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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS

Sober Vacations Takes Focus Off Alcohol for Customers in Recovery

Travel: Westlake Village-based business reaches out to niche market by adding 12-step meetings and speakers to typical Club Med activities.

August 01, 2000|SARAH TORRBIO-BOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTLAKE VILLAGE — At a recent convention for recovering alcoholics, speaker after speaker gave pep talks on staying sober.

But when Steve Abrams and Guy Grant addressed the crowd at the Minneapolis gathering, they gave a much different pitch: for a Club Med retreat on Columbus Isle in El Salvador.

For the last 13 years, the half-brothers have run Sober Vacations International, a specialty travel business catering to people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

Grant and Abrams conceived of the idea while vacationing with their mother at Club Med in Ixtapa, Mexico. Abrams, a recovering alcoholic, and Grant, a recovering drug addict, said they found it a challenge to stay sober when so many activities at resort destinations involve alcohol consumption.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 9, 2000 Ventura County Edition Metro Part B Page 5 Zones Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Sober vacations--In an Aug. 1 story on Sober Vacations, a Westlake Village travel company, the name of co-owner Guy Grand was misspelled. Also, the company's next vacation destination was incorrect. The trip is planned to San Salvador Island in the Bahamas.

"A lot of people in different 12-step programs don't take vacations, because you go on a Club Med trip, or whatever, and there's a lot of alcohol being pushed on you," Grant said. "We've talked to people who haven't taken vacations in five, 10 years, because they're afraid."

Sober Vacations' financial mainstay is the twice-yearly "Sober Village," where the company rents a Club Med village for a week. There, several hundred guests can attend 12-step meetings and listen to inspirational speakers, as well as participate in the usual Club Med fare of scuba diving, kayaking, trapeze lessons and abundant buffets.

T-shirts and other gifts replace bottles of champagne as prizes for horse racing and skeet shooting competitions.

When they launched their business, the partners found it natural to market their product to their peers: people involved in 12-step alcohol and drug recovery programs popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous.

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At first, they traveled to 12-step conventions every weekend, putting fliers on the cars in the parking lot. Now that they have built up a large clientele, they rely mainly on word-of-mouth, Abrams said.

"People in recovery tend to have a large network of friends who are also in recovery," Abrams said.

Since launching Sober Vacations in 1987, the pair have organized 71 vacations, including cruises, ski trips, rafting adventures , European tours--even a trip down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in a steam-powered paddle boat. They make a commission off each traveler, but declined to give an amount.

The business, which made $5,000 for the partners the first year, generated $2.4 million in revenue last year, Grant said. They sold their travel agency six years ago and now run the business full time out of their Westlake Village office.

Scott "Teach" Mayer, general manager of the Ixtapa Club Med village, said the resort's philosophy is to establish a community atmosphere among the vacationers. That's easy to do with the Sober Vacations groups, he said, because they already have something in common.

"I think Steve and Guy have done something fabulous and wonderful for the people of different 12-step programs," said Mayer, who met the brothers in 1996, when they hosted a Sober Village at a Club Med site in the Bahamas. "Without Steve and Guy doing this, there would not be the same kind of options for people to go on vacation in a sober environment."

It's not as though the liquor is locked up during the tours, Abrams is quick to explain. Occasionally, the spouse of someone in recovery will order a glass of wine, but most guests stick to soda, coffee drinks and fruit smoothies.

"It's pretty much a nonissue," Abrams said. "People in recovery are not prohibitionists. Alcohol is just not usually served, because people don't drink. We'd all be drunk if availability determined sobriety."

Grant said Sober Vacations charges about $899 for a one-week vacation from Los Angeles to Mexico, including air fare, room and board and activities. Prices are higher for other destinations, such as the Caribbean and Europe.

The company says about 1,600 people took a trip with Sober Vacations last year and about half of them were repeat customers.

Targeting a specific market is a good way to ensure that a business will succeed, said Bruce Baltin, senior vice president of PKF Consulting in Los Angeles. Catering vacations for the recovering community is a good idea, he said.

"The concept of affinity groups taking a vacation together is a common one," he said. "There are all kinds of special-interest groups out there--wine tours, which are the opposite of this, nature tours, adventure vacations--but something like this could also help people."

Alcoholics Anonymous estimates its membership at more than 2 million. Considering the size of the potential client-base, Abrams said, Sober Vacations still has plenty of room to grow.

"Ninety percent of recovering people still don't know that we exist and that they can take a fun and safe vacation," Abrams said.

Grant and Abrams work out of a casual three-room office space, where pictures of their families and vacationing clients adorn the walls. Abrams, 48, and Grant, 52, look tan and fit. Grant's wife, Judy, comes in to do bookkeeping for the business.

Abrams said he became an alcoholic as a teenager, but got sober in 1980. Grant, formerly an aspiring actor, said he battled heroin addiction for 18 years, before getting clean in 1986.

In the beginning, the brothers' work schedule was a little like a hurricane, Abrams said. The business wasn't computerized at the time, so they did everything by hand. Plus, they were running Abrams Travel, which opened in 1983.

While business has grown, the work force has not.

"It is still just the two of us," Abrams said. "Whatever we pay for employees is money that doesn't go to us. And we're not overworked. It's like the perfect job."

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