Kelli Carpenter has found her niche. With four kids, a new relationship and an ever-expanding itinerary full of R Family Vacations, Carpenter is right where she is meant to be.
I spoke exclusively with the ex-Nickelodeon exec. about her children with Rosie O’Donnell, their new life, and her land and sea adventures with the company she has poured her heart and soul into for all the world to enjoy.
How did the idea to create R Family Vacations surface We’ve been in operations for almost eight years now. My business partner Gregg Kaminsky used to work for Atlantis Events – which does all of the gay male cruises – but he was getting tired of the whole partying thing and it was getting to be too much. At the time, I was with RO [Rosie O’Donnell] and we had our children and went to Provincetown, MA for Family Week. We really saw the magic of what it meant to have all of these families together in one place. It meant so much to the kids and to the parents to have that sense of community. A little while after that Gregg, who was still working with Atlantis, needed a comedian to perform on the Atlantis ship and RO offered her services and felt what it was like to go on an all-gay cruise ship. With those two ideas in mind, all three of us came together and thought, “What if we created a company that offered these kinds of vacations for gay families?” That was initially how the idea came to fruition.
Family units come in many different packages. Tell us about some of the families you’ve witnessed via R Family Vacations. What’s interesting is that the seed of an idea for gay families has really grown significantly into – how do you define your family? We’ve found that maybe there’s, let’s say, a lesbian couple that book and they bring their parents and then they bring their brothers and sisters and their spouses and their kids, so, we’ll book a family of eight and we may only have two gay people in that family of eight. We’ve also found that we’re the only company where men and women can travel together. So, we have a lot of bookings of people without children.
That’s right. You’ve just introduced a new brand called R Time. Our first R Time trip was tremendously successful. So successful, in fact, that we actually added a second trip in the fall. The new brand was basically built for people that wanted to travel without the kids and go on a grown-up vacation and for people who don’t have kids but wanted to travel with a gay group. That way we can sort of expand our inventory of trips to be a little more exotic. We’re looking at a riverboat cruise in Europe next year for the R Time group – and just things that are a little less kid-friendly. It’s been interesting where we started and where we’ve ended up. We get a lot of gay men that don’t want to go on gay party-intensive cruises, but still want to go on a gay cruise to Club Med, for example. They want to go on a gay trip where they can have wonderful entertainment, a nice meal and can go out dancing without the intensity level of the partying. So, as far as the growth of the brand, that is where we are now.
We had really successful luck with Club Med last year when we went to Ixtapa, Mexico so we’re doing our next Club Med trip this July in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. The International Gay Family Symposium group will be joining us there. We have people coming from all over the world to participate in it. We’re really excited to host this ground-breaking event.
R Family Vacations will also be introducing group cruises as well. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that means? We’re doing a lot of group cruises, which means that we’ll have large groups aboard a ship that already has “regular” passengers on them. Part of the reason we’ve moved in this area is that we’ve had a lot of input from our passengers [for different itinerary options]. You know, when you do a full ship charter in the summer, you’re limited as far as where you can go. It’s either Alaska or the Caribbean. You know, you can’t go to Europe or Hawaii, etc. We don’t really have the amount of guests to fill those kinds of ships going to Europe or Hawaii because it’s so expensive to fly there.
So, we started doing these groups and going to Europe and Hawaii and we’re going to Greece in August. I have to say, I was a little hesitant not knowing how people would look at us and everything. But because of the diversity of our group, we don’t really look any different than anybody else. We had grandparents, men, women, people with kids, and people without kids. Not one person even paid attention to us. At times, people would actually come up to us and ask what kind of group we were because we seemed to be having such a great time! It was more envy from the other groups than anything!
We did a group on the Norwegian Epic – the largest ship at sea right now – and we did our first R Time trip going to Mexico on that ship and it just attracted a whole different group of people and the vibe was different. It was really fun. Because it was so successful, we decided to do another trip in the fall – end of September – to do a changing of the leaves from New York up to Canada. It’s booking really well, which means to me that there is a real need out there. I think that some people book Olivia and Atlantis, and they do a fantastic job, but it’s not reflective of what my life is like. A lot of my best friends are gay men, I have two sons and I have a father…I want to mix in the integral parts of my life. I think a lot of people out there feel the same way and it’s definitely a wonderful niche to be filling.
There was a documentary released about R Family Vacations some time ago titled All Aboard: Rosie’s Family Cruise. How did the release of the film affect your company? I think that it’s a misconception of our company that you need to have kids to travel with us. We had this beautiful documentary come out on HBO one of the very first years after we launched the company and it was about gay families. As wonderful as that was for us and for gay families in general, it sort of also pigeonholed us into people thinking they needed to have kids to travel with us. There’s programming for kids, there’s programming for families and there’s programs for people who don’t have children. There’s a whole late-night world that happens that does not involve children as well. You can be as involved with the kids as you want – we also have pool areas that are adults-only as well. We always try to manage the people that don’t have kids so that they feel like they can have a vacation without a bunch of screaming kids running around.
Is Rosie still involved with the company? RO is no longer involved in the company, which was an interesting transition. The company started of very celebrity-based and now it’s more community-based. I think that’s sort of where it needed to land because it can’t exist on one person alone. You know, it does have a great sense of love and community. I always say that I feel like our trips represent what I wish the real world looked like. We have a pretty significant amount of straight guests. About 15-20-percent of our guests are straight friends and family or people that just enjoy traveling with us. We have a lot of straight couples that have adopted children that may be of another race and they just want to go on a vacation where they feel like their whole family can be accepted.
Do your kids join you on every cruise? Also, do you go on all of them yourself? I do go on all of them and they are going with me on the Club Med trip this year. My last trip was the all-adults one and the next one is Club Med in the summer when they can all go with me. So, yes, they will always be with me in Club Med. The August one is Greece and that’s just a little bit far and doesn’t make as much sense, so they will be with RO while I do that one. They love the trips and look forward to going on them every year. I always think that if my kids need that sense of community, then there are a lot of other kids out there not in New York or Seattle that don’t know another gay family and need that sense of community. It really is a wonderful experience for those kids.
Do you find that the kids stay connected with one another throughout the years? Yes, and we’ve seen these kids grow up now. They’ve been traveling with us for seven or eight years. It’s been interesting to watch them graduate! They all stay in touch. It’s a lot of fun.
Outside of the planning of the cruises, what is your normal day like? Well, four kids requires a little bit of extra time! I love to travel on my own, too, and I am a little bit of a travel buff on my own, too. I do love that. The other good news is that I recently just met somebody so I’m in a new relationship, which is fantastic. It takes a little bit of time to heal, but you do and you move forward. I am able to share my life with someone again and that’s been wonderful. I would say that most of my day is spent with working in the morning and then the kids in the afternoon and their activities. I feel like a professional chauffer, really [laughs]! I can’t wait for the older ones to get their licenses. I’ll have a whole new worry then!
Then you’ll make them wear helmets while they’re driving! [Laughs] Exactly! I feel very fortunate while I’m working. As hard as I work on it, I get that plus much more back in return. I know that what we have created is really a magical experience for everybody. There is nothing like it out there.