OLIVIA: If It Weren’t For The Music
Since 1973, Olivia has been serving the lesbian community, both as a groundbreaking independent women’s record label and as the travel company for lesbians. From selling over 1 million records by artists such as Meg Christian and Cris Williamson to taking over 175,000 women on cruise, resort, luxury and adventure vacations around the world, Olivia has brought the grassroots movement to the next level and is soaring.
An Idea is Born – Olivia Records
Who came up with the idea to create an exclusive women’s record label? “Meg Christian and her girlfriend at the time Ginny told us to come to their house because they had an idea [to form] a national women’s recording company,” Judy Dlugacz, President and Founder, says. “In the next ten minutes, Ginny explained how incredibly possible it was….that music hits women’s hearts first, not their heads.” For Dlugacz, “it was absolutely clear to me that I had to do this, so I abandoned the idea of going to law school and dedicated my life to this.”
And dedicated she did. With a collective of ten women and a borrowed $4,000, they had to figure out how to raise money to make records. “We decided to record a 45, with Meg Christian on one side and Cris Williamson on the other and send it out to all the rich and famous people that would fund our record….we got no money,” Dlugacz laughs. But what they did get was a following of women who wanted to buy the single. “Women all over the country were asking where they could buy this record. So for $1.50 plus shipping one could buy it and have it shipped to them. Every day more orders rolled in. It was starting to happen….”
Olivia’s first LP, Meg Christian’s I Know You Know, immediately sold out all 5,000 records that were produced. Having just relocated to Los Angeles from Washington D.C., with only five original members and without a large distributor, they had to get creative. “We created our own distribution,” Dlugacz says. “Meg would play concerts and we would ask the audience who wanted to be distributors around town. We would teach them what to do. We had our own network of about eighty women.”
With high demand for the record and independent support from thousands of women around the country, Olivia was able to produce a second album, Cris Williamson’s The Changer and the Changed. This album became the best-selling album on the Olivia label. “We knew we were on to something,” Dlugacz smiles. “Concerts went from church basements and small clubs to 2,000 people, almost overnight, all over the country.”
“It was all about changing the world through music. It was a textbook example of what a grassroots movement could do,” Dlugacz says. Olivia gained a huge following, all the while building and fostering a community of like-minded women. “We paralleled the women’s movement. We had the ability to reach women and have a profound impact on them. If they were isolated in a small town and thought they were the only lesbians in the world, they bought this music and it changed their lives.”
Olivia continued to produce albums by women artists, making a conscious effort to not use the word ‘lesbian’ on anything because “we knew people wouldn’t buy it. We chose to label it as ‘women’s music’,” Dlugacz states knowingly. That would soon end, however.
In 1977, Olivia produced a revolutionary album called Lesbian Concentrate in response to Florida Citrus Commission spokeswoman Anita Bryant’s anti-homosexual campaign in Florida. Dlugacz said, “It was the first time the word ‘lesbian’ was used on an album.” It was also the first anthology, or ‘Lesbianthology’ as it is referred to on the album cover, of music by lesbian recording artists. This album forever changed Olivia Records. No longer was it a women’s record label; it was a lesbian record label.
After ten years of producing records, Dlugacz decided to have a 10th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall. “We produced two back-to-back concerts. Women came from all over the country to celebrate their music, their artists, their company, their culture and ten years of being out, vibrant and successful.” The concerts’ headliners, Christian and Williamson, performed two sold-out shows for 5,600 women. At the time, in 1983, the concert was the largest single-grossing event since the hall’s creation in 1891.
A Concert on the Water? The Birth of Olivia Travel
By 1988, Dlugacz produced some 40 albums and sold more than one million records, tapes and CDs by artists such as Christian and Williamson, Teresa Trull and Linda Tillery and had been in charge of seeing each record and concert through from start to finish. At this point, Dlugacz was the sole remaining partner. “Around year fifteen, I got tired and thought I would end it with a series of concerts. But I thought, ‘How could I end it? How could I end this thing that’s such a big part of our community?’” Dlugacz says. Luckily, the series of concerts – and the one with most significance – came at the perfect time.
“We did a big concert in Seattle and after the concert a woman came up to me and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we did a concert on the water?’ And I went, ‘Concerts on the water, cruises, vacations for women…I can do that!’” So Dlugacz did what she’s always done with Olivia – figure out how to make it happen.
The initial response from the cruise companies was not positive. Dlugacz had a contract with one company but in the end, they didn’t want to charter a ship to lesbians. “Dolphin Cruise ended up saying yes. It was a ship for 600 to the Bahamas. I wrote a letter to my mailing list, which was about 30,000 people. I said, ‘I’m out in my entire life except for on vacation. How would you like to go on vacation and be able to be yourself on every minute of every day?’ In three months, 600 women signed up. So we did it again and another 600 women signed up and those were our first back-to-back cruises.” This led to the birth of Olivia Cruises & Resorts in 1990.
The first trip was magical, remembers Jill Cruse, Vice President of Guest Experience. “To see 600 women together on a ship, about to embark to the Bahamas, was unreal. Everyone was so happy to be there. It was the beginning of what I now refer to as a ‘ship full of joy’ for every trip we do.” Cruse went on that first trip as a volunteer – she had created print materials for the cruises with her graphic design experience – and her enthusiasm for Olivia led her to join the company as a full-time cruise reservationist later that year. She was promoted to cruise director within months.
Olivia’s cruises were inspirational to women, in the same way Olivia Records was almost twenty years earlier. “No one was taking the opportunity for granted,” Cruse says. “You have to remember that back in 1990, many of us were still in the closet and to provide a space to hold hands and dance together while on vacation for the first time was unimaginable.”
Feel Free – The Olivia Difference
The first cruises also marked the beginning of unparalleled customer service. Little did anyone know “that the majority of cabins had beds that didn’t push together, so Judy was busy getting the ship’s crew to unscrew the beds from the walls, and re-screw them to make queens. I think they were able to convert about one room an hour,” laughs Cruse. “The guests treated the staff so respectfully, and in return, the staff did not want us to leave!”
When Tisha Floratos, Vice President of Travel & Business Operations, came aboard in 2002, her life changed forever. “The moment I walked on the ship there was this sense of comfort and camaraderie that I had never experienced before in my life,” Floratos says. “Olivia is more than just a vacation. We charter entire cruise ships and resorts so that we can provide a space where lesbians can be free to be themselves, every minute of every day on vacation.”
Olivia’s staff works incredibly hard to maintain one-of-a-kind travel experiences. “We do all of the entertainment, all of the activities. We redesign the entire experience for lesbians,” Dlugacz says. By creating a community of and for lesbians on each trip, Olivia crafts carefree vacations for guests. “You can’t really understand the experience you get on an Olivia trip until you have it. It is complete freedom,” says Cruse.
Longtime traveler and Olivia ambassador Jana Leal speaks to this. “Even though my partner and I are completely out in our personal lives, Olivia has provided us with a vacation environment like no other…for us to be ourselves anywhere in the world. And there is nothing more rewarding than relaxing and being able to feel free while on vacation knowing that this vacation was made just for me!”
Donna Shands-Island feels similarly. “I ‘came out’ in a small town where there was very little lesbian community. Through Olivia I have found a greater sense of who I can be. The women that travel with Olivia have amazing careers and lives. I learned that there are no limits to what I can achieve. I have also learned to be fearless and to never hide who I am.”
Olivia is adored not only by their guests but also by their cruise partners. “We’re known in the industry as the platinum level of customer service. We are so organized and so clear that we have a 100% record of fulfilling our obligations so we are this stellar, outstanding company to work with,” says Dlugacz. “The people who work on the ships tell us they’ve never seen such happy travelers and they’ve never been on a ship where people are so respectful,” Cruse continues. “These staff members tell their friends about our wonderful guests and it changes perceptions. We are changing lives. It’s a testament to the impact that Olivia has.”
Signature Entertainment – Music, Comedy and More
Olivia takes great pride in selecting the best entertainment the industry has to offer and tailoring it to the lesbian community. From musicians, comedians and authors to athletes, actors and inspirational icons, Olivia’s entertainment helps create a unique experience. “We do everything from silly activities to author talks to leadership summits. We’ve brought everyone from Arianna Huffington to Melissa Etheridge to Whoopi Goldberg,” Dlugacz says.
Both Kate Clinton and Karen Williams are longtime comedians who’ve performed with Olivia for decades. “Olivia Records and now Olivia Travel has always been a meeting place for lesbians,” says Clinton. “I think my favorite part has always been to plunk myself down next to women and ask, ‘So what’s your story?’ Their stories of courage, achievement and connection always refresh me deeply and isn’t that the whole point of vacation? And it’s always a ton of fun!”
“What’s it like performing in front of a crowd of lesbians? The vibe is total excitement…you can feel it from the time the guests board the ship or land at the resort,” says Williams, who performed on the very first cruise. “There’s a palpable buzz of excitement and energy as old friends meet up and newcomers are greeted warmly by Olivia staff. And the excitement lasts throughout the entire trip because the women extend themselves by going places they’ve wanted to go and trying new adventures.”
Life On Board – Solos, Sisters and More
In addition to entertainment, Olivia also tailors specific programs to different travelers. Single travelers meet up at onboard mixers, dances and port excursions and solos coordinators are there to facilitate friendships for those who are a little shy. Doreen Anderson, a Solo traveler who booked three trips before she even went on her first one, has had a very positive experience as a Solo. “I can feel safe to travel knowing that there are other single/solo women on the trip and we are able to have fun and laugh and hang out and I won’t feel alone or different because I don’t know anyone,” Anderson says. “I like that there are Olivia dog tags to let you know who is traveling as a solo so you have a point of reference for other solos on vacation,” she continues. “The Solos’ Coordinators do an awesome job to help us get over our shyness and just have fun.”
For women of color, the Sisters at Sea (on cruises) and Sisters at Play (at resorts) programs bring women together to mingle and participate in special activities. Sisters’ coordinators organize casual meet-and-greets, film screenings and other entertainment that celebrates diversity. Shands-Island, creator of the Sisters program, speaks highly of helping to foster diversity on Olivia trips. “I love how inclusive this program is,” Shands-Island says enthusiastically. “It has grown so much over the last few years. The attendees melt our hearts with stories of how they rarely felt welcome in any space before they found Olivia and many state that they never would have gone on a trip if they had not heard about the program.”
In addition to the Solos and Sisters programs, Olivia has special needs coordinators as well as 12-step meetings on board. This is just another example of how Olivia takes special care of each and every guest’s personal needs.
Olivia Gives Every Step of the Way
Olivia has been a leader in philanthropy, advocacy and humanitarian outreach within the LGBT community and beyond. From guests donating supplies while cruising all over the world, to members of the Olivia family donating to international disaster relief, Olivia continues making the world a better place.
“On every Olivia vacation, we look for ways in which we can help local communities,” adds Floratos. “We do our part to make things a little better, wherever and whenever we have the opportunity.”
Olivia’s dedication to good deeds truly sets the company apart. “We make a difference everywhere we go. It’s another reason why Olivia is so much more than a lesbian travel company. We truly care about the places we visit and the people who live in those places, and we give as much and as often as we can,” says Cruse who, along with Floratos, has been instrumental in orchestrating efforts for the Olivia Gives program.
40 Years – Olivia Today
For the 40th anniversary, Olivia is going big. “History has repeated itself—the first cruise ship we chartered sold out so quickly that we had to add a second sailing and the same thing happened with our 30th and now 40th, anniversary cruises. We are overwhelmed by the response to this latest milestone,” says Dlugacz. “It’s about celebrating our community and all we’ve experienced and accomplished together these past four decades.”
From January 27-February 3, 2013 and February 3-10, 2013, 4,200 women on back-to-back cruises make this incredible celebration the largest one yet. “This is the biggest celebration of our community that Olivia has produced to date. It will be a giant reunion, celebration, entertainment extravaganza and tropical vacation all rolled into one,” remarked Floratos.
Presenting over 20 recording artists, comedians and prominent DJs, Olivia boasts the greatest festival of talent ever to perform on one of its cruises. “We are thrilled to have a reunion performance of original Olivia recording artists Meg Christian and Cris Williamson, along with the biggest lineup we have ever had,” said Floratos. Kate Clinton, Vickie Shaw, Karen Williams, Suede, Marga Gomez, Lisa Koch, Roxanna Ward, Elvira Kurt, Michele Balan, Sweet Baby J’ai, Julie Goldman, Dianne Davidson, Barbara Higbie, Teresa Trull, Dana Goldberg, Gina Yashere, Julie Wolf, Zoe Lewis, Mimi Gonzalez, CC Carter and DJ Rockaway will all be on board to perform and celebrate. Billie Jean King, sports icon and champion for social change and equality and Grethe Cammermeyer, retired colonel in the Washington National Guard and champion of gay rights in the military, will also be on board to speak.
Olivia’s celebration continues by offering two 40th anniversary Punta Cana Music and Comedy Festivals, May 11–18, 2013 and May 18–25, 2013, at Club Med’s all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic. Each week, 1,100 women will enjoy swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and daytime and evening music, comedy, dance and spoken word performances by Wanda Sykes, Cris Williamson, Suzanne Westenhoefer, Vicci Martinez, Melissa Ferrick, Toshi Reagon, Vickie Shaw, Karen Williams, CC Carter and The Real L Word’s Whitney Mixter and Sara Bettencourt.
Forty years is a major milestone for a lesbian company, and speaks to the deep bond between Olivia and its travelers, who are affectionately referred to as “The Olivia Family.” “It’s a bond unparalleled by any company, anywhere and we will honor that connection with these four extraordinary vacations,” promises Dlugacz.
Dlugacz says she has something big in the works for the next chapter of Olivia. For now though, she’s focusing on the 40th anniversary celebration. “How many people have this opportunity to change people’s lives and also have the opportunity to be acknowledged for having done that? It’s a pretty cool position to be in and I have worked really, really hard for this community for all these years. People think, ‘Oh, she’s such a great business woman.’ No, people have the wrong idea. That’s not who I am, it’s a game, you have to play it. Did we do this without money? Yes. Did we do this out of sheer will? Yes. Why? Because we wanted to change the world.”
For more information about Olivia Travel, please visit www.olivia.com.