Stephanie Spears and her husband John in Dubai // © 2014 Stephanie Spears
Feature image (above): Spears specializes in group cruise events, in particular the annual Festival at Sea. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Stephanie Spears has successfully combined her love of travel, pure fun and African-American entertainment and culture in Festival at Sea, an annual group cruise offered by San Francisco-based Blue World Travel Corp., where Spears works as operations manager. The event — which Spears describes as cruising with an African-American twist — has grown from its first group of 250 people to an annual full-ship charter in the Caribbean, plus a number of spin-off events. Festival at Sea’s full ship charter consistently sells out and has a waitlist.
Spears first started working in travel when she was 17. She was majoring in statistics at the University of California at Berkeley and took a part-time job with a travel agency.
“After that, I never stopped,” Spears said. “I went everywhere, and I just loved doing it.”
After working at a different family-owned California agency, Spears returned to Blue World Travel Corp. in 1998. She describes the agency as “a little United Nations, with African-Americans, Chinese, Filipino and Irish [co-workers] and a Jew married to a Rastafarian.”
Festival at Sea was launched seven years before Spears‘ return, and by then Blue World had created additional spin offs, such as Friends of the Festival land trips and cruises. Spears threw herself into the projects.
TravelAge West spoke with Spears about the challenges and rewards associated with her work on the group cruise events.
Who are your clients and how do you promote Festival at Sea?
Most of our clients are African-American, although we are not closed to anyone. Word of mouth is the overwhelming way we reach new clients, but we have advertised in publications like Essence, which also brought us a British clientele that now numbers about 100 regulars. Clients come from all over the country, and some from other parts of the world, and we have a large number of repeaters.
We also have a network of group leaders, compensated like tour conductors who bring people from their circles.
What do you offer that draws so many loyal customers?
Festival at Sea brings its own professional MCs and DJs to play music for the various tastes. We have name headliners in music and comedy, and themed party nights like the Cool White Night and Wild Wild West. We offer games like Bid Whist, Funk and African Dance aerobics classes and a serious fashion show that involves guests. Guests also have the opportunity to sing in a gospel group in services during the cruise. They rehearse the first night and start performing the next day.
There’s a Spoken Word Poetry Cafe and people can participate in golf or tennis tournaments. We have family programs and singles activities such as Speed Dating and Love Connection, and we will match same-sex singles if they need someone to share a stateroom.
How do you manage the logistics for the cruises?
There are eight people on staff, seven of them in the San Francisco office. We also have a staff of technicians who interface with staff onboard for worship services, security and an auction that raises about $30,000 a year for the United Negro College Fund.
You also need to know when to draw the line. With all the work that goes into the festival and other smaller group projects, I generally refer incremental business to others.
How do you close the deal with so many people?
We sell the following year’s festival while the current one is in progress, giving current passengers first priority. Then we open it up. We offer a discount to those who book early — $250 off if booked by Oct. 31 for the next summer. We do get a little turnover. Guests have family or health crises, etc.
We get all socioeconomic groups, and we have a payment plan where guests make a deposit and then set up a monthly payment schedule. And for the more exotic travel — the Friends of the Festival — we promote much earlier. For example, we started taking bookings for our 2015 Friends of the Festival Crystal cruise in China in 2013 and at the beginning of June this year we had nearly 190 people.
What are some of the challenges you have with arranging these groups?
One challenge is choosing entertainment to draw younger clients without alienating older ones, but we have been able to combine tastes and cultures very successfully.
We had a group on a 19-night trip to Africa onboard Peter Deilmann’s Deutschland, and the German guests just jumped right in with us. We do make some adjustments when we are a group on a ship rather than a full ship charter. One example of that was when our Grandparents’ Tea — where guests show their pictures around — generated too much noise during a classical music performance. But usually we have found common denominators that work for everyone to have fun.