IMAGINE YOU ARE the biggest Elvis Presley fan in America—scratch that, in the world. You've made the Graceland pilgrimage on several occasions, seen Blue Hawaii over 50 times and even dressed up like the King at your local karaoke contest. Running out of Elvis-related activities?
Quandaries like this have helped create a boom in theme cruises, where a particular hobby or subject is highlighted and put into motion during a vacation at sea.
Case in point: The "Elvis Cruise" (www.elvistributecruise.com), an annual four-night trip hosted by Jerry Schilling—who's described as Elvis' best friend—features performances, panel discussions and an Elvis impersonator contest. Elvis' movies loop all day, and the entire ship is decked out for the occasion, with cardboard cutouts of the King. It's Elvis overload, and next year it departs August 28 from New Orleans aboard Carnival Fantasy, bound for Mexico. Pricing begins at $850 per person. Contact Jazz Cruises at 800-704-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Theme cruises are proliferating as cruising in general is further embraced by the traveling public. "Special-interest cruising has grown significantly in the last 10 years due to changing consumer lifestyles and travel expectations," says Terry Dale, president and CEO of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
Theme cruises tap into a bevy of interests. "It gives people the ability to be fully immersed in an experience and be with people who share that same passion," says Chérie Weinstein, vice president of group sales and administration for Carnival Cruise Lines (www.carnival.com), which offers cruises with many themes, from smooth jazz (www.thesmoothjazzcruise.com) to Lynyrd Skynyrd (www.simplemancruise.com).
Masala Cruises (www.masalacruises.com) was formed to bring Indian-themed parties to sea. Sandhya Thakkar and her husband, Sunil, had been throwing Indian parties at clubs since 1994; then "we went on a cruise and thought, 'Why don't we take it on a cruise ship?'" says Thakkar, who co-owns Houston-based Masala with her husband. Now they coordinate up to seven cruises annually. "We might sail 4,000 people a year," she says.
For its cruises, Masala brings Indian music and entertainment (belly dancing, Bollywood films) on board, and the menus are catered to meet an Indian diet. The company has partnered with Carnival in the past and in 2008 will conduct Indian-themed cruises with Norwegian Cruise Line, visiting such destinations as Hawaii. Masala Cruises offers roughly 10 percent commissions. For information, call 281-277-6874. Guests congregate on Carnival Legend during this year's Festival at Sea cruise
Patricia Yarbrough, president of Blue World Travel (www.blueworldtravel.com) in San Francisco, has also organized cruises tailored to an ethnic market. For 17 years and counting, Yarbrough has been behind Festival at Sea (www.festivalatsea.com), an African-American-themed cruise for families, couples and singles.
The cruise hires its own DJs and evening entertainment. There are also church services, a fashion show, formal nights featuring African attire and daily activities like dominos. "People enjoy the experience," Yarbrough says. "The atmosphere is great; there are love connections. The cruise itself is great, too. It's the best of both worlds."
Yarbrough says the 2008 Festival at Sea departing August 9 on Carnival Liberty is practically filled up. Travel agents receive 10 percent commission. Call 415-882-9444 for more information.
Kicking off 2008, Royal Caribbean (www.royalcaribbean.com) is hosting a "Fun and Fitness Cruise" on January 20 aboard Jewel of the Seas. The theme will be repeated four more times throughout the year.
If exercise is not your clients' cup of tea, Royal Caribbean also has the crowd-pleasing "Groove Cruise" (organized by Whet Travel) on Monarch of the Seas in July. This trip for younger clients features hot DJs from around the globe and high-energy parties.
While cruises usually are all about fun, there is a theme that's more about introspection than indulgence: Bible study and the tenets of Christianity. Carnival Cruise Lines is running two full-ship charters centered on Christian rock in February and March, and Royal Caribbean has "Christian Singles" on Monarch of the Seas in February.
If worshipping at the shrine of baseball is more your clients' preference, MSC (www.mscruisesusa.com) brings former pro stars aboard for its baseball theme cruise, which it has been running annually for the past three years.
Space is still available on this year's seven-night Caribbean sailing, which departs December 14 on MSC Lirica from Fort Lauderdale. Pricing begins at $479 per person.
Theme cruises are available from cruise lines as part of their regular schedule or from travel agents and companies that create their own themes, which are executed with the cruise line's assistance. Theme cruises can take up a full ship or just involve a group booking on a departure with other passengers. The full-ship charter can be very expensive, and—since it's like getting 2,000 of your friends together for a trip—it's not an easy task. Carnival's Weinstein cautions agents about chartering a ship. "If you want to take an entire ship over, someone has to step up with a huge amount of money," she says.
Cruise lines are happy to oblige group theme bookings as long as the money and people are there. Theme cruises also can help hook that elusive first-time cruiser who is so important for the sustainability of the industry.
"Theme cruising is great because it brings new cruisers into the market," says Weinstein. "The theme can be the entrée into cruising, where they may have been hesitant before. They help open the door."