NEW YORK — A successful travel company will ultimately fail if it is not sensitive and responsive to changes in the markets and communities it serves. Conversely, flexibility can auger success.
R Family Vacations, conceived as a niche player, is a case in point.
This vacation entertainment company was founded to offer safe, fun and welcoming cruise holidays for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) families and their friends at a time, not so long ago, when few suppliers in the travel industry were interested in pursuing or even accommodating the LGBT market.
Today, increased societal acceptance of alternative lifestyles has produced a market evolution that, along with ongoing competition, is forcing R Family to face new challenges and embrace new opportunities.
As it approaches its 10th year in operation, the company is meeting those challenges by expanding and diversifying its product range.
Founding partner Gregg Kaminsky launched R Family with friend and business associate Kelli Carpenter and Carpenter's then-companion, comedian Rosie O'Donnell, in 2003. Today, he said, the company is still "hanging in there and doing great" with its celebrated LGBT family cruise charters. More than 17,000 clients have traveled with R Family to date.
But a lot has changed in the eight years since R Family first set sail on its July 2004 maiden voyage, a charter aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Dawn with 1,600 passengers aboard, including 600 children. For one, O'Donnell departed the venture four years ago, taking the media spotlight with her.
Just as important, the recession has changed consumer buying habits, acceptance of gays and lesbians has increased throughout the U.S. and the LGBT market itself has matured, diversified and is gradually becoming better integrated into mainstream travel and tourism.
R Family is responding by expanding its vision.
"We are still doing full [ship] charters, but have begun diversifying a little bit, … offering many different types of trips now," Kaminsky said. "Our philosophy is that the LGBT community has changed. If you look at gay communities in U.S., the bars are now much more about simply socializing, and political events are all mixed, and so we feel that people want to travel that way, too."
This year, for example, R Family's three vacation products comprise not only an eight-day, Broadway-themed Norwegian charter from New York to Bermuda (July 8 to 15, from $749 per person) but also a four-night, five-day family summer camp experience in Connecticut and a 10-day, adults-only Central European river cruise holiday.
The camp vacation, called Club Getaway and located a 90-minute drive north of New York in Kent, Conn., is R Family's new, shorter, more affordable vacation option for LGBT families of all income levels. Kaminsky said the idea has been a hit.
"It's the best-selling product we've ever offered," he said. "Families are looking for a little more value than the 'traditional' LGBT traveler is."
Priced at $399 for children and $599 for adults, Club Getaway, set for July 2 to 6, has drawn bookings from not only nearby drive markets in the Northeast but also from 25 states nationwide and "even a family from Brazil."
An even bigger departure for R Family is the firm's first adults-only river cruise, the "R Time all-LGBT Riverboat Cruise" this August from Prague, Czech Republic, to Budapest aboard Ama Waterways' new AmaCerto.
"What we discovered on the big cruise charters is that we have many different types of people coming," Kaminsky said. So while the company's original focus was to offer vacations for the booming LGBT family market, R Family "also found there are many LGBT couples and singles aboard who want a little more laid-back and also mixed [gender] option" than is available from other adult LGBT vacation products from companies such as Atlantis Vacations and Olivia.
The river cruise, from Aug. 21 to 30, is priced from $2,779 per person, including a two-night hotel stay in Prague. Starting next year, all adults-only products will be marketed separately under a new "Kelli & Gregg's Vacations" brand.
More product innovations are on tap for 2013. First, R Family will kick off 10th anniversary celebrations with a family Las Vegas weekend trip in April; the likely venue will be the Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa, thanks to family-friendly facilities on site such as a 16-screen cinema, 72-lane bowling alley and Kids Quest children's activity center.
Also in the works are a second annual adults-only river cruise and three family resort vacations: at a California ranch, a Mexican beach resort (likely in Playa del Carmen, according to Kaminsky) and what Kaminsky called R Family's "first truly international" family destination, a Club Med property in France's Provence region.
"We're doing more and more things, and some of them are smaller [in scale] than our full-cruise charters, but the great thing now is that clients can pick and choose," he said.
Two trends Kaminsky and Carpenter have noted of late are an uptick in interest in same-sex wedding ceremonies during its trips (gay marriage is now legal in eight states and the District of Columbia) and increased bookings from not only the usual friends and family of LGBT clients but mainstream, nongay families with no apparent LGBT ties, as well.
"The way I explain it is that [non-LGBT] travelers love … how welcoming everyone is, and that might not be the case if [gays and lesbians] went on their vacations," Kaminsky said. "We also have a handful of [nongay] clients who come with their kids just to teach them about diversity, which is amazing. It's really wonderful."
R Family also welcomes bookings and inquiries from agents of all orientations. The firm pays commissions from a base of 10%.
"In our community, there are definitely some superstar agencies that are very aggressive in seeking [LGBT] business, but we obviously welcome all agent business," he said. "For example, we've worked a lot with Liberty Travel."