(Mirror) Before Tom Baker packs his bags and flies south to host a seven-day Luxury Boutique Machu Picchu Tour, which will be followed by a three-day Amazon cruise, he is eager to talk about his lifelong calling: travel.
His enthusiasm for adventure was instilled at an early age. After Baker’s parents divorced when he was 5 years old, he moved in with his grandparents, who took him along when they traveled the globe. At 6, Baker found himself flying to French Polynesia.
Back at home, in Los Angeles, the adventure continued. The 12-year-old budding entrepreneur would jump on his bike, visit and interview travel agents, then cycle home to get a check from his grandmother so he could book the next trip.
Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, however, and entering the pool-manufacturing business, Baker made a U-turn and joined Holland America, where he remained for two years.
Baker’s life reflects how one man turned his passion into his profession.
President of Aquafest Cruises, Baker has nurtured this ever-growing company into an international business offering tempting choices — cruises and land excursions — as diverse as the audience it serves.
“We assembled a focus group of two dozen LGBT participants, threw out 50 names and listened,” said Baker, a 35-year cruise industry veteran. One of the choices — Aquafest — topped the other selections for this LGBT travel resource that has carved out a winning niche in the mid-size market.
Based in Houston, Texas, Aquafest, a division of CruiseCenter, reaches out at home and abroad with a visually inspiring website — www.AquafestCruises.com — offering value, discounts, thoughtfully planned itineraries— and more.
Aquafest tours, which accommodate 50 to 500 guests, welcome a diverse audience. “Our whole philosophy is more integration,” Baker said, adding, “isolation is not good for the LGBT community. Our tours build bridges for those who don’t understand the community, one of the reasons straight people come along.”
“After 18 years, 60 percent of our customers are repeaters, people who come together beyond the gifts, kisses and hugs. It’s a unique relationship,” said Baker.
When newbies to his cruises ask, “How do I get involved?” he replies,“Integrate.”
Aquafest rocketed to popularity with its first effort, a Halloween cruise. When the 18th edition departs out of Miami on October 27, this perennial seven-day favorite to the Western Caribbean with celebrity entertainment will feature theme parties — six of them — limited to Baker’s 500 guests and $1,000 in cash prizes for the Halloween contest.
An added convenience: “We have our customers ship their costumes in boxes to us prior to the cruise,” said Baker, who, with his long-term partner, Mar Garcia, also frolics in the fun of making — and wearing — costumes that capture the fantasy and fun of each exciting affair. “Mar is into marketing and a graphic artist,” said Baker of this treasured member of the Aquafest family.
Visit AquafestCruises.com and the words “Sold Out” written on many of the cruise and land-excursion offerings illustrate the popularity of the destinations, ranging from a seven-night Mediterranean Cruise on the 5,179-passenger MSC Seaview to a seven-night Castles on the Rhine River Cruise on the sleek Amadeus Silver III.
Like many in the LGBT community, the company’s devoted fans are coming into disposable income — 401k policies, inheritances — as they age gracefully.
“It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen,” said Baker, who added that price tags of $4,000 and up for international offerings, most of them handled by Abercrombie and Kent, are no deterrent for those seeking the thrill of a lifetime.
The payoff translates into exploring a greater diversity of exotic destinations. The numbers for two sold-out 2019 tours tell the story: 41 will depart for the 12-night Vietnam, The Mekong River and Cambodia tour in September, while 45 and counting have signed up for the 11-night 3rd Annual Kenya African Safari, which begins in late November.
And what of a star attraction in Aquafest’s crown, a 12-night Exclusive Luxury Egypt and The Nile expedition planned for Oct. 2-13, 2020? Fifty have carved the time out of their schedules. “The trips are selling like crazy,” said Baker.
In a world where the rules for smart travel are constantly being redefined, Baker commented on safety. When venturing out, he strongly recommends his guests go as a group, especially in Egypt, Kenya and Tanzania, where being gay is taboo or illegal. In addition to preparing his ground operators, Baker takes extra precautions in Egypt, where he hires security guards for increased comfort for his valued clientele.
Closer to home, Aquafest also offers sojourns to North American destinations. Coming this autumn is a 10-night Canada Fall Foliage Cruise aboard the MSC Meraviglia. Scheduled to depart New York City on Oct. 8, it will offer stops in Sydney, Corner Brook, Charlottetown and Quebecplus four days at sea.
In October, Baker will once again escape his office and this time head north to host this cruise to Canada, which will welcome the Aquafest family to yet another gathering orchestrated to bring new frontiers into focus.
4801 Woodway, Suite 400W
Houston, TX 77056