GET BACK: Sixthman, which produces the “Keeping The Blues Alive At Sea” cruise, shown above, had 18 music-themed cruises slated for 2023, with more possible. (Will Byington photo)
BONUS: See Q&A with StarVista Live Senior Vice President Mike Jason below
COVID dealt the live music cruise industry a staggering blow in 2020, but fans have returned to the seas in force, according to event promoters.
The growing piece of the concert destination biz was forced to navigate the direst of straits at the height of the pandemic. When ships stopped setting sail, and social distancing was all but impossible in an enclosed, isolated setting on massive ocean liners, the music/lifestyle cruises landed in dry dock.
As live entertainment rebounds in general, the concert cruise subset has regained its momentum with new events added and business returning to levels that surpass the packages offered four years ago. Most cruise lines do not require COVID vaccinations, but promoters say there is vigilant focus on health and safety post-pandemic.
“The business today is exceeding where we were in 2019 with virtually all eight of 2023 cruises sold out or on the way to selling out,” said Mike Jason, senior vice president of StarVista Live, which works with the Holland America and Celebrity lines, at the higher end of the market. “Our ships are in the 1,000-cabin range which affords a more intimate environment for guests and artists.”
A new offering added to the StarVista Live lineup this year is the Big Easy Cruise, offering the culture and spirit of New Orleans, with plenty of food and music.
The weeklong cruise aboard the vessel Nieuw Amsterdam is set for Nov. 4-11, taking off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with the Crescent City and Cozumel, Mexico, as ports of call. A roster of artists performing “roots and offshoots of American music” include Little Feat, Tab Benoit, Samantha Fish, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Leo Nocentelli from The Meters, Anders Osborne, Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Tuba Skinny, John Boutté, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. & The Zydeco Twisters, Honey Island Swamp Band and John “Papa” Gros.
Additional jazz, funk, R&B, Cajun, zydeco and blues artists will be announced later, according to StarVista Live.
In New Orleans, passengers will be treated to a performance by hometown favorites Galactic, featuring Anjelika Jelly Joseph at famed club Tipitina’s. All-inclusive cruise packages run from $2,000 to $10,000 for a suite.
Sixthman, with 25 years of themed cruises under its belt and a partnership with Norwegian Cruise Line, produces Chris Jericho’s Rock ‘N’ Wrestling Rager at Sea cruise, complete with a wrestling ring on the pool deck. The next one is scheduled for Jan. 26-30, 2024, sailing from Miami to Cozumel. Prices run from $1,000 on the low end for a two-person cabin to about $7,200 for a five-guest owners suite.
Another popular offering from Sixthman is the Cayamo Cruise, which over the years had featured the late John Prine, who performed at the inaugural All The Best Fest in the Dominican Republic in 2019. Prine, the beloved singer-songwriter, had committed to play the 2020 version of the festival but died in April 2020 at age 73 after being hospitalized with COVID symptoms. The cruise, set for March 2020, was canceled at the start of the pandemic.
This year’s Cayamo Cruise, which set sail from Miami, took place Feb. 10-17 aboard the Norwegian Pearl with ports of call in St. Maarten and Tortola. Next year’s Cayamo Cruise is March 1-8.
“By the end of this year, we would have hosted 18 full ship festivals compared to 16 in 2019,” said Sixthman Vice President Jeff Cuellar. “The feedback already has been overwhelmingly positive. All but one event this fall is already sold out and that last one will sell out. Additionally, of the five announced 2024 events three are sold out and the other two will get there as well.”
New for this year is Sixthman’s “Rock the Bells” cruise from Miami to the Bahamas, produced in partnership with the LL Cool J-founded hip-hop brand of the same name.
The cruise, launched to mark the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, sold out in five days, before a lineup had been announced, said Sixthman senior marketing specialist Taniqua Martin.
The four-day “Rock The Bells Cruise: A Hip-Hop Experience,” hosted by Roxanne Shanté & Torae, features a lineup that includes notable artists from multiple generations, including Rick Ross, Lil Jon, Big Boi, DJ Jazzy Jeff, MC Lyte, Ghostface Killah, Trina & Trick Daddy, Just Blaze, Big Daddy Kane, Too $hort, Slick Rick and, Bun B. In addition, Kid Capri will present a pool deck party series.
“There wasn’t even a tease,” Martin said. “We just put it out to the public and it sold out very quickly. Clearly, there’s a demand for a cruise that speaks to every aspect of hip-hop culture.”
Promoters say cruises that sell out before announcing the lineups is not unusual, given the passion of fans who make up the music-cruise fan base.
“We strive to bring together those superfans and when we have events, it’s not surprising (due to the cruise brand),” Martin said. “With Rock the Bells in particular, it’s a well-respected name in hip-hop culture. Fans knew there was something great they could expect. It’s a no-brainer to put your money down and lock in your space.”
Hip-hop is a relatively new style of cruise music for Sixthman, which has produced the “KISS Kruise,” the Lamb of God-topped “Headbanger’s Boat” and Coheed and Cambria’s “S.S. Neverender.”
“Even the name ‘Rock the Bells’ comes from a classic LL Cool J song. It just speaks to their work in the genre,” Martin said.
Sixthman priced the cabins affordably, with prices starting at $1,099. The most elaborate offerings go for around $6,000 and include amenities such as private decks.
The company has 18 music-themed cruises slated for 2023.
“We make sure our pricing is comparable with a four-day vacation. We make sure people see they can get everything they really wanted, a dream vacation, essentially, with one of our cruises,” Martin said. “It’s really a great value, especially when you consider the cost of a traditional vacation or a traditional music festival.”
After about the third year of a Sixthman cruise, there’s a more than 60% return rate, Cuellar said.
Likewise, StarVista Live’s cruising clientele have also proved to be a loyal lot, Jason said.
“When we first started sailing again in fall 2021, the guests hugged and thanked us for working through the challenges and bringing them back together with their friends and the artists,” he said. “It was a pretty emotional reunion and the enthusiasm just picked up where it left off although with a deeper appreciation of what we share.”
Jason said that during the pandemic, StarVista Live devoted a lot of time communicating with guests on social media and made use of YouTube, posting videos from previous cruises and staging virtual sail-away parties.
“Lots of artists’ performances were streamed just for our communities,” he said. “We even had an acoustic Valentine’s Day set by one artist couple at the end of which the gentleman proposed to the woman. She accepted. We continue to stay engaged connecting artists and guests online even though the world has opened up.”
The pandemic aside, StarVista adds new cruises each year, Jason said.
“We added the Sandy Beaches Cruise with Delbert McLinton, the Mavericks and Marcia Ball,” he said. “We have our eye on several new cruises.”
StarVista prefers to present luxury seven-day experiences.
“A lot of what we do focuses on offering a 50-year-old-plus audience the music that they grew up with,” Jason said. “It’s a very powerful feeling on board.”
Q&A with Mike Jason, senior vice President, StarVista Live:
VENUESNOW: How have things changed with regard to health and safety protocols for live music cruises? Are vaccinations required for all customers and the bands?
MIKE JASON: Earlier during the pandemic, after StarVista Live made the commitment to sail again, we worked closely with the cruise lines to ensure that all guests, including our staff, the crew, ship staff and all others were vaccinated. In addition, we required evidence of a minus two or three-day to the cruise, medically observed, negative COVID-19 test and in fact tested guests a second time on the day of sailing. The cruise lines have significantly loosened restrictions in the last months; however, we still strongly recommend vaccinations and have continued to require the minus three day negative tests to board. Ultimately, the cruise lines set and enforce health and safety protocols and besides vaccinations and testing have instituted many other health and safety protocols which continue to evolve.
What are cruise line promoters doing to protect the artists’ health? Has the dynamic changed with meet and greets and mingling with the performers?
One of the first things eliminated when we started sailing again was the formal artist meet and greets. Other mingling was limited as feasible, recognizing the environment. Our 2023 season of sailings has seen some of the artists back doing autographs, photos and other more interactive events; however, StarVista doesn’t unilaterally schedule these events. They are completely an artist’s decision.
How has inflation affected pricing? Costs are up across the board for live music. Are more customers paying their fees in installments?
We haven’t seen a significant shift to installment payments by guests nor have we seen price resistance. Demand has never been stronger, which I think is a combination of our demographic — older and past many financial responsibilities and higher disposable income — and a very powerful, post-pandemic need to reconnect and share music, friendship and experiences communally. Our first cruise back was in fall 2021 and it was an emotional reunion. I can’t tell you how many guests hugged me and said, “We needed to be together on the cruise again. Thank you” It was moving.
Have some cruises gone away after the pandemic?
A few cruises seem to have disappeared, but many others worked their way through it and come out as we have.
What stood out about George Clinton and Smokey Robinson shows?
I’ve known Smokey for many years, and we have had him with us several times, on Soul Train and Malt Shop Memories. Smokey is an incredible performer who crosses generations, genres and styles. His last time with us, he took requests for songs from the audience, told a story about the song and then performed it. The guests loved the intimacy and chance to see how Smokey thinks about the music as well as hear lots of hits.
George Clinton is a one-of-a-kind artist, providing a wild celebration of funk music and all its various music branches. The show includes an uncountable array of world class musicians with a supporting cast of characters, a dazzling array of colors and fabrics, delivering it all in a no time limit, no holds barred pool party that blew the guests away.
Are these cruises getting a lot of return customers after COVID? What about new customers?
StarVista Live’s bread and butter is the returning guest. We create an immersive environment decorating the ship with period and genre features like lava lamps on Flower Power, bringing in stars that match the theme, providing more than 100 fantastic music performances and artist events in the week and deliver a music festival-type experience aboard a luxury ship with all the creature comforts. We get well in excess of 50% guests returning the next year and 25% are friends and family of returning guests. We look for and bring in new guests as well, but our alumni really create the community spirit.
Are non-music cruises like comedy gaining in popularity? Examples? Any other genres?
We integrate comedy into some of our themes. Both Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy headlined Country Music Cruise and none of us can quite forget Cheech & Chong on our Flower Power Cruise. While comedy is an important part of many of our cruises, music is always our base. We generally pick genres of music that we love.