Tom Baker—with his partner, Marc Garcia, by his side—helps LGBTQ travelers see the world with a family of LGBTQ travelers by their side. Baker is the founder of Aquafest, which began 17 years ago with a Halloween cruise out of Galveston.
It’s no wonder Baker ended up in the travel industry. His grandparents, who played a big part in raising him, loved to travel and took Baker on many “incredible journeys,” he says. In 1984, after graduating from college, he went to work for a travel company in Los Angeles called Ask Mr. Foster Travel.
Fast-forward ten years, and Baker moved to Houston to start Aquafest, which he owns and operates with two business partners. The three also own Aquafest’s parent company, CruiseCenter.com, which sells vacations to non-LGBTQ travelers as well.
Aquafest is a private group-tour operator and special-event company founded in 2001 “to meet the needs of LGBT travelers wanting an alternative to higher-priced charter companies,” Baker says.
The company began with a group of 100 people—mostly from Galveston and Houston—on a Halloween cruise aboard the Rhapsody of the Seas. Within three years, the Halloween cruise was an annual event sailing out of New Orleans with 350 passengers and well-known LGBTQ performers.
“The goal from day one was to create affordable and entertaining travel for our target audience, and make it a friendly environment where all guests are called our ‘Family at Sea,’” Baker says.
This year, Aquafest will return to its roots for the Halloween cruise, sailing from Galveston with performers including Billy Gilman, Miss Conception, and Amy and Freddy.
Baker is proud of creating a trip within a trip, with non-stop LGBTQ activities, entertainment, gatherings, shoreside excursions, and late-night theme parties. “It is amazing fun,” he says. And it must be, with ships boasting 50 percent or more repeaters onboard. Guests, of course, can take advantage of all of the ship’s regular programming as well. “So they have the best of all worlds at sea,” Baker says.
Aquafest utilizes a team of volunteers who serve as onboard staff, and Garcia handles marketing and helps manage the trips that can now accommodate up to 500 people. Their goal is to serve the entire LGBTQ community. “We want inclusion and not exclusion,” he says, adding that the events also break down barriers with the non-LGBTQ travelers on the ship.
“We have had huge numbers of guests thank us for allowing [them to get] a better understanding of who we are. While this might sound patronizing, it is making strides in tearing down walls between different but similar human beings,” he says.
Aquafest also supports a number of charitable LGBTQ organizations in Houston and beyond. And it now offers overseas cruises “without the fanfare of Halloween, but still an exciting opportunity for LGBT travelers to see the world [while being comfortable in the company] of like-minded travelers,” Baker says.
Aquafest also organizes land tours to destinations including India, Southeast Asia, Peru, the Amazon, and Africa. “Aquafest is here to continue building our ‘Family at Sea’ and elsewhere,” Baker says.
Finalists: American Airlines, United Airlines
Best Honeymoon Destination
Casa Azur, Costa Rica
Finalists: Las Vegas, Paris, Puerto Vallarta
Best LGBT Cruise or Tour Company
Aquafest Cruises, Concierge Travel (tie)
Finalist: Olivia Cruises
Best LGBT Travel Destination
New York City
Finalists: Provincetown, Puerto Vallarta
Best Local Hotel
Le Méridien Houston
Finalists: Hotel ZaZa, Marriott Marquis Houston, Sam Houston Hotel
Best Local LGBT Travel Agency
Finalist: Aquafest Cruises
Best Auto Body Shop
Master Car Care
Finalist: Ryan Automotive
Best Auto Mechanic
Beckwith’s Car Care
Finalists: Master Car Care & Collision, RMS Auto Care, Tech Auto Maintenance
Best Car Wash/Auto Detailing
Mister Car Wash & Express Lube
Finalists: Aqua Hand Wash & Car Detail, Carriage Glass & Detail Co.
Best Domestic Auto Dealership
Finalists: Beck & Masten Buick GMC South, Central Houston Cadillac, Knapp Chevrolet
Best Import Auto Dealership
Audi Central Houston
Finalists: Central Houston Land Rover, Momentum Mini, Sterling McCall Lexus, Subaru of Clear Lake
Best Local Transportation
Finalists: Lyft, Metro