Cruising to Success

In 1990, Judy Dlugacz, the founder and owner of Olivia Records, the first woman-owned record company, wanted to take a cruise. But as a lesbian, she didn’t feel entirely comfortable going on a standard cruise. So she came up with a solution—she started her own travel company.

She began by sponsoring a “concert on a cruise,” attended by 600 women who listened to Olivia Records artists on a cruise to the Caribbean. Now, 24 years later,
Olivia Travel has taken more than 200,000 guests on 150 cruise, resort, and adventure getaways over 20 years. Olivia Travel is the largest travel company in the world that invests in chartering entire ships and resorts exclusively for the lesbian community.

“A lot of our folks come over and over again,” says Dlugacz, who is based in Washington, DC, and the San Francisco Bay Area. “We have a 98 percent satisfaction rate. That’s pretty good. I want that extra 2 percent though!”

Dlugacz, who has won numerous awards for her groundbreaking work as an advocate for the LGBT community, talked with Diversity Woman about the challenges of launching a company catering to
lesbians, the positive changes she has seen in the travel industry, and how Olivia Records and Olivia Travel have proven that paying your bills on time and supplying a steady base of customers can be a great leveler.

Diversity Woman: How did you get the idea for Olivia Travel? What about the market said to you, “This could work”?

Judy Dlugacz: We were a record company first. When I was in my mid-30s, I was ready to travel. I’m very much my market—I felt if I was ready to travel, all the other women who came up through the same period as me would now have the disposable income and the time, too.

At that time [1989], I was producing some concerts. Someone said to me, “These concerts you do are so great, so wouldn’t it be great to have a concert on the water?” I said, “That’s it.” I thought concert on the water, cruise, vacations for women—I can do that. So I took most of the money that we had [in the company] and I bet on this cruise. We immediately got 600 women, which is what we needed to fill the ship. I knew we were on to something, so we did it again. We put on back-to-back 600-passenger, four-night trips to the Bahamas. That’s how Olivia Travel started.

DW: How many annual trips do you sponsor now versus your first year?

JD: That first year we did two trips. Now we do about 12 a year. We’ve had trips as large as 2,100 people on a cruise ship to the Caribbean. We’ve had 46 people on a trip to the Galápagos and 100 people for an African safari and 100 people to Antarctica. We have an 1,800-passenger trip to Australia coming up.

DW: Is your clientele largely lesbians?

JD: It’s not all lesbian, although it is overwhelmingly women. But it’s primarily lesbian. A lot of straight women come on the trips and have the best time because the trips are really about women and being in your own space. I come from that tradition, and that’s the reason I’ve done this.

DW: When you began, how difficult was it to market the company and to find the vendors? Did anyone refuse to provide services?

JD: Oh my God, no one wanted to charter to us. No one. There was only one cruise line, Dolphin, a small, Greek-owned company, that took us on. The cruise lines were all afraid that the right wing would say we were going against God. There was this fear that chartering with us would hurt their business. Now, we’re one of the top charters for Holland America, and we have an extraordinary relationship with them and every other cruise line and resort we’ve worked with. All the major cruise lines consider us the perfect charter.

DW: Because you’re reliable?

JD: We have paid our bills on time, 100 percent of the time. We send a book to the cruise line that says what we expect—every detail down to what the cruise line needs to put in people’s rooms on which day—along with our entire programming plan. We bring our own activities, people, dance instructors, entertainment. We do pretty much everything, which makes it easier on the cruise lines.

DW: Do you have any competitors in the women/lesbian market?

JD: Not really. People come and go, but our closest competitor is about one-thirtieth our size. So it’s a pretty remarkable difference. We’re the only one who arranges full-ship charters for women. We’ve taken over 200,000 women on vacations over the last 20 years.

DW: Have the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the ever-growing number of states allowing same-sex marriage increased your clientele or influenced your programming?

JD: We always try to make our entertainment extremely relevant. If something that’s happened in the world is relevant to our clientele, we bring it on the ships. For example, on a cruise in 2014 we’re bringing in Edie Windsor [who successfully challenged DOMA in the courts].

On another upcoming trip, we’re doing a leadership gathering, celebrating equality. We’ll have Colonel Grethe Cammermeyer, who was the first officer in the U.S. Army to come out as a lesbian. She’s one of the foremost leaders in the movement to free gays in the military from discrimination. And we will have on board Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, from Florida. She’s not gay, but she’s a great supporter, and she’ll be speaking from her position as chair of the Democratic National Committee. The keynote speaker will be Maya Angelou, who is not gay, either. Then we’ll have a host of other leaders who are speaking about where we go from here. So many of our clients are highly educated, and they want their music and comedy but also some thoughtful entertainment.

DW: You must have seen some major changes for lesbians in both the music and the travel industries over the last 40 years. What are some of the major touchstones?

JD: At Olivia, I believe we helped get more women into the music industry because we created a market that never existed before. Suddenly the record stores saw that women were buying music in great numbers. Prior, record companies had an attitude about female artists—forget about the gay part. They would say, “Oh, we have one [female] singer/songwriter” or “Oh, we have one [female] vocalist.” And in the 1970s, for the most part, no women were musicians. No bass players or drummers or guitar players or producers. We changed that. We were the first to feature Bonnie Raitt as a guitarist on an album. We enabled more and more women to get gigs.

Until the last 10 years or so, the treatment of gay people was horrendous in both the music and the travel industries. The music industry claimed to be so hip and cool but was totally sexist and homophobic. So much of the music changed the world but not around women or gay people. Now, it’s improving, but there’s still a long way to go. In the travel industry, it was horrendous. People who worked on the cruise lines were deeply in the closet. They didn’t want our business in most of the industry until they saw there was money involved, and that was another story. The power of money is a great equalizer. Now, everyone is knocking on our door to get our business.

DW: What’s next for you?

JD: Well, first, I’m writing a book. The story of Olivia dovetails with the growth of the gay liberation and feminist movements over the last 40 years. I am telling the history of that whole time through the eyes of the Olivia experience. Many of these stories are inspiring. For example, once we were in Turkey, and we get off the ship and the women go shopping in this town. The local press comes down to interview them. Who are these women buying all these rugs and leather? Two days later, we end up in Istanbul. We don’t proclaim we’re lesbians—we just go quietly into this Muslim country where we plan to visit for a day and leave. We’re getting off the ship, and there are paparazzi from all of Turkey. The next day, the front page of all the newspapers has stories about the women of Olivia—“They’re lesbians, they got married on board, and we wish them the best of luck!”

We’re also planning a community. I bought 10 acres in Palm Springs, and we’re building 74 units and creating an LGBT Olivia community there. For some it will be a vacation home. Others will retire there. We want to keep moving as we keep growing.DW

Join the Diversity Woman Community

Join a network of career-oriented women and use the member directory to see all the members in your community and find world class mentors. Access exclusive leadership development packages to help you achieve your career goals. Work With Coaches. Take Career Development Courses, and much more.