Local Entrepreneurs Create Book Clubs at Sea

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – “Cruise ships take everything you can do in a mall and put it on something that floats. You can shop, bowl, go to the spa, and see a movie,” laments Cindy Dyson, a novelist and supplier of literature to cruise ships. As Dyson sees it, on board entertainment has ousted cruise destinations to secondary status. To combat Vegas-at-sea syndrome, she and travel agent Cindy Weaver have put the destination back into cruising.

Six months ago, the pair of Whitefish entrepreneurs collaborated to create Novel Passages – tours with unique literary travel to popular destinations. “Our cruises combine luxury and literature,” explains Weaver.

While book clubs at sea are nothing new, matching up the literature with the destination forges new ground. “It’s never been done before,” says Dyson. “No one got the concept of the power of reading about a place while experiencing it.” Cruises organized book clubs to discuss best sellers as one of the many activities for passengers. But Dyson and Weaver see book clubs as a tool for readers at sea to expand their relationship to the destination, rather than just being a ship-board pastime.

Dyson and Weaver launched their own companies 18 months ago. Weaver started up Talent Travel, designing affinity cruises for niche markets. She creates group tours with popular cruise lines – Carnival, Princess, Celebrity, and Holland America. “They’re geared even for non-profit fundraisers where the cruise line matches the donation paid by the passenger in the fare,” says Weaver, who set up one fundraising trip for the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce to the Caribbean in January 2009.

Cindy Dyson’s book, “And She Was,” will be used as destination literature on Novel Passages’ Alaska cruise in 2008.

Dyson created Stowaway Books, a service providing contemporary destination literature to travelers. The company sells three novels and a journal bound in a leather harness to cruise lines such as Cruise West. The books match the cruise’s destination. “We try to choose somewhat undiscovered writers who capture a culture’s history and landscape,” says Dyson. She and a network of readers pour through 40 to 50 books for each destination to whittle the selections down to three. Currently, Stowaway Books markets collections for Alaska, Mexico, Japan, and India.

Jointly, the pair put together Novel Passages, fusing their companies’ products – books with cruise destinations. Their upcoming cruise to Alaska this summer blends together the Alaskan collection of Stowaway Books, a book club format for discussing the books, and touring sites from the books. In addition to group travel trademarks such as welcome parties and farewell dinners, participants join book clubs: Coffee Club for morning caffeine, Sweet Reads for dessert tea, Books on the Rocks for drinks, and Moonlighters late night at the bar.

One of the featured novel’s authors joins the trip, too – doing readings, joining book club discussions, and leading journaling sessions. “Many people who are readers want to try their hand at writing, but can’t beyond the ‘I got up at 9 a.m.’ approach,” says Dyson.

But Novel Passages include more than the average meet the author gig. “This is more experiential, more than the author reading and lecturing,” says Dyson, who is the featured novelist for the Alaska cruise. Her book “And She Was” (William Morrow, 2006) takes place mostly in the Aleutian Islands, melding history and Aleut culture into the struggle of a bar waitress to remake herself. For one of the shore excursions, the group charters a boat with Dyson to explore the remnants of an Aleut internment camp, cannery, and graveyard – all settings for her novel.

Marching into the cruise industry took creativity more than chutzpah. “The publishing and cruise industries are not that innovative,” laughs Dyson. “But both allow room for third parties to come in to market with creative approaches.”

Dyson and Weaver intentionally plucked Regent Seven Seas Cruises from the popular cruise lines for Novel Passages. They even made a grid to compare each line’s virtues. Although one of the more expensive cruise lines, Regent won because of its atmosphere. Its smaller ships create intimacy and pamper with a low staff to guest ratio. All rooms are suites with balconies and fares all inclusive with return air. “Regent isn’t razzle dazzle Las Vegas on the ocean, but rather more sophisticated to appeal to a more thinking crowd,” explains Dyson.

Marketing is, of course, the biggest challenge for Novel Passages. Since the tours target solo travelers who like to read as well as book clubs that may want to travel together, what better market than book stores? “The problem is that book clubs are so loose,” says Weaver. Dyson adds, “They’re a word of mouth network.” Many book clubs function even outside the radar of local bookstore owners who usually have a pulse on frequent book buyers.

On the Web, Dyson and Weaver merged the looks of a friendly library and exotic travel on www.novelpassages.com. It lacks only the library’s musty smell and salty ocean air. This month, glossy rack cards will carry Novel Passages to regional book stores.

“People are looking for something more than traveling for the sake of travel,” says Weaver. For bookworms and literati alike, Novel Passages with its book club at sea puts the destination back in cruising.

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