By Ken Sharp
Not long ago, the idea of a cruise evoked scores of blue-haired senior citizens crammed aboard a giant vessel spending their golden years sailing the high seas, playing games of bridge, bingo and shuffleboard, sipping mai-tais and taking lots of naps. But in recent years, the grand concept behind cruises has changed dramatically. Geared toward baby boomers and beyond, music-themed cruises spanning a myriad of genres from country to prog-rock, EDM to classic rock, southern rock to dance music, have proliferated and become a thriving business raking in millions of dollars each year. And those long naps have turned into all-nighters. Regarding those common misconceptions about the cruising experience, Alaidriale Derway, PR & Communications Manager for Sixthman opines, “I think attitudes about cruising are changing rapidly, but there is definitely still a little of the old ‘cruises are all shuffleboard, bingo, and 5 o’ clock dinners’ stigma. Having been on nearly 50 of our festivals at sea, I can very safely say this could not be further from what you’ll find on a Sixthman event, and specifically the KISS Kruise. What you are going to find is 2,300 people from 28 countries around the world, rocking out to their favorite bands, and all interacting with each other in a way that you simply couldn’t on land — it’s a vacation, it’s a music festival, it’s a non-stop party — it’s everything the “typical cruise” isn’t.”
Of the cruise event companies, Sixthman have it down to a sweet science. In their 14th year, Sixthman was cited by INC magazine as America's fastest Growing Travel Company. Boasting themed cruises with a diverse range of artists including Kid Rock, John Mayer and Lynyrd Skynyrd, one of the company's hottest and most in-demand cruises is the KISS Kruise; its 2015 jaunt was an early sell out. What makes a Sixthman KISS Kruise unmissable? “Well, KISS of course!,” says Alaidriale Derway, PR & Communications Manager for Sixthman. “It seems like a silly answer, but there isn’t anywhere else, land or sea, where you’ll have the kind of experience you get on the Kruise. There are activities with members of KISS, shows in intimate venues — we’re talking less than 1000 people — a Q&A where the question askers are all kids, and a photo with the band, and that’s just the beginning. The KISS Kruise is a totally immersive experience in all things KISS. It’s rock 'n' roll all night, and party every day! It’s a one-of–a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime experience — even for the fan who has everything! And each year is new and different theme wise, so it’s always fresh. We’re all about the guest experience — that comes first in every way. Our goal is to break down the barriers between bands and their fans, as well as introduce our guests to emerging artists that often become favorites. We don’t do the whole VIP thing. We feel like everyone should have the same amazing experience and that everyone is entitled to the best. We encourage our artists to interact with the guests as much as possible, from hosting events, to late night DJ sessions, to just walking around the ship and enjoying the event. We set the expectation that guests and artists are one big family and should treat each other as such. We try to shy away from the standard format of autograph signing and meet and greets as much as possible, in favor of more organic and intimate experiences between artists and fans. Another thing that I think really sets Sixthman apart is that our events are built by the community for the community. When our artists have a vision they want brought to life, we will do anything we can to make that happen. We build upon surveys and guest feedback to really shape what our guests are looking for.”
For Greg Hounshell, 45, a realtor from Wytheville, Virginia, the KISS Kruise is a must attend event and one he almost missed out on this year. “Until a few days ago, I didn't think I was going to make it,” explains Hounshell. “Why? The cruise has gotten so popular it sold out over six months ago and I hadn't reserved a spot. It keeps growing, drawing people in from all over the world-and this year it drew at least two too many. After going the past three years, I started to feel like I was going to be missing something. I'm not talking about the band or the destinations. The ship could park in the middle of a pond and you'd still want to be there. But, rather, I knew I would miss the friends I have made over the past three years. It's hard to describe the sense of community that you find on the Norwegian Pearl. Once late September starting rolling around, I was feeling the pinch of time. I hopped on the waiting list but was told I was 60th. It wasn't looking good. I reached out to friends that were going to let them know if a spot opened up, somehow, someway, to please let me know. Two weeks prior to sailing a good friend of mine rang me up and said there was a cabin available for us. We booked it and are headed out to sea for the third time. That encapsulates the cruise experience for me. You can form such a bond with people you only see once a year that you start looking out for each other. There aren't many events in life that inspire such loyalty. To experience it is a fun, fun thing. Some of the best people you'll ever meet attend the cruise. Having KISS there is icing on the cake.”
As for me, having embarked on last year's KISS Kruise, I'm back aboard this huge vessel for KISS Kruise V ready to "rock 'n' roll all night and party" every day with over 2,300 hardcore KISS fanatics ages 1 to 60-plus from over 30 countries around the world joining in on the fun. Not surprisingly, it’s the hardcore baby boomer fan base that accounts for the main demographic in the 40-54 range, skewing slightly heavier male. Male or female, young or old, looking at the beatific smiles on the faces of those climbing aboard, the majority dressed in KISS t-shirts and many elaborately inked with KISS tattoos, this yearly excursion offer passengers a chance to let loose, get wild and crazy, all in celebration of the hottest band in the world.
KISS ambassador Dean Snowden puts things into perspective: “This is an encompassing fun for everyone who attends. The camaraderie of the repeat fans from around the world makes this an unmissable event. These people have their own cliques they’ve cultivated from KISS Kruise to KISS Kruise. This is where all the hardcore KISS fans choose to rendezvous.”
The theme of this year's KISS Kruise honors the 40th anniversary of the band's breakthrough 1975 album, "Alive!," whose multi-platinum success thrusts a once struggling band of musical misfits into international superstardom. Setting off for the high seas from Miami, Florida, the dials are set for the ultimate destination: Ocho Rios, Jamaica, but that’s only half of the fun. A far cry from the AARP-themed cruises of years ago, there are activities galore on the ship, giving those onboard no time to be bored. You can get your face painted like your favorite member of KISS, sing KISS Karaoke, learn pizza cooking tips from Paul Stanley, enter an “Almost Famous” contest judged by KISS drummer Eric Singer and even get inked with a brand new tattoo. Besides the over-the-top musical and visual bombast provided by KISS, other star attractions entertaining cruisers include ex-Runaways guitarist/solo star Lita Ford, Steel Panther, Fozzy (a band that comprises popular pro wrestler Chris Jericho on lead vocals), The Dead Daisies, which features former Motley Crue lead singer John Corabi, a magician, comedians and DJ Noize.
Beyond the band itself, the fans are truly the stars. As Derway explains, the power of the KISS Kruise bonding people together from all nations/nationalities over a common interest should not be understated: “KISS has been captivating the world for 40 years, and the sheer size of their fan base is immeasurable. It’s huge! The power of the Kruise is actually in its relatively small size, and the growing community of cruise alumni. Prior to the Kruise, the community has a Facebook group where they can talk to other Kruisers, get to know one another, and veteran Kruisers can share their experience with newbies. On board, Kruisers have so many points of interaction, from shows, to activities and theme nights, and everything in between, they often create lifelong friendships. This isn’t exclusive to The KISS Kruise by any means, but KISS fans are incredibly passionate, so conversations are easily sparked in this community. I think another factor that majorly influences bonding is the dynamic between the bands and fans. When you go see a typical show, even with friends, you spend the bulk of your time in one space, staring at a stage, then you go home. On a cruise, you are in the show 24/7. The event is a full 360 degrees. Sure, you still have bands on a stage facing a crowd, but you also have bands at your breakfast table, impromptu shows at 2:00am in an elevator, the guy you’d normally be hounding for an autograph judging you in a belly flop contest – and 2,300 people, just like you, creating this thing that’s bigger than any band.”
Mark Wheatley, 46, a resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia agrees stating, "I think the cruise validates KISS fans.” By day, Wheatley works as a general manger for a paramedic service but he moonlights as a member of Canadian KISS tribute band, Dressed 2 Kill Canada. “Since 1977 I have spent countless hours and countless dollars invested in that band. This is their opportunity to acknowledge their appreciation of us fans.” Wheatley’s friend and fellow tribute bandmate, Paul Stevens enthuses: “You know you’re a family member when you walk on the ship because you’re with the family you always wanted to be with.”
Beyond the camaraderie, common bond over all things KISS and friendships forged between attendees from different countries, the KISS Kruise is also a chance for the hard working baby boomer crowd to push the 24/7 rock 'n' roll all night and party ethos as far as it can go.
Stix Zadinia, drummer for Steel Panther, nails it: "The KISS Kruise is an opportunity for people who have 9 to 5 jobs to come to a place where the can walk around with no shirt on, fly all their KISS tattoos and be a freak for five days with a smile.”
This year marks the fifth KISS Kruise and Sixthman is continually searching for ways to improve the experience. “We’ve listened to our guests,” remarked Derway. “This event would not and could not be what it is without them, and their input is incredibly valuable. We want to create a vacation that not only lives up to, but exceeds our guests expectations. They are the stars here. And when they talk, we listen. Simple as that.”
And as for those who’ve chosen not to take the plunge on a music-themed cruise but are still sitting on the fence, what kind of case would one make to convince them to take part? “Get off the fence!” laughs Derway. “If you are passionate about music and want to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience with your heroes, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Here’s the thing though, I often find myself trying to talk people out of our events. I feel I have a duty to warn people that experiencing a festival at sea will make it nearly impossible to take a regular cruise again! We hear it from guests time and time again — it’s probably the biggest complaint we get.”
Derway goes on to further explain: “I always ask: Have you ever been to a big music festival? Standing in line for bathrooms, huge crowds, mud, overpriced beer, and trying to get anywhere near the stage to see your favorite artist… it’s a huge test of patience! On a cruise, you have everything you need right there. You have your favorite band playing in an elevator — true story! — or standing next to you at breakfast, you have shows going on all the time, just like a big festival, but you can actually see the band, sometimes so close you need to back up! Plus, you’re on a ship with just a little over 2,000 people who are into what you’re into. It’s an experience that can create friends for life. There’s luxury accommodations, food as far as the eye can see, and music almost 24/7.”
Ken Sharp is the author of New York Times Best Seller "Nothin' to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975)."