While cruising the Panama Canal in 1982, Dick Revnes noticed groups of older solo women sitting around the ship's dance lounge wistfully watching couples glide by.
Encouraged by his wife, Revnes asked one of the women to dance. As she waltzed in his arms, she started to cry. When Revnes quipped that he knew he was a bad dancer but hadn't thought he was bad enough to drive a partner to tears, the woman, about 70, told him he was the first man to ask her to dance since her husband died 10 years before. He had made her cruise, she said, and she would never forget him.
Nor did Revnes, the late president of Royal Cruise Lines, forget her. That night he decided to create a program that provided a core of dance partners for unattached women passengers who want to participate in couples' dancing.
Revnes's "cruise hosts" would be single, retired and over 45--in effect, peers of the usually widowed or divorced mature women. In addition to Fred Astaire duties, the hosts would function as dinner companions to groups of women, assist them on shore excursions, and be available for couples shots when the ship's photographer took aim. The host would be a kind of nautical knight in shining dress shoes.
Now, 12 years after Revnes launched his host program, every cruise aboard Royal's three ships includes six to 12 hosts, who range in age from 50 to 80. At least seven other cruise lines have some form of host program: Royal Viking Line, Cunard, Regency Cruises, Delta Queen Steamboat Co., Crystal Cruises, Holland America Line and American Hawaii Cruises. The program is so popular with unattached women age 50-plus--who make up 10% to 25% of many cruises, far outnumbering single older men aboard--that more lines are contemplating adding hosts system-wide or to selected sailings.
"I wouldn't think of booking a cruise on a ship that didn't have hosts," said Grace Pearl Adams, a 68-year-old widow who has been cruising for 10 years and tried her first hosted sailing two years ago aboard Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2.
"I love to dance, and the host program allows me to have a ready dance partner but otherwise be independent throughout my trip," said Adams, who usually takes at least one long cruise a year. "Before hosts came along, I had to just sit in the audience and watch everyone else dance. I felt so isolated, so frustrated. Now I can be a full participant in the dancing part of the cruise as well as all the other parts, and that's certainly added to the joy of cruising."
While hosted cruises are intended to serve active women who, but for a partner, could have danced all night, the program also is a boon for gregarious men who relish dancing and traveling. Recruited directly by the cruise line or booked through an outside agency (which generally charges the men a fee for each assignment), hosts are not paid for their services. Instead, they receive a free cruise, including accommodations (usually shared with another host), a bar and laundry allowance, and in most cases, round-trip air tickets to embarkation and disembarkation ports. They are expected to show up for duty with a tuxedo, white dinner jacket, natty sportswear and loads of energy--since they could be dancing three to seven hours a day, with little time to sit out a dance if demand is strong from the women on board.
"Hosting proved the perfect thing for me to do after retiring," said Ed Fanelli, a 70-year-old former telecommunications executive from Manhattan, N.Y. Just before he was about to retire in 1986, he read about Royal Cruise Lines' host program in an article in Modern Maturity magazine.
"I thought I could dance well enough, but I'm a bachelor, and I was nervous about all the social pressure to entertain all those women," he recalled. (On his debut assignment there were 180 solo women and six hosts.)
"The ladies turned out to be so appreciative. I got very comfortable very fast," said Fanelli, who has been a host on 60 Royal cruises. "I remember one woman, two weeks shy of her 80th birthday, who just couldn't believe all these guys were asking her to dance. At the end of the cruise she signed up then and there for another sailing, saying she had planned to give all her money to her children, but was having so much fun she'd decided to spend it on herself."
Tony Laudari, 70, a retired banker from Santa Rosa, Calif., who has hosted aboard 100 Royal cruises, said he looks out for women with special needs. "On one cruise to Europe we had two elderly ladies in wheelchairs who wanted to explore Rome but couldn't do the regular shore excursion there because they couldn't keep up," he said. "They asked me to help them, and we rented a limousine and toured on our own, with the limousine driver and me wheeling them around the Vatican. It was so heart-wrenching to see how much pleasure they got and how grateful they were. We became great pals."