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Specialized Cruise : Sleuths to Ply Sea of Intrigue

April 09, 1985|BOB POOL | Times Staff Writer

Crime doesn't pay? Ruth Griffiths hopes it does.

Griffiths is a Woodland Hills travel agent who has reserved 100 cabins on an ocean liner this month to stage a seven-day sea-sleuthing adventure for fans of mystery novels.

Passengers on the April 28 cruise from Los Angeles to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, will help solve a baffling case of international espionage. The plot will be custom-written by an on-board novelist, and the vacationers themselves will be the suspects.

But Griffiths has already launched a manhunt.

She's trying to track down whodunit buffs who are willing to pay $945 to $1,245 each for the pleasure of having their staterooms "searched" for clues. Those booking passage must also be willing to have their holiday interrupted by grillings from a "police investigator" and a "government agent" who will be part of the caper.

41 'Volunteers'

By the end of last week, 41 persons had signed up. Griffiths said she needs at least 60 more to break even and pay for more than a year of planning and promoting the venture.

Griffiths' crime cruise underscores efforts being made by travel industry officials to keep a growing fleet of pleasure ships filled at a time when sea cruises are still unfamiliar to most Americans.

The 27 companies with luxury liners plying the high seas rushed in the early 1980s to build new ships and refurbish old ones. The cruise business became the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry.

Last year, about 2 million Americans booked passage. However, cruise line officials often resorted to fare-discount schemes, free air transportation and unusual shipboard entertainment promotions to lure them aboard.

Tropicale to Be Setting

"We've filled our ships to 100% capacity for 10 years," said Karen Armstrong Musiel, vice president for marketing for the Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines. Her company operates the 3-year-old Tropicale, a 1,400-passenger, 660-foot vessel that will be the setting for Griffiths' mystery cruise. Carnival will launch its fifth cruise ship in July and add two more to its fleet in 1986.

"We have 273 sailings this year, and they will go out full," Musiel said. "But you couldn't say it's no problem to do it. We've learned how to fill our ships. We have a $10-million TV ad campaign and a 140-city newspaper campaign and 39 sales people."

Griffiths' cruise campaign has been much more modest. But the 54-year-old mother of three has approached the task with gusto--even though the project has taken more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel.

She and husband Richard, 58, who works at UCLA, cooked up the mystery cruise idea last year over a Sunday champagne brunch with a friend. The friend put them in contact with the editor of a mystery magazine, who agreed to promote it.

Difficulties Encountered

The cruise was at first planned for last November. But the mystery magazine went out of business, and early promotional material went out with an incorrect toll-free 800-line telephone booking number. Griffiths decided to postpone the effort until this month.

Since then, she has mailed out 300 news releases and announcements about the cruise to U.S. newspapers. Those efforts, coupled with advertisements in mystery magazines, have attracted the sign-ups.

Last October, she and her husband flew to Chicago to attend a convention of mystery writers and drum up interest in the venture. More than 400 authors showed up for the three-day meeting. But the Griffiths' cruise promotional material almost didn't.

"I'd spent a fortune express-shipping my brochures and materials back there, only to find when we got there that the hotel had left them in the baggage room and didn't distribute them with the other convention materials when the writers registered," she said.

Writers Had Voracious Appetites

The pair handed out as many of the flyers and fact sheets in person as they could. But not one booking resulted from their efforts.

Griffith hoped for better results when she invited Southern California-area mystery writers to a Los Angeles Press Club wine-and-cheese party.

"One-hundred-and-ten of them showed up," she said. "I'd thought they would be my prime candidates. But uh-uh. It was a fizzle. They all had voracious appetites--they had the nerve to cart off the cheese that they didn't eat on the spot, all 85 pounds of it.

"But no one signed up for the cruise. Not even the writer who won the $100 certificate we gave away as a prize. I think mystery writers are all poverty-stricken."

Novelist to Write Script

Along the way, however, the Griffiths were introduced to Encino novelist John Ball, a successful author whose work includes the acclaimed "In the Heat of the Night." He agreed to write the script for the shipboard crime in exchange for a free cabin during the voyage.

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