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The Working Vacation & The Gentlemen Host Program


'Cruising' hosts are all aboveboard


By David Butwin

Help wanted: single gentlemen ages 50-75 with polished social skills, high moral standards, volunteer spirit. Experienced dancers only; must be proficient in all ballroom steps--fox trot, lindy, waltz, cha-cha, rhumba, swing. Motion sickness a detriment.

That's the profile of the men who sign on with cruise ships large and small to provide companionship for solo women passengers traveling the seven seas and world's rivers. All you need are the ethics of a Boy Scout, the charm of Charles Boyer and the footwork of Fred Astaire.

"It's a tough niche," said Jane Blake, director of operations for Gentlemen Hosts, an outfit based in Lockport that books the seasoned swingers on many a cruise ship. "The screening process is like looking for a needle in a haystack--and it has to be a golden needle."

"All you need are the ethics of a Boy Scout, the charm of Charles Boyer and the footwork of Fred Astaire."

As cruising veterans know, these men can be as vital to a cruise's success as the captain, the social director or the pastry chef.


Passing muster

Take David Winter, 68, of Chicago, who got in the swim 10 years ago after retiring as a management instructor for the Postal Service in Oak Brook. Winter, a bachelor who is just under 6 feet tall, with blue eyes and blond hair just now beginning to gray, was an early recruit by Gentlemen Hosts, an outgrowth of a company called The Working Vacation Inc., which staffs ships with lecturers, dance instructors and youth directors. He went to sea (logging 100 to 150 days a year) to feed a passion for travel; one of his strong suits was his ballroom know-how.

He had to pass a dance exam monitored by a professional instructor, which he aced on the strength of an Arthur Murray course he took 45 years ago, and plenty of nights out in between.

"I was in the Army in San Pedro, Calif.," he recalled, "and a friend who was getting married had to learn to dance for the wedding. Arthur Murray had a special--8 half-hour lessons at half price. So my friend conned me into going along. I ended up taking 16 lessons."

In 1992 Winter jumped in head first, signing on for a pair of round-the-world cruises, each more than 100 days' duration, on Cunard's QE2 and the Royal Viking Sea. "It was a lot of work," he said, alluding to the dance-jammed days away from port that required his services at afternoon dance lessons, tea time, dinner hour and late-night lounge duty. "We had 10 hosts aboard and seven of the ship's staff to back us up and we were all busy. We had something like 400 solo women passengers on the QE2 out of Los Angeles, and at least 70 or 80 of them danced every session. I had to change my shirt a couple times a night--I tell you it was a workout."


Filling a void onboard

It was the old Royal Cruise Line under its president Richard Revnes that launched the first gentlemanly host progam, in 1982.

"I think we can also credit the urging and assistance of his wife," said Lauretta Blake, who went on to start Gentlemen Hosts in 1990, today serving such lines as Cunard, Radisson, Orient Lines and Silversea. "Mrs. Revnes thought the many solo women guests should have more company in dining, dancing and daytime shipboard fun."

Blake, president of The Working Vacation (and one of three Blake sisters who work for it), said the fledgling company mainly refined the Revnes scheme. "We stressed mandatory dance evaluations, which eliminated the shades and variations of the `I can dance' claim made by a lot of applicants."

The Blakes emphasize that Gentlemen Hosts are volunteers, not employees. There's no salary--in fact, you pay the company a rate of $28 to $38 a day for the length of the cruise. But room, board and air fare are free; ditto beverages, laundry service and gratuities (no small change on today's ships). The men are usually provided a small cocktail allowance to buy drinks for the solo women or spring for a bottle of wine for the table. And they must supply their own tuxedos.

Other than dancing, which can consume six hours on days at sea, and hosting dining tables, the gents are free to use the ship as any paying passenger would. On days in port, they can go off and see the sights--a key incentive for many of these far-roving volunteers.

"It's a tough niche," said Jane Blake, director of operations for Gentlemen Hosts, an outfit based in Lockport that books the seasoned swingers on many a cruise ship. "The screening process is like looking for a needle in a haystack--and it has to be a golden needle."

"How else would I see the world?" said one host. "I can't pay $10,000 to see the penguins in Antarctica."


Following the rules

All intimacies are forbidden between host and guest, but alas ships will be ships. Think of "Love Boat" or the 1997 movie "Out to Sea," in which Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau sign on as dance hosts and try to romance Dyan Cannon and Gloria De Haven.

Real on-board friendships have occasionally led to love and marriage, but while at sea the gents must not play favorites.

"There's a rule that we can't dance with a lady [again] until every other lady has danced," said David Winter. "You never know who's watching. On the QE2, a lady passenger went to the cruise director and said, `I didn't get asked to dance--what am I, chopped liver?' "

"There's no hanky-panky, no holding hands even," Harris Reiche, a host aboard Royal Olympia's Stella Solaris, said a few years ago. Reiche, 72 now, a vigorous and athletic man from San Diego, "a gem of a host," according to Jane Blake, was taking a break from the dance floor as we lay off the Greek island of Delos.

"I've been asked by women to take a walk out on deck, but we're not supposed to," Reiche said. "You know, it almost chokes me up to see the pleasure some of them get from dancing."

He told me about an attractive Scottsdale widow whom he took to be in her late 50s but was 70, and hadn't danced since her husband died 22 years before. "She was reluctant to start again but she really got into it. It was a thrill to see her smile."

Reiche, a baseball umpire and serious softball player who is twice divorced with seven children, said his teammates back home had taken to calling him `gigolo.' "Are you kidding?" he told them before leaving on a series of cruises. "I just signed up for two months of celibacy."

A host who does engage in hanky-panky or otherwise bends the rules will not see the end of the cruise. He will be put off the ship at the next port and have to pay his way home.

"I'll tell you what our life is not," said Ed Champy, 66, a host from Hampton, N.H. "It's not `Love Boat.' And something else: you're not expected to dance fancy. You dance to the level of your partner."


The pleasure is his

Champy, a retired math instructor, recently worked his first set of cruises, one to Antarctica on the Marco Polo, and later this summer he's off to sail the Crown Odyssey in the Mediterranean. He fairly swooned as he talked of the pleasure he gets at playing the host.

"I danced with a woman of 96," he said. "We got back to the table and her granddaughter said, `Granny, how was it?' and she said, `I don't have my heart any more.' I sort of gasped and then she goes on, `I gave it to Ed.' How can you beat that?"

Winter, the golden needle the Blakes found in a Chicago haystack, has lately cut back on mileage (no more round-the-world cruises, he said) while concentrating on his beloved Mediterranean. He comes home from each trip with a fresh list of phone numbers and e-mails and is in touch with 20 or 30 women friends.

He was looking forward to having lunch with an English woman he had met on the Marco Polo, who was making a stopover in Chicago. He mentioned a European cruise he had recently made, with calls in Lisbon and Bilbao (to see the Guggenheim museum) and finishing up in Dover, where he tacked on a week to stay with English friends near the sea. He sounded for all the world like a jet-setter. And not just the perfect host.


Need dancing shoes, sea legs

Gentlemen Hosts is always looking for a few good men.

"There is always a shortage," said the company's Jane Blake. "We have so many applications, but so many are not qualified."

To inquire or apply, use the Web site www.theworkingvacation.com or call 708-301-7535.

© David Butwin 2002



David Butwin is an award winning travel writer from New Jersey. His articles can be found in magazines and newspapers such as Reader's Digest, AARP's Modern Maturity and the Chicago Tribune. His article, "'Cruising' hosts are all aboveboard", was originally published in its entirety in the July 24, 2002 issue of the Chicago Tribune.



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