They say when you do what you love for work, you'll never work a day in your life and that's never been truer for one agency co-owner who has turned his passion for Pickleball into a travel niche.
George Aballi, owner of Connection to Cruise and its subsidiary Connection to Pickleball Travel, a member of NEST and The Affluent Traveler Collection, is a massive Pickleball fan. He and his wife, a travel advisor of more than 40 years, have a Pickleball court at home and regularly take lessons from Pros.
For years, they've been bringing groups of Pickleball players onto West Coast-based cruise ships to play onboard. An upcoming group on Royal Caribbean will have 24 players, with two hours of play scheduled on Catalina Island, along with private play time on the ship's Pickleball court.
It's these groups and his insistence on bringing Pickleball to the attention of the cruise lines that he says is actually responsible for Royal Caribbean adding Pickleball courts to its ships.
"Vicki [Freed, senior vice president, sales, trade support and service at Royal Caribbean] did not know a thing about Pickleball. You can ask her this," he said.
It was only after his Royal Caribbean BDM told her about his groups, that she learned about and embraced the game.
"That's why Royal Caribbean has Pickleball courts on their ships… That is all because of me."
Pickleball in Europe
It was an off-the-cuff suggestion from one of the Pros he plays with that sent Aballi in a new direction.
"One of the Pros, Paul, was playing here one day and he said, 'Why don't we go and play in Europe?' I said, that's a great idea," Aballi told TMR.
With the Pro's connections in the Netherlands, they stared planning a trip. A week before they were set to depart, the Netherlands shut its borders due to COVID-19.
Not every country shut down right away and using another of the Pro's connections – to the head of the Hungarian Pickleball Federation – a small group of six people went to Budapest.
"All of a sudden, we went from no trip to meeting Zoltan, who's a Pickleball champion and runs the Pickleball Federation," Aballi said. "It was wonderful."
The small group played in Budapest as well as at Lake Balaton. They played at someone's home Pickleball court, then had dinner with them.
"You could see how the lightbulb went off when I saw the potential," said Aballi, telling TMR his role at the travel agency had previously been limited to bringing group business to the company. "This is going to be my focus."
It was the seeds of an idea that has since expanded to Pickleball river cruises and all-inclusive stays.
River cruise with Pickleball
Connection to Pickleball Travel's first European Pickleball river cruise group took place this past May onboard an Amadeus river ship and was a total success. Their next sailing is this August.
The most important thing to understand about these trips he said is, they're not Pickleball cruises.
"It's a cruise that includes Pickleball."
Each day includes Pickleball play from 9 a.m. until noon. During each play session, guests will get to play with a Pro, as well as locals. Stops where play are included are Vienna, Bratislava and two stops in Hungary (Budapest and Lake Balaton). With the exception of Budapest, all play is in indoor arenas so games take place rain or shine.
"This helps avoid people being disappointing and saying, we didn't get to play."
After morning Pickleball sessions, cruisers are free to do what they want, take a tour, walk around the city, or simply relax onboard their river ship. At select times when the ship is sailing, the accompanying Pro will set up at the back of the ship in a conference room to provide tips, show videos, or answer questions.
Dates for sailings in 2024 are currently being planned. Plus, Aballi told TMR, a Pickleball trip to Japan is also in the works.
Aballi hadn't originally considered expanding into all-inclusives but they started reaching out to him.
Currently, he has a six-night Grand Cayman Pickleball trip scheduled for February 2024. The trip includes daily court time, round robins with local players, and an optional tournament. And when guests aren't playing Pickleball they can take part in several included activities including visiting Stingray City, sailing a sunset catamaran cruise, and visiting the Cayman Spirits Distillery to try local rum.
He's also currently planning 2024 dates with Secrets Costa Mujeres.
The possibilities are endless, he said, pointing out that it's a great way for advisors to expose clients to all-inclusives through the hook of Pickleball.
Planning each of these trips has been a time intensive proposition, though Aballi believes that once they get their system in place, it will go much quicker. He visited Central Europe three times to go through all the stops on the Amadeus river cruises.
One key piece he had to figure out the balance of was how many players to permit on any given sailing.
"When there's too many players, then there's not enough play time and people get frustrated because they want to play Pickleball and there isn't enough time. We carefully though about all these challenges."
May's sailing had 24 players, while August's sailing, so far, has 12 players.
The agency is also strategic about where it advertises these experiences. For instance, for the European river cruises, they started with targeting Pickleball players in Florida, the Northeast and Chicago because "it's a shorter flight."
With ocean cruises, they mostly advertise locally on the West Coast, in order to take advantage of relationships with the Pickleball community in Ensenada. Additionally, for these customers, the cruises are usually within driving distance.
Aballi told TMR any advisor can get in on the Pickleball crazy. Every city has a Pickleball Club these days, it's just a matter of making the connections and figuring out the logistics of what you want to do. He recommended advisors interested in doing a Pickleball-themed river cruise reach out to Amadeus, because the line now has experience with arranging these excursions. Plus, the line has Pickleball courts on its ships.
"It' what you put into it and it's not easy, but nothing is. If you sit around waiting for your phone to ring, then you sit around waiting for your phone to ring," he said.