A quilting shop in a small Texas town, more than an hour’s drive east of downtown Dallas, might seem like the last place you’d find a successful cruise group travel business.
But located across the street from the Double H Package Store, and just a short walk from the Dairy Queen on Richards Street, stands the 17,000-square-foot Stitchin’ Heaven, a mecca for quilters across America, and one of Royal Caribbean International’s favorite pied pipers.
Owner Deb Luttrell has built a loyal and passionate retail fanbase that has powered the company’s cruise sales since 2010. In just ten years, Stitchin’ Heaven has hosted thousands of customers on 75 group quilting cruises, and is looking to dramatically increase its sailings in 2021 and beyond to meet overflow demand.
The company combines the opportunity for quilters to enjoy expert-led workshops and demonstrations at sea, while building bonds with fellow hobbyists from around the country as they sail the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and journey to Alaska.
“We really connect with our customers,” Luttrell recently told Travel Market Report. She was calling from somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean aboard Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of The Seas with 60 of her customers, 50% of whom are repeat clients.
“It’s a real rewarding, fun job,” Luttrell said. “We get to meet all of these people who love quilting, who love what we love.”
Luttrell learned to quilt in her late 30s, while she was working in a “stressful corporate job environment.”
“My 65-year old aunt had taken up the hobby and I was enamored with it, watching her put together beautiful king-size quilts using basic scissors and a sewing machine,” said Luttrell. “When I opened my store in 1996, I had completed one quilt.”
Located in Quitman, Texas, which even today has less than 2,000 residents, Stitchin’ Heaven remained a regional store for its first few years. But then, in 2000, Better Homes and Gardens magazine named Stitchin’ Heaven one of the top ten quilt shops in North America. Soon, quilters from all over the country were stopping in to purchase fabrics and supplies.
As the shop’s popularity grew, a frequent customer mentioned she had been on a quilt group cruise. “She suggested I organize one ‘for us,’” Luttrell recalled. That simple suggestion put Stitchin’ Heaven on the path to creating a travel division.
“We didn’t know what we were doing when we started. We used a travel agent in the beginning, but after a few cruises, we realized we could do that work ourselves, and became our own travel agency,” Luttrell said. (Stitchin’ Heaven Travel only books travel for its group cruises.)
Success followed fairly quickly, in great part due to the fact that “first and foremost, we are a successful quilt shop,” Luttrell said, with a loyal following.
The company has an existing database of 50,000 retail shop clients “who trust us, and give us the permission to market cruises to them,” said Luttrell. “Other quilting shops have tried what we do, but can’t get their cruises to fill. Our database makes a big difference.”
Outside of their proprietary database, the company finds most of its new clients through social media – mostly Facebook. “Guests will be posting from the ship, during the classes, in port, and that encourages their quilting friends to want to book with us,” Luttrell said. The retail shop’s Facebook page has more than 68,000 followers, and someone has even started a Stitchin’ Heaven Travel Tribe Facebook group for the cruises.
In April 2019, Luttrell and her travel division director Dana Goyer produced a video explaining their trips and answering their most frequently asked questions.
In order to attract cruisers on a tighter budget, Stitchin’ Heaven provides payment plans after the first $350 deposit is paid. And once a year, the company offers a special promotion where four quilters who recruit each other can receive a $200 per person discount.
Onboard, Stitchin’ Heaven’s quilting classes are held on days when the ship is at sea. “This way, our guests can enjoy their land excursions. We want them to experience the ports,” Luttrell said.
The company owns and provides state-of-the-art Bernina sewing machines, sewing tables and any other equipment that her guests need. “All our guest really needs to bring is their personal supplies. They get a list from us in advance, so when they walk into the class, if they purchase the pre-cut kit we offer, they can begin sewing the first day.”
Luttrell uses freight forwarders to ship equipment to and from ports.
Prospects number in the millions
For many travel advisors, finding a tribe to develop a group travel specialty can feel daunting, but Luttrell has tapped into a large and passionate niche.
Industry estimates place the number of quilters in the U.S. at anywhere from 7 million to 10 million. According to a survey published in FabShop News in December 2017, the typical dedicated quilter is female, 63 years old, spends about 13 hours a week on quilting, and has a household income of about $95,000. Some 70% of these passionate hobbyists attended college, and they spend on average about $3,363 per year on quilting.
“Our clients generally are our core demographic of age 45 and older, although we have had the very young (18) and the very old (90s),” Luttrell said. “You don’t have to have the whole world to sell too, just enough people to come along with you to have a successful business.”
Also, quilters who take her classes at sea are welcome to bring non-sewing guests with them (e.g. husbands and friends who don’t quilt). “Most often a guest will attend with another quilter or quilting friends,” she said.
And in case you thought that quilters are only an aging breed, FabShop News identified “the Under-45 Quilter,” an “occasional quilter with less commitment to the craft, largely based on time and work constraints,” but “an important group” nonetheless, as they spend about 10 hours a week on quilting, and have an average household income of $98,000. About one out of three have a four-year college degree, while 23% have a postgraduate degree.
Outgrowing her popularity?
Upcoming 2020 trips include their “Oasis of Quilting” Miami to Cozumel cruise in March; “Summer Fun” from Galveston to Jamaica in May; a “North to Alaska” cruise in August; and “Bahama Escape” in mid-November, from Cape Liberty, New Jersey to Nassau, the Bahamas. They regularly sell out.
In some respects, Stitchin’ Heaven is outgrowing its success. Every group cruise is staffed by Stitchin’ Heaven representatives. The company is already planning its 2022 cruises (it has 20 on the books and likely will do as many in 2023), including back-to-back-to-back itineraries on one ship. Currently, the most back-to-back trips the company does is three. In 2023, the company will be aboard a Royal Caribbean ship for seven successive cruises.
This growth is straining the number of Stitchin’ Heaven staff able to attend and host each cruise. “I go on a lot of them. But I’m scaling [the cruise business] to the point now, where I am realizing that I need to be back home at my store more. It’s still a bigger business than the cruise workshops,” Luttrell said. “I need to find more staff to host our quilters.”
And then there is ensuring Royal Caribbean can accommodate her groups. “One of the most challenging aspects of this division is continuing to find ships with the conference space needed for us to host our classes,” Luttrell said. “Royal Caribbean is our exclusive provider simply because they have the conference space we need on a large percentage of their ships.” Some Royal Caribbean ships will only hold 44 people and others will hold 90 people.