THE SMOOTH JAZZ CRUISE SETS SAIL
The Smooth Jazz Cruise is among the most successful and beloved cruise programs in the industry. Over the last 18 years, the cruise has sailed 28 times and has entertained over 50,000 guests. The Waitlist for certain staterooms is lengthy and there are now more than 3,000 guests who have sailed on The Smooth Jazz Cruise 4 or more times.
Remembering how this cruise began, I must admit to being surprised, pleasantly of course, that this program has reached these heights. Here is the true story of how it happened. Unvarnished and unabashed.
The success of The Jazz Cruise, the world’s first full-ship charter dedicated to jazz, had a significant impact in the industry. It spurred others to consider expanding their music events, which may have been partial cruise charters or large groups, to full ship charter programs. At that time, there had been one famously unsuccessful attempt at producing a “smooth jazz” cruise. It was an effort to fill half a ship and it failed. Sadly, this effort left behind a trail of unpaid advertising bills and a bad taste in the mouths of many.
Undaunted, a travel agent from Akron, Ohio, Peter D’Attoma, whose primary business was tours in Italy, had joined forces with smooth jazz saxophonist Warren Hill to produce a “smooth jazz” cruise. D’Attoma’s Italian connections led him to using Costa Cruises and he embarked upon a program to sell cabins as a “group” for the event. At the risk of losing my audience, I am going to spend a moment explaining the differences between a “group” booking and a “full ship charter.”
A “group” means that you are selling cabins for the benefit of a group that will gather on a ship for special events. The outer limits of a “group” is half the ship, because the cruise line must maintain and operate a full cruise program for those not included in the “group.” As a “group” your use of the venues and facilities is subject to the needs of the cruise line to conduct a cruise for the remaining passengers. For example, every time a “group” uses a venue, such as the main theater, they must put the venue in the identical shape it was before the event. For a music cruise, that means striking the stage every night and setting it up again before every show. No special music in the public areas. No special dining or meals. Worst of all, very limited number of shows.
A “full-ship charter” means just that. The ship is yours. You can set it up as you wish, keeping some or none of the cruise line’s activities for your cruise.
Back to our story. D’Attoma and Hill did well selling staterooms. They filled their “group” for one week and were working on a second week. But they needed someone to run the cruise, do the programming and, eventually, provide the funds needed to take the next steps.
At this time, I was producing The Jazz Cruise and a golf, spa and cruise program known as Beacon Bay Charters. The program used Windstar Cruises to hop across the Caribbean from golf resorts to golf resorts. The idea was far more interesting than the implementation. The level of work needed at each location was amazing. Scaling this program for the future was unlikely. So, when D’Attoma called me and asked if I was interested in joining them as an advisor to their program and to prepare the programming, I was very willing to do so.
Now, for the admission and confession. Not only did I not know who Warren Hill was, I had no idea what “smooth jazz” was, where I could hear it or what type of audience it would attract. Quickly, I did some research, listened to a few “smooth jazz” radio stations and tried to learn as much as I could. The next step was to meet D’Attoma and Hill in Akron. We reached an arrangement that I would be paid to do the programming and run the hospitality aspect of the sailings. I was obligated to prepare a program, board the ship a few days before the sailing and run the cruise.
To do so, I enlisted some of our folks at Traveline, Ltd., the same company we used for The Jazz Cruise, and started to work on the program. This resulted in long conference calls with D’Attoma and Hill as well as working with the cruise line. When I think about how much just a few of us did in comparison to the legions of folks we work with now, I have to laugh. In reality, none of us, D’Attoma, Hill and me, knew what we were doing. How could we? No one had done it before!
It was early in 2004 that the first sailing of The Smooth Jazz Cruise set sail. Two weeks at sea with a full 50% of the ship signed up for the first week and just over 40% signed up for the second week. My job was to make sure that the programs operated on time as scheduled. But before I could do that, I had to make sure that our materials and equipment were loaded on time and in full. That proved to be easier said than done.
As fate would have it, we shared the ship our first week with a Jewish Family Travel Group. They were led by a Rabbi who would become my adversary for 7 days. Our first encounter was on Embarkation Day on the dock. Apparently, the Rabbi had caused a halt to our load-in so that he could have their dishes, pots, pans and silverware loaded for their Kosher meal requirements. Our first meeting was not confrontational. For something to be confrontational, both parties must participate. I was not given any opportunity to say a word quite frankly and he had already intimidated the loading staff of the cruise line. I decided that I would let this one slide and find another platform to set matters right.
Long story short, that time never occurred. We had to move our dining times, argue with them as to their inclination to occupy the dining room well into our dining times and, in what proved to be the final battleground, the fact that we were allowing some of the teenagers in the Rabbi’s group to listen to our music. At the end of the day, we managed to operate our respective programs in peace. At least there was peace between us and the lovely families that shared our cruise ship.
The infighting among our own operations was heating up. Though we hid our hostilities from the guests, it was clear that D’Attoma had an agenda of his own, one that was unfair to Hill and in complete contradiction to the agreement that he and I had struck before we sailed.
Sometime during the first sailing, matters boiled over. Part of my arrangement was that, if I liked what I saw, I would become a one-third partner going forward. The agreement had already been prepared. All we had to do was sign it.
On Day 4 of the cruise, I signed the agreement. Later that night, Warren Hill signed it. It became clear that D’Attoma was not going to live up to his end of the bargain as to paying my fees, becoming partners and compensating Hill as he had promised. The tension on the ship was significant. I could have either stayed onboard and fought for what I was promised or depart, go home and forget this ever happened.
Obviously, I stayed, worked out an arrangement with Warren Hill and figured out a way to pay D’Attoma for the right to go forward with The Smooth Jazz Cruise. Upon arriving home, I contacted Holland America Line, secured a full ship for what was to be the very first full-ship charter sailing of The Smooth Jazz Cruise in January 2005!
During this time, there was a lot of repair work that needed to be done, both with the artists and the smooth jazz infrastructure. The failure of the very first attempt and D’Attoma’s low budget operation left a lot of folks skeptical that we could make this work. That I had little to no knowledge of the genre at the time did not help.
The hero in this scenario was Jeff Golub, the once-in-a-lifetime jazz rocker who invented the notion of having fun. He corralled the talent, got them to follow us and became our ambassador of goodwill in the industry. As his reward, no edition of The Smooth Jazz Cruise ever sailed without Jeff. The fact that he was my drinking buddy was an important piece of the equation. We would always pick one night on the cruise and just lose ourselves to wine.
The Smooth Jazz Cruise ’05 was a huge hit. The cruise sold out in weeks. We enjoyed great shows and sailed with even greater guests. We had fun, but it was only the beginning. The first sailing had only 11 headliners, one special guest and only two bands. How we moved from that humble beginning to where we are today is a chapter unto itself.