Celebrity Cruising A Dream

Al_HilaryThe appeal of cruising is rubbing off on Aussies as they get a taste of the good life, but throw a celebrity host in the mix, and life aboard becomes even more sexier to Australian travellers.

Holidaying with celebrities in iconic destinations ticks all the right boxes for obvious reasons, and yet the concept is relatively new in Australia, spearheaded by Dream Maker Travel director Hilary Weir in Brisbane. What started as an unlikely idea in the late 90s came to fruition about ten years ago when Weir floated the idea with a close friend who was also a local radio celebrity. Weir recalls how she just “fell into it” and found herself planning a European coach tour for her friend Greg and 40 loyal radio listeners.

“I knew it was a great idea, so I planned a tour and he advertised it on the station. It was a massive hit, so we just ran with it and did different tours together year after year,” she recalls.

But a fluke meeting with cricketing icon Ian Healy was where the idea really took shape and set the wheels in motion for the biggest challenge of Weir’s career. Bumping shoulders with Healy at a local business seminar, the pair immediately hit it off and talk of a celebrity cruise charter led by Healy made its way into the conversation. Confident of the potential, he was easily swayed and Weir moved quickly to charter a full ship, putting her house on the line. She still recalls the sleepless nights that followed, but managed a sell out sailing of 160 passengers following an extensive radio campaign.

With a stellar start to the business partnership, the pair wasted no time planning the next venture and soon set sail for the second celebrity cruise just 18 months later in the Mediterranean. A Spain and Portugal voyage is also lined up for September this year, with a fourth venture from Monte Carlo to Paris next year.

“Healy has been the perfect cruise host – he helps to promote the tours, enjoys spending time with guests onboard, and is willing to work closely with me. He’s the key to my success,” she says.

After proving her worth with a number of full charters, major cruise lines became more willing to give Weir a chance, and to work closely with her on group allocations. They were also strong supporters when Weir established a separate charity business in 2013 to help raise funds for celebrity chef Matt Golinski who sustained burns to over 40% of his body in a home fire in 2011.

Inspired by the national fundraising initiative, Plates for Mates, the idea came to Weir at a charity function dedicated to Golinski’s recovery, led by a team of celebrity chefs. Keen to play on her strengths to help Golinski’s cause, Weir floated the idea of operating a cruise hosted by celebrity chefs who were keen to pledge their support.

“I told them we could donate a percentage of the profits of each cruise and they jumped at the chance,” she recalls. “They didn’t take much convincing.”

Word spread quickly and celebrity chefs Alastair Mcleod, Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris, Manu Feidel and Janelle Bloom jumped onboard to support Golinski. But while there was little doubt that the idea was a crowd pleaser, Weir had trouble selling the cruises at first.

“It was a brilliant idea but the 30-50 year old target market doesn’t have the sort of income that retirees do – they’ve got kids at school and mortgages, so we had trouble converting them,” she recalls. 

Bookings did eventually filter through and Weir developed strong ties with celebrity chef Alastair McLeod who has since hosted three Dream Maker cruises. But for Weir, the stand out was having Matt Golinski board one of the cruises during his recovery.

“Seeing the chefs reunite with their friend Matt at the dock made everyone cry and I felt like I had made a dream come true. That’s why I’m in the business,” she says.

Weir says being brought up in a missionary family was what attracted her to escorted touring from a young age, but she concedes that chartering and group allocations are risky business. “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it,” she says. Aside from the financial risks, celebrity cruises involve ongoing relationship building and organisation, long hours under sustained pressure, and tenacity to keep going when bookings are lean, she says.

Certainly, Weir has learned many lessons “the hard way” and not everything has gone to plan, such as this year’s Canada and Alaska group allocation which secured only 20 bookings.

She admits that marketing has long been her downfall as traditional methods change, but business nous and strong partnerships have seen her through, now averaging around six celebrity cruises per year. And having just signed an exclusive distribution deal with Worldwide Cruise Centres to wholesale the packages out to agencies, business is looking up.

“I generally build tours and then pray a lot, so this deal is the answer to my problem and I can focus on what I do best – building great celebrity hosted tours,” she says.