Local Biz: Come Sail Away

Sixthman is in the business of rocking the boat

About half of Grant Park–based Sixthman’s twenty-eight employees have just returned from a cruise to Grand Cayman with Kid Rock and 2,000 of his screaming, adoring, tattooed, and bikinied fans. But CEO Andy Levine and his staff weren’t sunning on the lido deck or sipping mai tais. They were hustling to run concerts and contests, organizing meet and greets and autograph sessions with the bands on the cruise’s lineup. They paused for a beer only after their midnight staff meeting.

A decade ago, Levine was the manager for alterna-pop band Sister Hazel when they decided to reward loyal fans. You know, a cookout or something. Then Levine met a travel agent with a better idea: What about a cruise?

The thought of being trapped at sea with superfans could give the friendliest bands pause, but Sister Hazel was in. “We did not want the stigma of shuffleboard and bingo; that was the only concern,” says front man Ken Block of the first cruise in 2001, dubbed the Rock Boat. He shouldn’t have worried. Despite working around nonfan passengers, Levine turned the trip into a “rock-and-roll lovefest,” says Block.

After the success of the first Rock Boat, Levine knew he wanted it to be an annual event. And that he wanted the whole boat. (Price to rent: $750,000. Up front.) Sixthman—a reference to the supporting role that sports fans play—was born.

There have been choppy moments (note: It’s not good to run out of beer in the Bahamas), but the company has learned how to run a good party barge. It now manages about a dozen voyages each year to ports such as St. Croix and Belize. Each cruise features the likes of Emmylou Harris, John Mayer, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Zac Brown Band, a little-known group on previous Rock Boats that will host its own cruise this September (cabins were lately still up for grabs, starting at $699).

“We’re like wedding planners for 2,200 brides, with twenty-two lead singers,” says Levine. “If we’re not delivering what we promised, they don’t come back.” Fortunately, 60 percent do return. Employees are happy too. They enjoy the casual office atmosphere, not to mention the working vacations.

Photograph by Will Byington