By Travel Trade Magazine, October 2002
Susan Helfrich, Director of Cruise Events, Richboro, PA, has an interesting and rather glamorous niche: she creates, designs and arranges cruises for celebrities from noted actors, chefs, race car champions, fitness experts to sail with their fans.
Helfrich, who has been selling travel for 20 years, has been arranging these celebrity cruise events since 1998, thanks to a little serendipity and a lot of perseverance and creativity.
In the late 1990s, Helfrich discovered a niche purely by accident.
“I was watching TV one of my favorite decorating programs on the Discovery Channel. The host had just completed a decorating project and said off handedly to his clients and audience, ‘We should all go on a cruise and celebrate.’
“I immediately ran upstairs to my computer, found a contact and then sent him a letter every two weeks for the next three months, reminding him of his comment.
Each letter was different and creative, said Helfrich, without revealing any of her trade secrets.
Finally, his lawyer responded. It turned out that they had been having problems with his mail departments which had been changed three times. The lawyer was amazed that Helfrich’s letters ever made it.
“Persistence is my middle name,” said Helfrich.
As it turned out, the host not only agreed to participate in the cruise, but also brought a camera crew on board and shot a program for the Travel Channel wonderful publicity for all involved.
The success of that cruise encouraged Helfrich, a CLIA member, to keep pursuing what soon became her specialty. Earlier this year, for instance, an actor from a Sci-Fi TV series sailed the ‘Western Caribbean aboard Holland America’s ship, the Maasdam.
The cruise included three exclusive seminars led by the actor, who discussed surviving cancer through diet and lifestyle changes; how he managed to survive in Hollywood after coming from the “Hayfields of Montana”; and what he learned about being a single, hands-on parent.
A private cocktail party and private autograph session rounded out the fun. Private photo sessions are also available for a nominal charge.
Helfrich still uses her letter writing campaigns to persuade celebrities to come on board “plus one celebrity will tell another how much they enjoyed the cruise experience, they call me, and it takes off from there.”
“I’ve found that my groups consist of mainly first time cruisers who say it’s the best vacation they’ve had.”
Helfrich stresses that the Exclusive Seminars with the celebrity can’t be purchased once passengers are on board though some have tried to do so.
“I tell them that next year they can reserve the cruise with us and be a part of all the celebrities Exclusive Events.”
Helfrich works with Holland America, Princess Cruises and Carnival, but said she is open to working with other lines.
She promotes the cruises by “direct marketing to the celebrity’s market” via fan clubs, etc. One marketing tool: mailing an invitation to a prospective cruiser from the celebrity requesting their presence at an onboard cocktail party. The invitations are already going out for the Sci-Fi actors second annual Caribbean Cruise on HAL’s Zuiderdam sailing January 2003.
Helfrich uses the Web in her marketing efforts and also direct mail.
Clients come from all over the country and the world. Our last celebrity cruise attracted clients from Australia, Italy, England, Finland, the U.S. and Canada.
“People fly from all over. This year, we had a huge number fly in from Germany.
For those clients who opt to do so, Helfrich will provide E-mail addresses of fellow cruisers – something foreign cruisers particularly appreciate. They are also seated at dinner with their fellow countrymen so they’ll feel comfortable in conversing.
‘While being in the presence of the person’s favorite celebrity is a high point of the cruise, Helfrich said there’s something more that the fans get which is hard to convey.
“Where else will you find so many compatible cruise mates with the same interests? 80% to 85% of them are single, and although we don’t advertise this fact, this leads to many lasting friendships. Cruisers have a chance to sit back and look around and see who they would like to have lunch with, go on tour with, and spend time with. It’s easy to start a conversation with someone new because they can talk about the seminar that they just listened to. On our last celebrity cruise, a girl from Virginia became friendly with a guy from London. She’s continued the friendship, just returned from visiting him for 3 weeks while they explored England and they have rebooked the 2nd annual celebrity cruise for 2003, but this time as a couple, instead of two singles. “This is a very common story that gets repeated over and over.” They also have the chance to network and increase the size of their Rolodex, as well as establish lifetime friendships.
“At the end of the cruise, people are thanking me. They make me feel like a celebrity when they hug me and say, ‘I’ve wanted to meet that celebrity since I was a little girl and now, I’ve spent a week in the Caribbean with him. You’ve made my dreams come true. Thank you for making this possible for me.’ Or ’I came on this cruise alone and I’m going home with five new best friends and we’ve already made plans to get together.”