Picking up on the pickleball craze

The “poc-poc” sound of pickleball can now be heard from Caribbean resorts to European river cruises and everywhere in between, as the industry serves up ways for travelers to participate in the growing sport.

To describe pickleball as merely popular these days would be an understatement.

Seemingly overnight, the racket sport, which combines elements of badminton, tennis and pingpong, has gone from niche recreational pastime to a veritable athletic empire, complete with its own professional leagues, celebrity investors and even a Stephen Colbert-hosted sports comedy special, called “Pickled,” that aired on CBS late last year. 

Connor Pardoe, CEO and founder of the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) and its PPA Tour professional and amateur pickleball competition, credits the sport’s meteoric rise to three key factors: It’s something almost anyone can do, it’s inexpensive to start playing and building a court is easy and can be done “almost anywhere.”

That last point may be why pickleball has caught on as much — and as quickly — as it has in travel.

Anywhere includes hotels and resorts, which have aggressively added pickleball courts in recent years and are now building more robust programming around the sport. Ocean and river cruise lines are also jumping in, carving out space on ships for pickleball courts. And travel advisors are discovering that some clients are clamoring for pickleball-focused trips.

“A lot of brands and companies want to be first movers in this space and have seen an awesome opportunity to jump in with this sport,” Pardoe said. “And no one really knows where the ceiling is yet.”


Pickleball checks in

Within the hospitality sector, pickleball courts are quickly becoming status quo.

Thanks to a growing number of properties adding ever more expansive pickleball facilities, several of the PPA’s largest events have been successfully hosted at resorts like the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa and La Quinta Resort & Club in Palm Springs, Calif., in recent years. The PPA Tour tournaments typically host between 1,000 and 2,000 players per event.

“And our events have now gotten big enough that we’re at these resorts during peak season,” Pardoe said.

Even smaller properties are upping their game. The Tryall Club, a 91-villa luxury resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, debuted a pair of pickleball courts in 2019 and has since added two more in response to higher-than-expected demand. The resort has also rolled out a pickleball concierge service to help outfit guests with paddles, balls and athletic attire; organize private pickleball coaching sessions; or coordinate with an on-site chef to craft a customized post-match meal.

“As the demand continues to increase, we continue to add new elements to [our] pickleball programming,” said Arla Vernon Gordon, the Tryall Club’s director of sales, marketing and communications. “One out of three guests ask about pickleball.”

Even villa and vacation rentals are making space for the sport, reports Willie Fernandez, chief marketing officer of private villa specialist Rental Escapes.

“We have some villas [that] have modified their backyard space to add a pickleball court to meet the demands of guests,” said Fernandez, who added that he first noticed requests for homes with courts or access to pickleball beginning to spike last summer.

One of the biggest hospitality players pouring significant investment into pickleball, however, is Margaritaville, which announced late last year that it had signed on as the title sponsor of the Major League Pickleball professional league, with the organization subsequently rebranded as MLP by Margaritaville. Margaritaville has also served as the title sponsor of the USA Pickleball National Championships since 2018, and it plans to launch a branded line of pro-level pickleball paddles this summer.

“The DNA of the sport and the Margaritaville brand are so similar,” said Tamara Baldanza-Dekker, Margaritaville’s chief marketing officer. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, what age you are, what color you are. Everyone just loves to play the sport; it’s fun, and it brings people together. So it’s a sport we really wanted to align ourselves with.”

Many Margaritaville properties, including its luxury RV resorts, have pickleball facilities, with plenty more in the pipeline. For example, the brand’s Margaritaville Resort Times Square in Manhattan, which opened in 2021, is planning to add an indoor pickleball court to its ground floor later this year. A glass window will face out onto 40th Street, allowing passersby to catch a glimpse of the action.

“It really doesn’t take a big footprint,” said Baldanza-Dekker. “And you can put a few where a tennis court used to be. Some of our properties have tennis courts that aren’t really being used, so we’re tearing those down and putting in pickleball — I mean, we just can’t get enough of it.”


A PPA Tour match at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa. (Courtesy of Professional Pickleball Association)

A PPA Tour match at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa. (Courtesy of Professional Pickleball Association)

Service on the high seas

Cruise lines are similarly getting in on the action, with pickleball courts springing up aboard ships across multiple brands, including Margaritaville, which plans to add a pickleball court to its Margaritaville at Sea Paradise during a dry dock this spring.

In December, Holland America Line (HAL), which already has courts across its entire fleet, said that it had been named the official cruise line of the PPA. That partnership has spawned more than a dozen introductory videos on how to play pickleball that passengers can watch in their room across the fleet by early summer.

The PPA provides HAL with expert advice on courts, programming and paddles. In addition to advertising HAL at tournaments on land, it plans to send professional players to play on the ships and reward winners of certain tournaments with a free cruise. HAL is also staffing each of its ships with a sports director specializing in pickleball.

While HAL president Gus Antorcha has no illusions that people are sailing on his ships just to play the game, he said the brand aims to create relevant lifestyle experiences that guests want on vacation. He said it’s working: During a recent sailing, this ship ran a tournament on a sea day that drew more than 60 competitors.

“It’s really fantastic to see,” Antorcha said. “When you get things right from the product side, the guests let you know because they show up and they’re excited.”

Celebrity Cruises, which has pickleball on nine of its 12 large ships, has been surprised by the demand, said Keith Lane, senior vice president of hotel operations.

The line will include courts on all of its upcoming vessels, including the Celebrity Ascent, which is due out late this year. Celebrity is also developing private excursions at every port of call where passengers can be driven to a location to play on land, an offering the line expects to be available this summer.

“The statistics alone would tell you that this is every person’s sport, but it also attracts affluent audiences who play tennis and are getting older,” Lane said. “They’re shifting from tennis to pickleball so that they continue to be physically active and fit but maybe not [have] as much wear and tear on your knees and ankles.”


HAL president Gus Antorcha volleys with Travel Weekly cruise editor Andrea Zelinski aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam in Fort Lauderdale. (Photo by Len Kaufman)

HAL president Gus Antorcha volleys with Travel Weekly cruise editor Andrea Zelinski aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam in Fort Lauderdale. (Photo by Len Kaufman)

Paddling on the rivers

River cruise lines are also capitalizing on the pickleball craze. 

Earlier this year, AmaWaterways installed a full-size pickleball court on the sun deck of the AmaMagna, its largest ship, which exclusively sails the Danube River. The extra-wide vessel allows for a regulation-size court, along with a perimeter net to keep the ball from going out of the play area. An onboard wellness host is also available to coach guests on game rules and techniques.

The company said the idea came about during a discussion with employees about new amenities to incorporate for the upcoming cruise season.

“Pickleball came up as being one of the fastest-growing sports in America, and the group thought it would be great to offer that activity to our guests,” said Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-founder of AmaWaterways.

George Aballi, a travel advisor who, among other things specializes in booking pickleball travel and has worked directly with river cruise lines to introduce pickleball on the rivers, describes the opportunity around the sport as “huge.”

“Many vendors are now realizing the potential,” Aballi said.

Amadeus River Cruises is tapping that potential with fresh programming, working with advisors like Aballi and Csilla Dali, owner of Evyssa Vacations of Hoffman Estates, Ill., to book clients on pickleball-centric cruises.

Amadeus said last month that it will launch two itineraries on the Danube focused on pickleball that immerse guests in local clubs and games.

“We got on the pickleball train,” said Marcus Leskovar, executive vice president of Amadeus, while onboard the Amadeus Silver III, on which a pickleball court was installed to accompany the itineraries. “It’s quite
interesting to see how much interest there is.”

The sailings, departing in May and August, begin with a precruise stay in Hungary’s Lake Balaton region where guests will be hosted for pickleball games at a private estate by Hungarian pickleball champion Zoltan Bohm.

Guests then journey back to Budapest to begin their seven-day cruise on the Danube to Passau, Germany, along the way visiting local pickleball clubs and playing against players from around the region. 

“It’s much more than just a pickleball court onboard,” Leskovar said. “It’s something that is very active, very immersive.”

Evyssa Vacations’ Dali said that while Americans make up the biggest share of pickleball travelers, Europe is starting to catch on. She pointed to the Hungarian Pickleball Federation, led by Bohm, as proof of that growth.

“Logistically speaking, there were a lot of obstacles that we ran into, because in Europe, [pickleball] is really not that popular yet — but it’s growing,” Dali said.


The pickleball court on AmaWaterways’ AmaMagna. (Courtesy of AmaWaterways)

The pickleball court on AmaWaterways’ AmaMagna. (Courtesy of AmaWaterways)

Selling the sport

For some advisors, selling pickleball travel makes perfect sense.

Melinda Alcosser, an affiliate of All-Travel based in Guilford, Conn., and Frye Island, Maine, shifted into full-time travel advising a few years ago, building on knowledge gained from personal travel and arranging student trips. She also became an avid player after picking up the sport in 2013, and she is a certified coach with the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association.

Her career and pastime came together in January, when she led her first group of 40 pickleball players to the Club Med Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic under her pickleball trip brand Carpe Dink’em (a dink, she said, is an important shot in the game of pickleball). Every day, the players enjoyed guided instruction with a professional, free play and some extras arranged by Alcosser, such as group dinners and meet-ups.


In January, travel advisor and pickleball coach Melinda Alcosser — lower left, in pink — led a pickleball-focused trip in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, where players donated sports equipment to the Calasanz Bavaro School. (Photo by Melinda Alcosser)

In January, travel advisor and pickleball coach Melinda Alcosser — lower left, in pink — led a pickleball-focused trip in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, where players donated sports equipment to the Calasanz Bavaro School. (Photo by Melinda Alcosser)

But the trip had a deeper purpose. Alcosser wants all of her trips to connect travelers with the destination and provide interaction with locals. She’s even starting a new travel brand based on this idea: Travel with Heart, a division of All-Travel.

“My real passion is to utilize the power of travel to build bridges and connect people in the world,” Alcosser said.

During the trip, she connected with the local Calasanz Bavaro School, where pickleball players gifted the students sports equipment. Future ideas include bringing pickleball to underserved communities. 

In addition to groups, she also gets requests from individuals who want to play pickleball while traveling. It’s a growing area, and Alcosser said she’s hearing more from other advisors who have clients with pickleball requests and are looking for advice.

She encouraged her advisor peers to learn a bit about the game and ensure they have an on-the-ground contact to help with arrangements like court reservations.

“It’s an amazing game,” she said. “I think it’s a way for adults to reconnect with the spirit of play.”