queer travel companies, such as r family vacations, as competition.
“I really don’t see Rosie as competition. I think that they are doing something very wonderful,” says Judy, who points out that r family vacation’s guests are very different from Olivia’s vacationers. The company tapped into a market that would be “so difficult to coalesce” without Rosie’s celebrity status, says Judy.
Having lived through the vicissitudes of launching two businesses during two socially significant movements – women’s rights and the modern day lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, fighting against sexism and homophobia respectively – and weathering several economic downturns and national disasters, Judy empathizes with the challenges Sweet faced upon entering the travel market at the time that it did.
“They came in a very tough time,” says Judy, who points out that each Olivia vacation is generally sold out. “That’s tough for them.”
“I feel very lucky to do this work. I have to say it was never easy,” she continues mussing over the early days of the record company creating the music and culture, developing the market, and then starting all over with the travel company.
“When we started doing these trips, we had to educate the cruise lines and the resorts not to be afraid of us,” says Judy.
Back in control of Olivia, with her business partner and ex-wife, Rachel Wahba, for the past four years, Judy responds to the company’s new challenges in an unusually savvy way. She launched a $1 million capital campaign early in 2009. The gamble to bank on Olivia’s more than 100,000 lesbian loyal customers that have vacationed with all-woman travel company since the beginning worked.
“We are seeing a very positive response from our constituency and our guests. They really love this company. I think they themselves understand that this is an important time to support this community,” Judy said at the time.
“The most important thing for people to remember is that the economic clout that we can have is also connected to supporting the institutions that exist,” she added.
Four years ago, Judy also put Olivia on a strict sliming plan. She was selective and economical about trips and renegotiating contracts with cruise liners and resorts without giving up the quality of the vacations, she says. The company listed 11 vacations in 2010 and currently has more than 20 vacation options scheduled this year and into 2013 listed on Olivia’s website with more being added.
“I love what we do. I have an incredibly dedicated staff and we are just moving ahead,” Judy says. “I’m still, after 20 years of doing this and 40 years of doing Olivia, I’m still so jazzed. It’s so much fun, whether you are from an urban area or whether you’re from a small town in Alabama, where you may not have been ever to be ‘out,’ these trips are just mind expanding, fun, [and] exciting.”
Reminiscing about what a guest told her after a trip last year, “I have to massage my smile muscles every night because they are getting used more than they ever have been,” says Judy.
It is her goal to provide the best vacation possible to Olivia’s guests. A host of up to 50 Olivia’s staff take care of every detail provide lesbian concierge services and to catering to guests’ every need before, during, and after each vacation. Judy doesn’t take guests’ experiences for granted.
Olivia is also getting sassy. Four years ago Judy partnered with Good Vibrations resident sexpert Carol Queen to provide in cabin pillow advice via on demand video, onboard sex ‘em up workshops, and a sailing Good Vibrations store, in addition to Olivia’s signature entertainment, such as: Etheridge, k.d. lang, and the Indigo Girls to name a few hit makers that the travel luxury company vacations with.
Aside from openly lesbian performers who sail with Olivia, Judy welcomes straight girlfriends and allies, such as billionaires Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, who joined cruisers for a night in 2010.
“We don’t at all require that the speakers or the performers be lesbians,” says Judy. “We just really want to bring on the women who also support us.”
This Is What A Lesbian Looks Like
Olivia is more than creating a lesbian vacation experience, but also about creating visibility “educate the cruise line and resorts not to be afraid of us,” says Judy, not to mention local governments.
The prime minster of the Bahamas apologized to Olivia Travel after anti-homosexual statements were made at a conference held by the Bishops that spawned protests when they realized a shipload of lesbians were heading towards Nassau. Olivia by-passed the port and docked at a private island.
Turkey was more welcoming and grateful for the Sapphic dollars during a harsh economic downturn after the Kosovo War. Headlines splashed across Istanbul newspapers claiming Olivia saved Turkey’s economy, Judy says.
Community and visibility brings economic and political clout, she points out.
“I’ve always considered Olivia and myself always [as] activists,” says Judy. “When we started Olivia in 1973 there was no community to speak of. We were really about creating community and creating a culture to support that activism.”
Olivia’s most recent activism has included guests volunteering in ports Olivia docks, in addition to philanthropic ventures with other queer cruising companies supporting Haiti relief efforts. Olivia has always been a strong supporter of women’s and queer community organizations, says Judy. When same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts and California, Judy, who married her then business and life partner of more than 25 years Rachel, she provided wedding services onboard Olivia vacations.
While many of Olivia’s guests are couples, Judy estimates that 15 to 20 percent of Olivia’s vacationers are single. While a majority of Olivia travelers are in their mid-40s, the company is attracting more women in their early to mid-30s. For the past decade, Olivia has made a concentrated effort to diversify its vacations through the Sisters at Sea and Sisters on Land vacations, special programs for women of color travelers.
“We appeal to everybody,” says Judy, who points out that while a majority of Olivia vacationers are from the U.S. and Canada they range in age 20 to 90, ethnicity, and nationality, as well as singles and couples. “There is an amazing cross-section of people that come on the trip.”
Olivia is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013 with several special anniversary vacations. Guests interested in joining the fun on the Caribbean seas can set sail January 27 – February 3 or February 3 – 10. Land lovers can relax at Punta Cana Resort May 11 – 18.
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