It started with Sister Hazel: They did it all for you …
Andy Levine, now CEO of Sixthman cruise company, was in artist management working with Sister Hazel, when they promised fans, “If you work to get our songs played on the radio, we’ll have a convention where you can hang out with the band,” or words to that effect.
The fans did their job, Sister Hazel kept its promise, and the convention ended up on board a cruise ship. The cruise did “incredibly well,” says Ben Ferguson, Sixthman’s sales, PR and marketing manager. They had another cruise the next year, and the next, and added bands and … Sixthman was born and has become, as The New York Times called it, the industry leader for theme cruises.
The company has coordinated and worked 52 whole-ship charters since 2001, and that’s all they do. There are about 35 hard-working employees (“We work 18 hours a day on a cruise,” says Ferguson), and they’ve played host to about 120,000 onboard guests. Most are music cruises, but Sixthman also hosts the extremely popular TCM Classic Cruises (the third one leaves Dec. 8 from Miami on the Disney Magic and, yes, it’s sold out).
“We’ve worked with well over 800 to 900 bands, and built up great communities around these bands,” says Ferguson. “Sixthman was acquired by the Norwegian Cruise Line in 2012, which gives us more opportunities to do more things.” In fact, the line has dedicated its Norwegian Pearl ship to theme cruises; the ship’s been heavily modified to provide staging for the bands.
And the cruises run the gamut from hard rock to bluegrass and everything in between. “The biggest, loudest party is on the Kid Rock cruise,” says Ferguson. “About 75 percent of the cruisers are from Detroit, and they love to drink whiskey and hang out with Kid Rock.”
Sixthman works hard to figure out what fans want, and they tailor the cruise experience accordingly. “Kiss Kruise fans don’t party as hearty as Kid Rock, but their fans are fanatical … they save napkins, signs and all of that. About 30 to 40 percent of the cruisers are international, and they want two things: They want their photo taken with the band, and they want the band’s autograph.
“As soon as (Kiss fans) check into their staterooms, they get an autographed picture, and then later, every person gets a personal photo taken with the band. So for the band, that’s sitting there for five or six hours, but it means people aren’t running around with the cameras on the deck all the time, so the band feels a lot more relaxed.
“On our bluegrass cruise — when you watch the people getting on the ship — every person is walking through the terminal with mandolins or guitars; every person plays. We set up rooms where they can jam. They listen to the musicians, but they like to get together and play with each other, too.”
Which performer would Ben Ferguson most like to get on a theme cruise? “For me, I think it would be Jimmy Buffett — his fans are sea-oriented, his music is tropical in nature. He keeps a very tight tour schedule with land-based shows, so I don’t know if that would happen.”
Anything that didn’t work in the cruise environment? “We did a wellness cruise with (trainer) Jillian Michaels a couple of years ago, but I’m not sure all the elements on the ship came together very well.”
Something about lots of food being available all the time that might tend to throw the most well-intentioned dieter off their feed, er, feet.• For a schedule of Sixthman’s theme cruises: www.sixthman.net