Targeting Your Niche: Sober Travel

Specialized expertise needed for this niche, but payoffs include a sizable potential market

By: Anne Burke

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 mind.

“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 hard-won sobriety.

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 Palisades, Calif.

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 Vacations.

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 after-dinner entertainers.

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.