Cruising for success – Brief Article

Sue Rochman

Are you aware that hundreds of lesbian shoppers were able to transform the Turkish economy in less than a day? If not, then you probably haven’t met Judy Dlugacz, founder and president of Olivia Cruises and Resorts. And if you haven’t met Dlugacz, then you probably don’t know that her goal is to take every lesbian on the best vacation of her life and promote same-sex rights in the process.

“This is another way to create visibility and create freedom,” Dlugacz says of the cruises. “There is nothing more freeing than these vacations. I feel in that way I’m still kind of a missionary. We go all over the world. We are well received and well respected wherever we go.”

Dlugacz began her career as an entrepreneur in the lesbian community with Olivia Records, a women’s music label that was once home to Cris Williamson and Tret Fure, among others. But her travel packages have brought her the sort of business success that any executive would love to have. Olivia Cruises has seen its revenues grow 10% to 20% each of the past five years, practically doubling the size of the company. As many as 1,200 sapphic travelers sign up for one of Olivia’s offerings. At a cost that can run anywhere from $1,299 per person, based on double occupancy for early-bird booking on an Alaska cruise, to $3,899 per person for the owner’s suite on a Tahiti excursion, the cruises provide fun for those attending and a healthy profit for the woman who has managed to bring together feminism and capitalism.

For many, the name Olivia brings to mind images of concert halls filled with lesbians reveling in women’s music. And that shouldn’t be a surprise: Nearly three decades ago Dlugacz and four other women founded Olivia Records. “We wanted to do something political together,” Dlugacz recalls. “We were talking about what to do, and Cris Williamson came through town and said, `Why don’t you guys just start a women’s record company?’ And so we thought, That’s it. That will change the world.”

Olivia did change the music world for women. But women were changing too. “The record company did a lot of work to develop women’s music and culture,” Dlugacz says, “but then there was a new generation and a new culture. It became clear to me that it might be time to stop doing Olivia Records, but I couldn’t figure out what to do.”

Fate, however, was on her side. On the first night of the Olivia Records 15th anniversary concert tour in 1988, a woman suggested to Dlugacz that she do a concert on the water. “I thought, Concert … cruise. And then I thought, Vacations for women. I could do that!” Dlugacz recalls.

Dlugacz had never been on a cruise. But she quickly learned what she needed to know. Before long she’d chartered a ship for a four-night cruise from Miami to the Bahamas and had sent a letter to all of the women on the Olivia Records mailing list about her latest venture. The next thing she knew, 600 women had signed up. When even more voiced a desire to go, she chartered another ship for a second voyage.

Dlugacz found that she had discovered a niche market that no one had even known existed: lesbian travel adventures. So she began planning for her new business. Dlugacz began exploring the world, going on an array of straight cruises and planning unique itineraries. To date, she’s organized about 50 excursions, and more than 30,000 women have traveled with Olivia to places such as Australia, New Zealand, the Mexican Caribbean, and Alaska.

Other than the destinations, there is little similarity to straight cruises. “We design all the activities that are on board,” Dlugacz explains. “We bring our own entertainment, staff, musicians, comedians, and DJs. I’ve always treated each cruise like a multiple-night concert production.”

And it’s not just about exposing lesbians to new places but exposing these places to large numbers of women-loving women. Nowhere was that more clear than on the Olivia cruise to Greece and Turkey two years ago. At the time, Dlugacz explains, because of the war in Bosnia, there were few travelers in Turkey. So when the women disembarked in Kusadasi and began to shop and shop, everyone quickly noticed.

“The local media learned about the sudden economic infusion,” says Dlugacz, and by the time the ship arrived in Istanbul two days later, “major articles had been on the front page of the local newspapers about the 400 women from the Olivia club who were on a cruise and had come to Turkey and spent haft a million dollars and saved the economy.” As a result, Dlugacz says, everyone wanted their attention–and their money. “We were in the Grand Bazaar,” Dlugacz says, “and the shop owners were screaming, `Lovely lesbian ladies, come to my shop!'”

Such experiences have fueled Dlugacz’s interest in how communities respond to the women who travel with Olivia “That’s the amazing thing about doing a cruise,” she says, “You’re not there for long. And by the time they figure out who we are, we’re gone and we’ve left a lot of money in our wake–which is not to be underestimated.”

Today, Dlugacz enjoys the perks of her success. She drives a flashy red BMW and lives with her life partner of 23 years in a newly purchased home in exclusive Marin County, Calif., complete with ocean views. And although Olivia Cruises and Resorts is housed in the same warehouse where Olivia Records used to be, little else is the same. The warehouse was recently completely renovated and now boasts a turquoise exterior and a lavender-and-gold interior. It’s quite a contrast from the surrounding not-yet-gentrified neighborhood of stucco houses and low-rise office buildings. It’s a continual reminder of where Olivia began–and how far Dlugacz has come.

And Dlugacz isn’t done yet. She’s determined to keep Olivia growing. “Olivia has been very successful,” she says. “But at the same time, we take only about 4,500 women on trips each year. So I sit here sometimes and think, That’s so many, yet so few. How many millions of lesbians are there? These are incredible trips. Why aren’t they coming with us? And that’s the challenge for me to figure out.”

Find more on Judy Dlugacz and Olivia Cruises at

Rochman is editor at large for HIV Plus and a contributing editor at Mamm.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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