Customized Wine Cruises on HAL

Karen Kay Afre, a travel agent based in San Francisco, has placed 50 guests on Holland America Line’s (HAL) first official wine cruise

By: By Marilyn Green

Wine Cruises on HAL // (c) 2009

Wine tasting on board the Ryndam

Karen Kay Afre, a travel agent based in San Francisco, is not unusual in her passion for cruising, exceptional food and fine wines. What is unusual, however, is that Afre has turned her passion into a win-win-win business.

Afre’s began working in the travel industry about 25 years ago when she discovered that her planned career in translation was, in a word, boring.

“I wanted to be a U.N. translator,” she said. “It looks wonderful when you see them translating all that exciting dialogue, but when you are just reporting what someone says or writes, day after day, it’s different.”

When she was asked to help out in travel she jumped at the chance, first starting in corporate travel, and then moving on to leisure.

After a year, Afre met her husband, who owned an agency, You & Leisure, where she worked for 24 years. He also had started a Golden Age Club for travelers ages 50 and over in 1976, and the club now has members in approximately 10,000 households in the U.S.

“It’s a positive business,” Afre said. “We’re talking about their vacations, their interests.”

She takes special pleasure in working with groups that have special requirements, which can vary from parents of children with special needs to extraordinary wine experiences.

So, it isn’t surprising that Afre placed a group of 50 last fall on Holland America Line’s (HAL) first official wine cruise. To do so, Afre worked with the family-owned Van der Hayden winery of Napa Valley, Calif., a particularly good choice with HAL because of the mutual roots in the Netherlands, and her group was hosted by the director and winemaker, Andre Van der Heyden.

Afre was extremely enthusiastic about HAL’s expertise.

“When you’re planning a specialized group like this, it’s important to have a line that makes it easier,” she said. “I’ve had trouble with others in the past and spent hours and days arranging to have the wines transferred properly from the port ahead of time to be settled and ready when the time comes to drink it. HAL had thought all that out and had suggestions that brought the wine on board three cruises earlier. I don’t want to have to deal with the logistics of the port agent, especially when the ship is in international waters.”

She also found the HAL staff to be very thorough in their planning; they had thought through the facilities onboard and walked her through a schedule checklist for each day. The staff even came up with the idea of allowing general passengers to join the group for wine tastings for an additional fee. She also found that making group bookings on POLAR Online, HAL’s booking tool, made life much easier, choosing among existing menus.

“I found HAL to be very accommodating,” Afre said. “They had an excellent set program, but they were ready to modify it. They allowed my clients to pour their own wines at dinner every night, and that made it possible for the winemaker to circulate and meet the people one on one and introduce each wine. He got a much closer relationship with his clients.”

Afre is planning a number of similar cruises for the future. She plans to continue to work with HAL because of its meticulous handling of such groups and because she believes that the onboard product is appealing to a whole range of wine-lovers, from very savvy people in their late 20s and early 30s to older travelers.

“We market to both the Golden Age and winery lists,” she said. “And, sometimes, we advertise. But we are very careful not to promote to the wineries’ lists except for their own cruises. That integrity is a key to a successful venture, and we have several groups who come back repeatedly.”