When Steve A., a Los Angeles travel agency owner, took his last
drink in 1980, he assumed he’d also taken his last great vacation.
Seven years later, a Club Med holiday in the Bahamas changed his
“I had the time of my life. They put me in a tutu and got me on
stage for one of those silly Swan Lake things they do. It was a
real breakthrough in my sobriety, to be able to be foolish and have
fun without drinking,” said Steve.
Steve, like other travel agents in this article and in keeping
with the Alcoholics Anonymous precept for anonymity is identified
by his first name and last initial only.
Back at work in California, a Club Med brochure pitching the
resort’s new “Rent-a-Village” option landed on Steve’s desk. Still
flush with excitement over his booze-free romp in the Bahamas,
Steve called Club Med in New York.
“I said, ‘I want to take over a whole resort and fill it with
sober people,’” recalled Steve, now 51.
He eventually filled an entire Club Med village through word of
mouth among fellow 12-steppers from AA meetings.
Fueled by diet soda and black coffee, 300 recovering drunks and
drug addicts and their traveling companions spent a week in
Eleuthera, Bahamas, soaking up the sun and celebrating their
By 1993, the sober side of Steve’s agency was doing well enough
that he was able to give up his regular clients. Today, Steve’s
Sober Vacations International in Westlake Village, Calif., has
arranged some 80 holidays for about 13,000 vacationers.
“When I was working as a regular travel agent, it seemed the
harder I worked, the more dissatisfied my customers were,” he said.
“Now, I have people writing me letters thanking me for what I’ve
done. It’s turned out quite lovely.”
Agents say sober travel makes sense as a niche market if for no
other reason than the size of the pool of potential clients.
“We have over 1,900 (AA) meetings in the greater L.A. area with
an average of 50 people per meeting. You multiply that by the
entire U.S. and Canada, and all of a sudden, you’re looking at a
very large market,” said Laurie P., who books cruises for people in
recovery through her agency, Meetings en Route, in Pacific
Still, the field of sober-travel specialists is remarkably
narrow. Laurie said several start-ups entered the field in the late
‘90s but few survived.
Today, the niche is absent from many lists of specialty markets
and Laurie counts among her serious competitors only Steve’s Sober
Given the level of expertise required to put together a
successful trip for this niche travel market, the narrow field is
not surprising, said Laurie, who has 15 full-time staff.
Sober cruises tend to be a whirlwind of AA meetings, workshops,
speakers, “coketail” parties, sobriety celebrations and
Clients expect top-drawer entertainment from the AA convention
circuit and competition for the biggest names is fierce.
To make it happen, specialists need to know their way around the
recovery world as well as the travel business, said Laurie, who had
a decade of agency experience under her belt and a broad network of
AA contacts when she launched Meetings en Route in 1995.
Nancy N. had been in the travel business for more than 20 years
when a friend from AA offered financial backing if she would run an
agency catering to the travel needs of the recovery community in
the San Francisco Bay Area.
Sober Holidays opened last year, based at Nancy’s hillside
Sausalito home, where she can watch the boats in the harbor and sip
a latte while working.
So far, Sober Holidays has staged just one trip but Nancy is
busy planning her second voyage, a four-day Baja cruise tentatively
set for September.
In the meantime, Nancy is holding on to her regular clients with
an eye toward focusing exclusively on travel for recovering
alcoholics and drug addicts. Her assessment is that there’s plenty
of room in the market.
“It’s a big world and as far as I know, there are a lot of
alcoholics in every corner of it,” she said.