During a stop in Mexico, Levine tried to turn it into a business. The band invited Edwin McCain, Pat McGee, and Cowboy Mouth to join the fun for 2002, asking each to bring along 400 fans. In other words, rent a ship. Even with 9/11, the bands got 1,000 fans to plunk down $99 each for a deposit to rent a ship.
The inaugural “Rock Boat” got off to a shaky start but the bands had 2,000 guests during Labor Day weekend in 2002, sailing out of Tampa. “We even ran out of beer and had to borrow some from another Carnival ship when we were in the Bahamas,” Sixthman said in a statement. “Pat McGee led an all-night jam playing covers, and Edwin McCain delivered a Braveheart speech while standing on the bar, inspiring the bartender to stay open.”
Jump ahead to the modern day, past an acquisition by Norwegian Cruise Line, and Sixthman manages numerous cruises like Parahoy with Paramore, The Impractical Jokers Cruise and the new Outlaw Country Cruise. Anthony Diaz, who recently took over the helm for Levine, who is now chairman, fills in the rest.
Can you please tell us how you got into this business?
Sixthman’s founder, Andy Levine, and I were in a band together at the University of Florida. He played guitar and booked us, I played drums and got people to shows. We had a blast.
He went on to manage Sister Hazel and together in 2001 they created “The World’s Greatest Floating Music Festival,” The Rock Boat, which will set sail on its 17th voyage next February. I embarked on an almost 20 year career in radio, television and digital marketing and sales, 14 of which were with the Gannett Company.
Andy and I always talked about “getting the band back together” by working together again (but not with instruments this time around; we always seemed better offstage than on). Five years ago, I joined the wild world of creating festivals at sea as Sixthman’s chief marketing officer and haven’t looked back at the shoreline since.
What are the basics of Sixthman? What should people know about your company and what misperceptions do they have?
Sixthman creates festivals at sea serving some of the biggest artists and brands in the entertainment industry, including KISS, Kid Rock, John Mayer, Zac Brown Band, Train, Pitbull, Paramore, Florida Georgia Line, Diplo, Joe Bonamassa, Lynyrd Skynyrd, 311, Lyle Lovett, Chris Stapleton, Barenaked Ladies, Sister Hazel, Turner Classic Movies, VH1, SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country, Walker Stalker Con, truTV and more.
We bring together communities of like-minded people on vacation with their favorite artists. Those are the basics. What we’ve learned though over the past 15 years and 94 festivals is that we’re not here to just produce festivals. We are creating moments for guests, strengthening bonds between fans and bands and setting the stage for memories that last a lifetime.
The misperception might be that it’s only just a big party out there (and at times it definitely is, which is great). The reality is that in addition to all the sun, fun and tasty boat drinks, guests are experiencing collaborations like they’ve never seen on land – rocking in the open air during sail-a-way shows on the ship’s pool deck, soaking in full stage shows on private islands and enjoying intimate sessions in venues overlooking the ocean from the back of a cruise ship sailing the Caribbean, all while forming new friendships that become reunions at sea year after year.
Speaking of “wrong,” what do competitors or newcomers get wrong?
We’ve been really impressed by the way our industry has grown since pioneering it 15 years ago. The growth has opened up more fans and bands to the concept of setting sail on vacation together, which is great for all of us. Others are creating some great events and push and inspire us to constantly press ourselves harder and harder each season to deliver the best possible guest experience.
Of course I love agents but my life would sure be easier if they would …
Agents, managers and artists are a critical part of the community that make the music festival at sea concept so special. We’ve found that we have the most success when the agent, manager and artist are fully engaged and we always appreciate when the agents we work with are comfortable, including management in the conversations from the beginning. Because we are creating an environment that attracts the band’s core fan base, collaboration with the whole team is crucial and helps set the stage for the festival to deliver upon what the artist wants their fans to experience.
What are your top marketing tools?
We are very fortunate that word of mouth sparked by our artist partners and alumni guests is our lead marketing channel. Most guests find out about our festivals directly from artists on the lineup or from guests that have sailed with us in the past and encourage their friends to join them on vacation. This focus on creating an unparalleled guest experience has earned us a 55 percent retention rate and, while we’re very proud of this number, we work hard to grow it each season.
Please tell us some amusing anecdotes from the cruises
There is no doubt that every sailing brings a shipfull of “you would not believe that just happened” moments in front of and behind the scenes. This blog post captures a few notable guest moments from our first 15 years that we’re able to put in print.
What recent improvements have been made for the customers?
Our overall approach is to go above and beyond to Make the Guest the Star, to tear down the walls between fans and bands. From the manner in which the festival is announced, to the activities on board, to the surveys sent the week after guests get home and throughout the year, our goal is to ensure the experience is interactive at every touchpoint.
In addition to new ships and ports of call, elements in place to further enhance interactivity include new onboard venues and stages for even more up-close fan/band experiences, custom shore excursion concerts at beach-front resorts in port, one-of-a-kind “mantle-worthy” guest gifts, fan built set-lists and Q&A’s and activities that bring the chance for guests to not just meet and get a photo with, but perform on stage with their favorite artists. That’s a pretty special moment to see.
What are the compliments from the artists? What feedback/criticisms did they have that were acted upon?
It has been exciting to see our artist return rate as high as that of our guests. While we consistently hear how well looked-after the artists feel and how nice the onboard accommodations and production setups are, the feedback that resonates most is hearing artists share how much they enjoy getting one-on-one time with their biggest fans, getting to collaborate with other artists they admire and how they love to see the large groups of fans from the ship showing up at shows across the U.S. and beyond.
In the same manner we stay very close to our guests to put their feedback in action, we do the same within the artist, agent and manager community to ensure all phases of their experience with us exceed expectations.
One criticism that pops up the last night onboard is how bummed the artists are as the festival is coming to a close. Life back on land often underwhelms life at sea. Oh, and sunburns too, I guess.
What will the next 12 months and/or five years bring for the company?
Short term we’re excited to continue along our path of creating more interactivity between fans and bands on and off our ships and finding new ways to further surprise and engage guests who have sailed with us year-after-year, all while introducing new fan communities to the festival at sea concept. We will continue to reach out into untapped genres of music and into other areas of entertainment.
In the season ahead we’ll take guests to new ports on a new ship, produce our 100th festival and achieve a goal of taking one million guests on vacation. All these milestones are exciting but our focus will remain on the moments we aim to create for our guests and artists, giving back in the ports we visit and serving our 45-person team to help them achieve their personal and professional goals.
A little further down the line we see opportunity to enter new geographical markets and expand the pool of guests we can take on vacation to LIVE LOUD with their heroes.
What is the one thing that the industry needs to improve upon immediately?
The shift that has occurred toward an even deeper and more intimate fan connection, and appreciation is the right long-term path toward sustainable growth. Continued focus on that will only further strengthen the entire industry. A rising tide lifts all boats as they say.