ONBOARD THE CELEBRITY GALAXY -- It's about 7 a.m. Passengers up for their morning constitutional can't help but notice a crowd of people splashing around in the pool.

But this isn't your ordinary early-morning swim.

The poolside gathering is strictly members-only. And travel agent Cynthia Neu couldn't be more tickled.

Neu's "private party" also is her niche: Cruises for water-aerobics enthusiasts.

The McLean, Va.-based agency, Fun and Fitness Travel Club, started in 1998 when Neu and 23 other enthusiasts took their water-aerobics instructor on a cruise when the neighborhood pool closed for maintenance.

Today, the agency reserves group space on cruises for instructors and nearly 1,400 water-aerobics devotees nationwide.

By focusing solely on water aerobics-themed vacations, Fun and Fitness does what successful cruise retailers have been saying for years: Agents need to add value to the ordinary cruise product.

"It becomes important when agents are faced with $499 and $399 seven-day cruises," said Scott Keopf, president of the Cruise and Vacation Specialists consortium, of which Fun and Fitness is a member. "This attracts a clientele that wouldn't usually be geared toward a cruise; and then you can build market share instead of stealing it."

Besides, Keopf said, focusing on the water-aerobics gig is a great idea.

"My mom is really into it; she's been doing it for years and years," he said. "They're very loyal to that exercise."

Buoyed by her success (pun intended), Neu wants to grow her business by reaching out to other agencies.

Her proposal: Book a water exercise-loving client or two -- or an entire water aerobics class -- on a Fun and Fitness-scheduled cruise.

Think of it in the tradition of "food" or "jazz" cruises offered by some cruise lines, except that creating the theme, and handling the sales, is done by a fellow retailer.

The concept isn't new, although it tends to fade in and out of fashion, Keopf said.

A few years ago, he recalled, one travel agency put together a "Rush Limbaugh" cruise: They invited the radio commentator to give lectures on a cruise and reserved a theater -- for their guests only.

But is this a case of an agency-turned-wholesaler?

Retailers who go that route and book other agencies' clients into their group blocks can get tripped up in sales minutia. Who reserves the space? Who pays the commissions to whom? Who receives the documents?

Neu's plan keeps her hands off other agents' commissions. Agents reserve their own clients' cabins on a scheduled Fun and Fitness cruise; an extra $50 fee, payable to Fun and Fitness, lets clients join "the club."

"You can chase one sale or 20 sales," Neu said. "All you have to do is go to a YWCA or a Jewish community center and put up a little poster."

The water-aerobics cruises, however, are serious fun: Cruisers rise at dawn for classes. They're dedicated to healthy eating. They discourage excessive drinking, gambling and smoking. They do daily walking, tai chi and yoga.

Despite the work, the club functions as one big, happy family, Neu said -- minus the family.

"There are no grandchildren," Neu said. "My ladies said, 'Cynthia, this is wonderful! We don't have to take care of any kids. We can dress up and go on trips!' "

The club-cum-agency started when Neu, a former journalist, gathered her fellow water-aerobics participants, plus instructor Jim Seeley, on a cruise.

As it turned out, Seeley's other job was -- drumroll, please -- as a travel agent.

Once he and Neu realized they were onto something, they flew to a cruise-agency seminar in Miami, where she recalls running up to Richard Sasso, then the president of Celebrity Cruises, to pitch the idea.

"That was the gunshot to start the race," Neu said.

Sasso, now president of Royal Far East Tailors, said he remembers Neu and her niche.

"I have always felt that the best market for agents to improve cruise sales is to go after theme groups of any kind," Sasso said. "They did a great job using the fitness theme, and it works."

Neu's group only uses Royal Caribbean and Celebrity ships. And, she said, she'd give her "eyeteeth" for five minutes with RCCL president Jack Williams.

"I can show him how I can bring 250,000 people over the age of 60 with him next year," she said.

For more information, call (800) 955-9942, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.fun-fitness.com.

Fun and Fitness moves to expand its client base

McLEAN, Va. -- "We already have 70 bookings for our cruise to Alaska, and we have not announced it yet to our home base," Cynthia Neu said. "We're taking ladies from Florida, Texas and California."

Each time Travel Weekly caught up with the proprietor of Fun and Fitness Travel Club, a cruise agency here for water-aerobics devotees, she had news.

Next week, for example, water-aerobics classes are heading to the Bahamas.

"We're going on [Royal Caribbean's] Sovereign of the Seas. ... There's a huge delegation from Georgia and one from Tennessee," Neu said.

"I'm so proud of this," she added.

Who would have thought that seven years ago, Neu was intimidated by cruising.

"I'm a widow. I don't think I look pretty in a bathing suit," she said. "Those advertisements always show lovey-dovey couples."

Now, Neu is an expert on cruise realities. She works with her Royal Caribbean district sales manager on promotions, and she coordinates with the ship's staff to give her groups exclusive use of the pool at certain times.

If the aerobics groups are large, the water classes will run in shifts; those with early shore excursions are invited to come to the first classes of the day.

Neu travels with "her ladies" -- her first Fun and Fitness group -- but the agency promotes through a national water-aerobics magazine, which brings it national publicity.

Now, different groups -- Neu calls them delegations -- will travel together.

"We all have the water aerobics in common," Neu said. "There might be 20 or 30 ladies coming in from each community. At the beginning they all sit at their same tables, but, after a few days of exercise, we're all sitting at each others' tables."

By the way, these classes aren't just for Neu and "her ladies." Men participate, too. -- R.T.


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