It's often said that when a door closes, a window opens somewhere else. Brothers Steve Abrams and Guy Grand, owners of Sober Vacations International (SVI) in Calabasas, California, can endorse this belief wholeheartedly. After battling lengthy addictions to drugs and alcohol, the pair finally overcame their respective chemical dependencies; once they did, they started what would become a successful travel enterprise dedicated to serving the needs of other travelers in recovery from substance abuse.
Abrams' long-lasting battle with alcohol finally ended in 1980; two years later, he started his own retail travel agency. By 1986, Grand, after nurturing a 20-year proclivity for heroin, had also cleaned up his act, and decided to join his brother in the travel-agency business. Eager to organize a Club Med excursion populated entirely with recovering addicts--a "sober village," of sorts--the pair began brainstorming ideas about how to harness this specialized travel market.
What originally started as a "what if?" business idea of taking a group of people, recovering from chemical dependencies, on vacation to foreign shores--eventually eclipsed the regular travel-agency activities.
"With SVI, we were eventually running a business where people were writing us letters thanking us for taking them on a wonderful trip, as opposed to the travel agency, where people would complain that they didn't like their seat assignment," says Abrams, the younger of the brothers. "It was the difference between night and day! On one hand, we had people who were unhappy and disenchanted all the time, and on the other, we were providing a unique service and making a much better living."
Realizing the growth potential of the new business, Abrams soon sold the retail travel agency, enabling the brothers to focus exclusively on leading group tours for SVI. Today, they organize sober vacations for an average of 1,000 guests each year in such exotic locations as the Bahamas and coastal Mexico, and the little idea that might now grosses more than $1.5 million annually.
The brothers, each at different times, realized that their reckless drug and alcohol habits had become destructive--both to themselves and to others. "There is always an epiphany for anyone who ends up getting sober," says Abrams. "In AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), it's called `bottoming out'--that moment when you're helpless and hopeless." After his drinking had become so excessive--at times, about a fifth of Scotch a day--that he dropped out of law school, Abrams entered an alcohol-recovery program.
For Grand, the moment of truth arrived with the birth of his son. "I was 38 years old, and finally had the little baby that I had always wanted," he recalls. "But because my wife was a heroin addict, too, he was born addicted to heroin. Having to give him heroin an hour after he was born and eventually ween him off the drug really made me think, `Look what you've done: You've not only ruined your life--which you don't care about, anyway--but now you're hurting this poor, little infant.' A few months later I got sober and I've been clean since then."
Despite the current success of their business, Abrams and Grand intially faced a challenge common to start-ups: lack of cash flow. "The idea itself is only one percent of the start-up; it's really about the implementation of the idea, the willingness to not make any money for a while, and finally seeing the idea to fruition," says Abrams. "We worked really hard right from the start--going to meetings and conventions to pass out fliers, and always putting out a nice brochure--but we really didn't make any money for the first couple of years."
Even though the brothers were unable to generate any jet-setting profits of their own during the start-up years--living, instead, off of the earnings from the regular travel agency--they were encouraged by the number of attendees who responded to their sober vacations. "We had a great turnout--more than 200 people--on our first trip, without even having a mailing list," recalls Abrams.
On each trip thereafter, their guest list gradually increased. Now, after a decade in business, the brothers have amassed more than 15,000 names on their mailing list. And, due to word-of-mouth testimonials between friends, business associates and support-group members, SVI's enrollment has been successfully fueled year after year.
As many new business owners learn, keeping expenses down proved to be a key strategy for the brothers' new start-up. "Having the shell of the travel agency allowed us to operate without overhead for a few years," says Abrams, who completed a certification program to become a retail travel agent. "We were able to set up an extra desk and we already had the telephones, so we had the advantage of not having to rent office space and buy phones."
The Sober Village vacation at Club Med is an all-inclusive tour; payment for flights, airport transfers, room accommodations, leisure activities and three daily buffet meals is made prior to travel, and no tipping is accepted. The Club Med format also allows guests to choose their daily activities, whether it's water-skiing, sailing, tennis, or just lounging by the pool.
"There are people doing everything, and there are people just sitting, doing nothing," says Abrams. "Plus, there are support-group meetings going on throughout the day where people can just drop in."
While most SVI vacationers are involved in alcohol-related 12-Step support groups, there are several other meetings available, aimed at helping those who suffer from addictions to cocaine, narcotics and overeating. "A lot of people find that they qualify for a number of the different recovery programs," notes Grand. Various support meetings are scheduled daily--the first at 7 a.m. and the last at midnight.
"The format is very compatible with the recovery process because members are encouraged to try something new in a safe and supportive environment," says Abrams. "By safe, we don't mean the removal of alcohol--that's not what sobriety's about, because there's always alcohol in the world--but having people around who understand, support and identify with each other. The absence of alcohol is really incidental; we remove it because we just don't use it."
The pair's sober vacation format is one easily taken on the road; in addition to the company's tropical beach jaunts, SVI has also organized excursions to Europe, cruises to Alaska, and domestic snow-ski trips.
"Steve and I sit down every year and think about where we want to go," says Grand. "One year we thought we'd like to take our sons on a Grand Canyon rafting trip, so we put a sober rafting trip together and it sold out." Currently in the planning stages are vacations to health spas and dude ranches.
"Our business is a lot of fun because we're not always going to the same places," concludes Grand. "We're doing things we like to do, and everyone else is able to come along."
Sober Vacations International, 26560 Agoura Rd., #106, Calabasas, CA 91302, (800) SOBER-FUN.
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