Nearly 42 years after Aaron Spelling’s The Love Boat – one of the most watched TV series of its time – first aired, the cruise industry continues to reinvent and has attracted the attention of African American travellers through Festival at Sea: Cruising with an African- American Twist, the brainchild of Patricia Nicholson Yarbrough.
Yarbrough has always been a travel pioneer. She launched San Francisco-based travel agency Blue World Travel Corp in 1978, but a full 14 years passed before Yarbrough noticed a gap in the market for a cruise tailored around African-American culture and entertainment.
Enter the award-winning Festival at Sea, which has grown from its first group of 250 passengers in 1992 to a sold out annual full-ship charter with a waiting list as long as the bible, plus a number of spin-off events.
As she gears up for Festival at Sea’s 28th sail later this year on Celebrity Equinox, Yarbrough shares her experiences of the industry and the lessons she has learnt with Telegraph Cruise.
Where did you get the idea for Festival at Sea: Cruising with an African-American twist from?
You know, I came up with the idea through personal experience and that of friends, family and clients onboard cruises. They weren’t participating to the fullest, there were things they weren’t enjoying. For example, we were going to the clubs and dancing to R&B for a couple of songs, but then say country and western would play and we’d be sitting for an hour, waiting for the music we wanted to dance to, to come back on. Or else there would be [the card game] bridge on board but a lot of our people prefer to play Bid whist.
The existing cruises were fine but, culturally speaking, I thought I could offer something that would enrich African Americans and that they would truly enjoy. And that’s how Festival at Sea: Cruising with an African American Twist came about.
You built Festival at Sea from scratch. Were you always confident of success?
Well, I’d had the agency [Blue World Travel Corp] for over 10 years and so was confident that I knew the travel industry and really believed that Festival at Sea was an excellent idea. I said: “This will work”.
There had been themed cruises before Festival at Sea – for example, dance cruises, cruises for chocolate lovers – but nothing with a cultural aspect. It took a while to get on track – and Festival at Sea didn’t make any money for the first few years – but we stuck with it.
The first year we had just 250 people. The following year, we were up to 450 guests and by the fifth year we had our first full ship charter. This year, we’ll be sailing with 3,000 passengers. It’s exploded and now we want to welcome people, not just from America but from the UK and around the world, to come and enjoy.
Why is Festival at Sea so important to the African-American community?
It’s hard to put into words… it’s just magical. It’s a really special feeling when an African American community – and not just African Americans but people from all over, including the UK – get together and enjoy and celebrate their culture.
I join the sailings and we have developed, over the years, a committee of about 80 volunteers who come on board and assist with activities ranging from Gospel brunches to African head wrap demonstrations.
We have people who have grown up on Festival at Sea (and are now in their thirties and forties) that are still coming back. It’s like a big family reunion every year – there’s a real sense of community.
How does Friends of Festival at Sea differ from Festival at Sea?
We started Friends of Festival at Sea in 1998, 10 years after launching Festival at Sea [which focuses on the Caribbean], for African Americans who wanted to explore the world together.
Last year, 70 of us boarded a Baltic cruise that sailed from Copenhagen to Russia and Amsterdam before ending up in Southampton. In March 2020, the Friends group will set sail on a 15-night Singapore to Hong Kong cruise onboard the Crystal Symphony while in December 2020, another group of 70 will sail on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager around South Africa.
If Telegraph Cruise readers were to sail to just one destination, where should they go?
That’s a difficult question. I can’t choose just one! There are so many places I have sailed to and really enjoyed. For instance I have experienced Carnival in Rio via a Friends of Festival at Seas cruise and that was an unmissable experience. And then there was the time we cruised into Dakar… here we were, cruising back to where a lot of slaves left on ships, while being waited on hand and foot. It was an amazing experience to thank our ancestors and say: “We have come back, we have come home, but look how we have come home”.
Any tips for first-time Festival at Sea cruisers?
Sure. We publish two newsletters to keep our passengers well informed, so that they can have the best possible travel experience. For instance we have a ‘White Night’ for which passengers need to wear white clothing. There’s also a costume themed night and an African attire formal evening – a really beautiful experience – so passengers will want to know what to pack and we outline this in our newsletters.
How do you continue to innovate?
We’re always looking for the next thing and we ask people to reach out if they have an idea for something they’d like to see or do on a Festival at Sea cruise. We have new people signing up across the age spectrum as well as repeat customers, so there is always something new.
Basically it’s a fun time: it seems to be something that people just don’t get tired of and we appreciate that.
The company has always had a passion for philanthropy. Tell us a little bit more about your philanthropic programmes?
When we started out we wanted to make sure that we were giving back to the community in some form so, on our first Festival at Sea cruise, we threw a fundraiser on board. Passengers brought items and bid on them and we donated the money to the United Negro College Fund.
In our second year, we added a Children’s book programme where each passenger is asked to bring one new book. The books are then donated to one of the islands in the Caribbean. Passengers know this – when they’re buying and packing clothes for the trip, they are also buying and packing a book.
Over the past 27 years, more than 50,000 new children’s books have been donated to almost every Caribbean island while $400,000 has been donated to either the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund or the United Negro College Fund.
Did you always want to work in travel?
Pretty much. Growing up, I always wanted to go to Africa and I got an opportunity in my senior year with the Red Cross who took five young people from Woodrow Wilson Senior High School to work with Red Cross Youth there, teaching first aid. We visited Senegal, Ghana and Ivory Coast. It was my first big international journey and I knew after that I wanted to work in travel.
Then during college, I was dying to visit Jamaica. I had an instructor teaching a class called the ‘Black Man in Latin America and the Caribbean’ and she decided she wanted to teach a class in Jamaica. I told her “You organise the class and I’ll provide the people” and that was really my first experience and opportunity of putting together a group. I caught the travel bug very early.
Name somebody in the travel and hospitality industry that you admire.
The person that was my mentor is no sadly no longer alive, but he gave me my start. He had opened up a travel agency in San Francisco targeting African Americans and I used to volunteer there. The agency didn’t survive but he helped place me in a company called Ivory Coast Travel. I was there for five fabulous years and met someone who was working on their own which gave me the confidence to open up Blue World Travel Corp.
What is the best thing about running Blue World Travel Corp?
Doing what you love – and I have been doing this since High School. Plus the people I work with: most of my staff have been with me since the start, so we’re like a family. And of course we have our fantastic customers who have been supporting Festival At Sea for 28 years.
So many people are such an integral part of both Blue World Travel Corp and Festival at Sea and I’m very fortunate because, you know, you can’t do anything alone.
And the worst?
There’s no worst thing per se but there’s lot of pressure to make each and every cruise a big success. People are investing their time and their money in Festival at Sea so I can’t just think “it will be fine, we have done this 27 times”. No. I have to worry. There’s no resting on our laurels.
Finally, what do you never travel without?
This is not a fun thing for me but I have to take my computer. It’s a must – a real lifeline. I’d like to say my swimsuit, but I always pack my swimsuit and it never seems to make it out of my suitcase…
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