Themed cruises are a workhorse of the vacation industry. A quick web search for the 2017 season reveals a knitting cruise, a Nascar cruise, a Walking Dead cruise and an ’80s cruise, to cite a few. Within these myriad offerings is the slightly more rarefied celebrity cruise, a chance to go to sea with someone famous. NFL hunk Rob Gronkowski took a few thousand fans to the Bahamas last September aboard a 93,530-ton ship he renamed Gronk’s Party Boat. William Shatner was captain (well, Captain Kirk) of the Norwegian Pearl during January’s Star Trek cruise to the Bahamas. And in March, rapper Pitbull will host his first-ever Caribbean cruise that promises, among other things, a “Dance Boot Camp with the Most Bad Ones Dancers.”
If there’s a common thread to these excursions, it’s that the celebrity in question is usually a B-lister, a niche star whose limelight period is, frequently, years or decades behind him. So more than a few heads are likely to turn over the news that when the MS Eurodam weighs anchor for Alaska on July 15, Oprah Winfrey will be aboard.
Dubbed “O, The Oprah Magazine Adventure of Your Life,” the seven-day cruise is actually a kickoff for a new partnership between the magazine and Holland America Line, which will feature Oprah-inspired programming—reading, healthy eating, meditation and so on—for more than 300 cruises through 2018. With content developed by the magazine’s editors, the Oprah cruises promise to “unite the soul-stirring power of travel with O’s deep commitment to connection and personal growth.”
But what’s notable about this celebrity cruise is, well, the celebrity. Winfrey is among the most famous people alive, an inspirational figure and global personality with her own media empire, some 12 million followers on Facebook and an estimated net worth of $3.1 billion.
So the question is: Why would she want to go to Alaska in July with 2,104 vacationers?
“Oprah did an eight-city tour a few years back, and when I saw how women [enjoyed] traveling in groups, I thought, ‘What if we combined the power of Oprah’s message with people already traveling into a life-changing event’?” said Jayne Jamison, svp, publisher and chief revenue officer for O magazine. “There are a lot of themed cruises that bring like-minded people together, and this seemed like a natural.” Plus, she added, “it’s her ‘year of adventure’ at the magazine, so the program fits perfectly.”
As Jamison tells the story, sometime in 2016, after shooting some 200 magazine covers under hot lights, Oprah decided she’d had enough. “She said, ‘I want to spend the next year experiencing new things and not being in a studio,’” Jamison said. The first stop on Oprah’s self-proclaimed year of adventure was a much-publicized hike through the Grand Canyon. Alaska was next on the bucket list.
Of course, Oprah could easily afford to charter her own ship to Alaska and be the only soul aboard. The primary advantage here is for Oprah’s magazine, which is strengthening its ties with Holland America, already a longtime advertiser. “There’s an advertising commitment wrapped around the program for two years, not only in the magazine but the O Network and Oprah.com,” Jamison said.
In fact, according to travel expert Mark Murphy, Oprah’s giving her empire a shot in the arm just as much as she’s taking a trip to Glacier Bay.
“The reason she’s doing this is the whole media tie-in,” Murphy said. “They’re bringing their editors on and doing workshops. It’s an integrated media play that ties it all back to the brand. They bring those experiences they write about to a live audience on board, and it extends their brand to people they might not reach normally.”
The deal is also a likely win for Holland America, which Carnival snapped up in 1989 for $625 million. Last year, Carnival reported profits of $2.8 billion on revenues of $16.4 billion. Despite steadily increasing passenger counts, Murphy noted, most Americans still haven’t taken a cruise, and Holland America may well influence the “perception of what a cruise is by inking a deal like this.”
“They’ll help the cruise market as a whole, not just themselves,” he said.
The big question behind any celebrity-themed cruise is how much of a celebrity a passenger will get to see. Oprah will be aboard for only two days of the seven-day excursion. During that time, she’ll give a presentation (which will be taped for viewing on later cruises) and also attend a charity fundraising dinner. For passengers on the July 15 trip, the presentation is included, but the fundraiser isn’t, and “capacity is very limited,” warns the passenger information. Is there a risk that those who plunk down $3,499 for an ocean-view or verandah suite (the pricier Signature and Neptune suites are already sold out) might not get as much Oprah as they hope?
Murphy thinks not. For those trying to buy tickets on Holland America’s website, the company puts up an advisory window that makes it clear Oprah will only be aboard for part of the trip. Asked how much Oprah there will be to go around, Jamison said, “I don’t want to say she’ll touch 2,000 people. But, yes, everyone will get to experience her talk.”
Given the enormity of Oprah’s celebrity, Murphy added, passengers should probably curtail their expectations. Aboard Gronk’s party boat, he said by way of example, “If you want[ed] to hang out with Gronk you [could] get drunk with Gronk.” On this ship,” “you’re not going to eat dinner with Oprah.”
Passengers will, however, get to soak up a lot of programming generated by O magazine—the first five cruises will feature various editors from the magazine, while the balance of the cruises through 2018 will offer “a variety of engaging, stimulating activities that bring the magazine to life,” according to the publicity materials.
Left unsaid in all of this is the Oprah cruise’s other big attraction: Alaska itself. Everybody, Murphy said, should book a cruise to see the glaciers, whether Oprah is on board or not.