It’s the second night of the Jon Bon Jovi Runaway to Paradise Cruise and the ship, halfway between Barcelona and Palma, is taking a beating from rain and gusty winds. A stormy day at sea would be unnerving for any normal cruise, but the Norwegian Pearl is anything but. On the pool deck, a festival-sized stage has been erected where, at 6 p.m. that night, Bon Jovi would perform an acoustic set accompanied by a Q&A session with fans. If the staff of Sixthman, the production company specializing in music festivals at sea, is nervous, there are no signs of it.
This isn’t the company’s first celebrity-branded cruise, having previously hosted cruises by Kiss, Kid Rock, 311 and Paramore, among others, but it is Sixthman’s first sail in Europe and the clock is ticking. Nonetheless, the voice of Sixthman Jane cheerfully chimes from the loudspeakers, wishing all a “Happy Jon Bon Jovi” day and announcing that the man himself would soon be boarding the boat and inviting all to greet and cheer on his arrival. As the staff passes out maracas and other toys to guests on the deck, the crew has already activated plan B, setting up instruments inside the ship’s Stardust Theater, where Bon Jovi has agreed to do two intimate shows to accommodate all 2,000 on board.
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“We had to pull an audible,” says Matt Bongiovi, Bon Jovi’s brother, in football speak. “We had talked about that potential of a weather situation.” By the time the boat arrived ashore to pick up Bon Jovi (“Jon is the first person to use a cruise ship as an Uber,” laughs his brother), the weather was starting to clear, but there was still danger with water on the deck. Bongiovi had to break the news to his famous sibling. “Lucky me,” he laughs, but Bon Jovi agreed to the plan.
The situation was a “blessing in disguise,” Sixthman CEO Anthony Diaz says, with Bon Jovi rewarding guests with two separate concerts and varying set-lists — the second show streamed live in the atrium so everyone could be in on the action. Bon Jovi was forthcoming with his answers, handling delicate questions about the departure of guitarist Richie Sambora (“He just wouldn’t show up anymore… that was hard”), whether or not Bon Jovi would have its own biopic like “Bohemian Rhapsody” (answer? No, since it’s been done before, although he would like Angelina Jolie to portray him if there was a film), and the revelation of the new album title, “Bon Jovi: 2020,” with a tease of an unreleased song thrown in for good measure.
Bongiovi plays a key role on the Runaway cruise, having convinced Jon to consider the idea of two embarkments — one in April from Miami to the Bahamas and this one, held Aug. 26 to 30, in the Mediterranean. In 2018, Bongiovi had started a new position at Entertainment Benefits Group, a company partnered with Sixthman, when he was asked if his brother would be interested in doing a cruise. The initial reaction? “No f–ing way.”
But having become familiar with Sixthman, which has been in business for 18 years with artists like Florida Georgia Line and wrestler-rocker Chris Jericho, Bongiovi was curious, and hopped aboard the KISS Kruise. “That was the first time I actually cruised to see if firsthand,” he says. “That is how I was able to truly see how this machine works, and then be able to assure my self and reassure Jon about what type of experience this is.” One caveat: Jon didn’t want to spend all four days on the boat, due to his heavy work schedule, so Sixthman agreed to schedule “technical stops” to pick up the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer on land for performance days.
The advanced work that goes into staging a Sixthman cruise starts a year before anchors aweigh. The goal: to provide an immersive experience for the superfan, one that begins the moment they step onto the ship. Once aboard, DJ Dave Bain blares Bon Jovi classics like “Blood on Blood” (from the album “New Jersey”) and the band’s first single, “Runaway” while Bon Jovi live concert video plays on the ship’s television screens. A pop-up museum in the atrium showcases iconic outfits from several tours, with photographs by David Bergman adorning the elevator doors. Gold record plaques are also on display, with branded napkins at all bars and the “Runaway to Paradise” logo draped on the blackjack tables in the casino. Excited passengers posed for photos with a cardboard cutout of Jon and participated in planned activities, like a live Q&A with Matt Bongiovi and longtime engineer Obie O’Brien and a wine tasting with son, Jesse.
In terms of branding, there’s nary a surface or product that doesn’t bear Bon Jovi insignia. From blankets to themed cocktails to souvenir cups, arcade games and beyond. A pop-up merchandise store of Jon’s Hart N’ Dagger clothing line was available for shoppers, as well as a recreation of the singer’s philanthropic Soul Kitchen restaurant, a pay it forward eatery with locations in New Jersey towns Red Bank and Toms River and Rutgers University, which encouraged diners to donate $20 to help families struggling with hunger. Other panels included behind the scene discussions by Phil Griffin of the filming of the movie, “When We Were Beautiful” and Bergman’s inside look at photographing Bon Jovi on tour.
Live music on the ship is not exclusively Bon Jovi, however, and included performances by Johnny Rzeznik (pictured below), Grace Potter, BETSIE GØLD, Stewart Mac, Antonio Rivas, Hannah Wickland & The Steppin Stones, Kris Barras Band and the up and coming British rockers Collateral. Goo Goo Dolls frontman Rzeznik, fresh off a summer tour with Train, played on the pool deck (as did Potter) performing two sets — one acoustic and the other with Bon Jovi tribute band Slippery When Wet. “Sixthman does a really good job,” Rzeznik tells Variety. “We did another event with them … and know you are going to be treated well.”
The Goo Goo Dolls opened for Bon Jovi on the 2003 “Bounce” tour and while originally from Buffalo, New York, Rzenik now lives in New Jersey so naturally, he cracks a joke about highway exits. But seriously speaking, the singer hailed the cruise as an opportunity to get reacquainted with Bon Jovi’s fanbase, rest and recharge before the Sept. 13 release of the Goo Goo Dolls’ new album, “Miracle Pill.”
Artist BETSIE GØLD was also a previous warm-up act for Bon Jovi, at a 2017 show in Toronto. “Jon is a big influence,” she says. “I first heard of him when I was 13, and I said to my mum, ‘I want to do what they do and open for them one day.'”
The third night, Bon Jovi is onboard again and loose, joking that he had “brought the rain to Spain” and clearly having a blast with backing band The Kings of Suburbia. Framing the evening as a “jukebox show” of favorite songs, his setlist includes Bon Jovi hits “Born To Be My Baby” and “You Give Love a Bad Name” and covers like the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman,” Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” and U2’s “When Love Comes to Town.”
No doubt, the carrot for fans, beyond the music, is the opportunity to be in close physical proximity to their idol. It’s what many onboard cited as the reason they ponied up anywhere from $1500 to $5,000-plus per person in addition to airfare to and from Barcelona. On one such occasion, Bon Jovi invited two fans to join him onstage — one named Kaitlyn won the hearts of the audience with a duet of “It’s My Life” (watch the video below). Bon Jovi was also charmed by the crowd, cooing “I never played live for women in hot tubs before… I kind of like it!”
The same can be said of the featured performers, like U.K. rockers Collateral, who won the opportunity to play on the ship. Set to release an album in February with distribution through Roulette Media Records, says frontman Angelo Tristan: “I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I have been a Bon Jovi fan since I was nine, and I still have the posters on my wall.”
Both nights, Bon Jovi posed for photos with fans at a meet and greet and allowed a few lucky die-hards to be escorted upstairs to the ship’s exclusive area, The Haven, to listen to three songs from the new album. These experiences were the culmination of a dream started by the star’s mother, Carol Ann, who once ran the fan club and came up with the idea of hosting resort takeovers in hotels for fans. When she retired from fan club duty, Bongiovi took over, revamping the business model to become what is now Jon Bon Jovi Runaway Tours, an opportunity for fans to travel to destinations –from Miami to Tokyo — with their favorite rock star.
“When people are paying a lot of money, you have to take care of people,” says Rzeznik, pointing to perks like free swag left in every state room nightly. “Jon’s is an important brand. It’s all about the experience.”