Oscar DiVeroli: I’d like to welcome to the studio today Jason Beukema, CEO of Whet Travel. Welcome, Jason.
Jason Beukema: Thank you, Oscar.
Oscar DiVeroli: On behalf of EO South Florida, I’d like to congratulate you for earning your prestigious ranking on the Inc. 2014 fastest-growing privately held companies in the United States. Congratulations.
Jason Beukema: Thank you very much.
Oscar DiVeroli: Tell us a little bit about Whet Travel.
Jason Beukema: Started it 10 years ago out of a basement in Atlanta, and just basically getting a group of friends together to go on a cruise. Saw how much money the travel agency made off of me and I decided to start up my own company. Started with 125 people going on a cruise, and always had a dream of what it would be like to charter my own cruise ship and have all my friends and really good music on there. That was always the dream. Now we do close to 15,000 people a year on cruises.
Oscar DiVeroli: Oh my god, that’s a huge quantity of passengers. This all started from an original group of 125 people?
Jason Beukema: Yeah.
Oscar DiVeroli: That’s a pretty significant jump from one end to the other. How long were you in the business before you were able to realize your dream of actually chartering an entire cruise ship?
Jason Beukema: It took me six years to charter my first cruise ship. I had a goal, a business plan, to do it in five years, but it took me six and a half years or so.
Oscar DiVeroli: You still earned a spot on the Inc. list.
Jason Beukema: I guess. In 2011 was the very first charter, in 2010. Now we have five charters, from electronic dance music, which is the Groove Cruise, which I started with. Now we have the Aventura Dance Cruise, which is Latin. Motorboat, which is heavy metal with Motorhead, Megadeth, and Anthrax, we just had that one. We also have ShipRocked, which is big rock bands like Godsmack and Korn. We’re launching another one, a spring break one. We have a whole bunch of opportunities that we’re working on out of the US and also overseas in Europe and Asia as well.
Oscar DiVeroli: In the last 30 seconds of you describing he themes, I just aged myself 20 more years. Thank you so much for doing that. What is the ultimate vision for Whet Travel?
Jason Beukema: We’re a mission-driven company. Our mission is to excite people’s lives. We do that through creating extremely unique experiences on cruise ships. In the future, we want to expand that not just from the United States, but also from Europe and Asia and, like I mentioned, India and South Africa, we’ve also been talking to people in those countries, to create these unique experiences that are really unlike anything in the world.
Also, we’ve been looking into resort takeovers, because there’s some resorts where we could rent the entire resort and create a experience that’s somewhat similar to what we do on a cruise ship.
Oscar DiVeroli: You mentioned you launched with a detailed business plan. Two questions. One, how did you test your assumptions? Two, how much has the actual business varied from your business plan?
Jason Beukema: I would say detailed business plan. I do have a degree in entrepreneurship. I was the second class at my university to graduate with a entrepreneurship degree. I was in pre-med. I was about to take the MCAT to go to medical school. Changed gears and got a job at Georgia-Pacific, which is a big Fortune 100 company. People were getting fired left and right. It just wasn’t my atmosphere, and didn’t like it.
I had a mentor of mine at the time, and he said, find something you love to do and find a way to get paid to do it. If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. I was thinking about what I love to do. What I love to do more than anything is go on vacation, so I better figure out a way to get paid to go on vacations.
I got into the travel business as a tour manager, taking groups of people on vacations around North America. I did trips through Alaska, the Canadian Rockies, historic America tours, national parks tours out west. Then as a fun thing, I put a group together to go on a cruise and saw how much money the travel agency made off of me, and decided to start up my own company.
That’s how it started. But when I started it, I always had the vision and the dream of chartering my own cruise ship, because cruises to me are boring. They’re mostly families and old people, and the nightlife is not very good. For me, anyway.
Oscar DiVeroli: Jason, what does the competitive landscape look like in your industry?
Jason Beukema: It’s very interesting, because our biggest competitor got bought out by a cruise line. Now we have a cruise line that competes with us directly. That’s our biggest competitor. Our biggest competitor is always the cruise lines taking business direct. We’re up against the 1 million-pound gorillas, or whatever you want to call them, all the time. Also, our largest booking agency also competed against us, stole a lot of our ideas, and tried to do a cruise, which fortunately canceled.
We do festivals on cruise ships. There’s a lot of companies out there that do large festivals that do 50, 100,000 people at a festival on land and they think, oh, we can do 2,000 or 3,000 people on a cruise ship, that’s easy, when it’s been proven it’s not very easy unless you have a company like ours that knows how to market and how to put those people onto a cruise ship.
The landscape is pretty interesting because our biggest partners are our biggest competitors.
Oscar DiVeroli: Yet you’re still able to compete, and grow, and thrive?
Jason Beukema: Yeah.
Oscar DiVeroli: Why?
Jason Beukema: I think just being unique and always being in touch with our clients, which we call our clients, captains. Our captains steer the ship. They help us determine what cruise lines we work with, to what artists we book, to where we go. I think just the focus on the captains and the experience, and really exceeding expectations and blowing their minds. When people go on a Whet Travel cruise, it’s just going to be over the top. We don’t skimp on things like some of our competitors do production-wise. It’s all about the captains and the experience.
When people come back, that’s what our biggest marketing is, is those people telling their friends and getting their friends to come the following year, and keeping them engaged, and keeping them excited throughout the year to come back again. I think that’s one of the biggest things we’ve been able to do that our competitors haven’t.
Oscar DiVeroli: Effectively they become your brand ambassadors.
Jason Beukema: Exactly. Yeah.
Oscar DiVeroli: How did you finance the launch of your business?
Jason Beukema: I paid off my credit cards, and then I started the business. I started business on about $10,000 in credit card debt. Then a few months into it, I cashed out my 401(k), so I was basically … put everything in. That’s how I started to finance it. Luckily, even though we do almost 10 million, close to it, in sales this past year, so from literally credit card debt to almost 10 million, I’ve been lucky enough to not have an investor all the way to date and to still own 100% of the company. It’s been a interesting ride, but I’ve luckily been able to figure the financing part of it.
Oscar DiVeroli: Good for you.
Jason Beukema: [inaudible 00:08:02] haven’t needed investors and things like that.
Oscar DiVeroli: Since you’ve launched your business, what would you say your most difficult decision has been to date?
Jason Beukema: Always letting someone go from the team is really difficult, and I just recently had to do this, because it’s someone’s life, their money that they’re dealing with, and their family, and things like that. Their emotions. That’s never a easy thing. Yeah, that was a difficult decision.
Then always, when you charter a cruise ship, you’re putting around $1 million or more on the line. When you actually sign that deal, you really have no idea if it’s going to work or not. That’s pretty risky. I always tell my wife, I’m like, hopefully this will work. If it doesn’t, then we’re going to be living in a van down by the river.
But that’s part of being an entrepreneur, is risk-taking, and putting it on the line, and putting it on the line again, and putting it on the line again, and trying to just figure out what the market wants and what the market needs, and really in tune with your customers, our captains, is what we call them, and what they want. We just give them what they want and more.
Oscar DiVeroli: You mentioned that you write checks of $1 million as deposits. Jason, your business is exploding. You’re a very dynamic entrepreneur and I believe in what you’re doing. I’d like to invest $1 million in your company. How would you deploy those funds?
Jason Beukema: I would utilize it to maybe hire one more staff member. Then I would utilize it to charter a ship in Europe or Asia, where there’s opportunity. So I would put that money back in. I also would potentially give some money to my foundation that I started just because it’s a passion of mine and it ties in with the cruises that we put together as well.
But yeah, Europe and Asia is probably where the money would go to because we have such interesting opportunities there that we’re just looking for an investor and that’s it. We already have all the legwork done. The partners are ready. The marketing’s ready. Everything’s ready to go. We just don’t have the right partner yet financially to take a risk over there.
Oscar DiVeroli: It’s going to be a great day. You not only just secured $1 million, I’m also going to give you some magical powers. Now you have the ability of going all the way back the first day that you launch company all the way up to the current point. You now have unique powers to reverse any singular decision you ever made. What would you change?
Jason Beukema: Interestingly enough, I wouldn’t change a thing because I feel that everything that I’ve been through has helped me, the negatives and the positives. Negatives even more so than positives because when you lose money, it helps you to not go back to that point.
My whole journey, it’s just certainly been a roller coaster. I wish I had a mentor, and I wish I had more contacts, and I wish I had more money and things like that. But because I didn’t have those things, it’s exactly how it was supposed to be. It helped me to get where I’m at today.
I wouldn’t be who I am today if all those roller coaster things didn’t happen, from living in a trailer park at one point to … There’s definitely been some ups and downs, and having to get a job twice during the 10 years that I’ve been in business to continue it going, to be able to have to continue it. But I wouldn’t go back change anything because everything’s happened for a reason.
Oscar DiVeroli: Of course. You described the stereotypical entrepreneurial journey that we all take at some point in our life.
You only have a couple seconds left with these magical powers before I take them back. You wouldn’t change anything in the past, so let’s look forward. Let’s say five years lapsed. How do you think the business climate will have changed, and how will it affect your business?
Jason Beukema: The business climate is definitely going to change. I see us growing into doing resort takeovers, cruise takeovers. You always have to be flexible. I think the most opportunity right now is actually in Asia, just because that market is absolutely out of control and the governments are releasing their reigns on the people that live in those countries to be able to travel.
Yeah, in the next five years, I could see us multiplying and multiplying again as we continue to grow and excite people’s lives, because in the end, that’s what our mission is, is to excite people’s lives, and change those people’s lives forever, and connect people, and build relationships. That’s what really excites me and my team in the end.
Oscar DiVeroli: What one word describes you as an entrepreneur?
Jason Beukema: Well, the company is Whet, W-H-E-T, so I guess if I had to pick a word, it would probably be whet. W-H-E-T in the dictionary means to excite or to stimulate. I like to feel like I embody that word, I guess.
Oscar DiVeroli: I’ve never heard that word spelled that way.
Jason Beukema: It is an actual word. The only sentence you really hear it in is whet your appetite. We’ve manipulated it a little bit.
Oscar DiVeroli: I’ll remember that when I play Scrabble.
Jason Beukema: [crosstalk 00:14:22] things. Exactly.
Oscar DiVeroli: Who do you go to or where do you go to if you want to brainstorm an idea, or you want to problem-solve, or just general overall guidance or advice? Who do you go to?
Jason Beukema: I go to Entrepreneur Organization a lot, to my forum. That’s been a huge help for me. Then also, if there’s questions about my team, my leadership team is a huge resource. I really feel that if I come up with an idea, I need to make them feel like it’s their idea, and have them buy into it and be aligned with what’s going on, and what I want for the future is what they want for the future as well.
Also, our captains, or our customers, we do surveys that we look at religiously in terms of everything that we do, from marketing … We just did a whole rebranding. Instead of us coming up with the rebranding, we asked thousands of people that have been on our cruises before, what are words do you think embody our company? How does it make you feel when you go on one of our cruises? Things like that to really dig into what the branding is of our company and what the essence is of our company.
That was a huge resource for us because our company isn’t necessarily just about us or myself that runs the company. It’s about the people, that we excite their lives. That’s the most important thing. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers, and the money, and the drama with the cruise lines, and the drama with customs and immigration, and the drama with doing overseas, or last-minute stuff that goes on. It’s easy to get caught up in all of that. But in the end, it’s about exciting people’s lives and changing people’s lives, and that’s the most exciting thing of what we do.
Oscar DiVeroli: I’ve asked this next question several times in the past. I have a sneaky suspicion your answer’s going to be unique. Share with us the coolest experience you’ve ever had in your professional life.
Jason Beukema: I remember my first cruise and looking over the ship. We’re in the middle of the ocean. Yeah, it was pretty emotional. It was pretty awesome. Just looking at … I think we had 2,000 people on that cruise, and just being like, wow, this is my cruise ship for these three or four days, or three days, I think it was. We had all these big artists on there and everyone was just having the time of their life.
This was the culmination of everything that happened. There were people that got engaged on the cruise, and there were just so many connections. Still to this day, I always hear about the businesses that were formed or the relationships. It’s humbling to think, oh, this was just an idea I had in a basement a few years ago, and to see the lives that it’s affected is pretty humbling for sure.
Oscar DiVeroli: Very inspiring. Final question. Let’s pretend for a moment that when you wake up tomorrow morning, Whet Travel no longer exists. What is the next business you’re going to want to launch.
Jason Beukema: Good question. It would definitely be something in travel. Definitely something in travel. It would have the same premise to it. It would definitely have the same premise to it. I really feel like I’m aligned with who I am and what I want to be doing exactly.
Travel, to me, it excites people and it just changes the world, really. When you go on a cruise or you’re outside of your element and you’re going to a new destination, and you’re learning, and you’re expanding your mind, and seeing what else is out there in the world, you realize that there’s so much out there and there’s so many things to see, and do, and experience.
To me, when people look back on their life, they don’t look at that they worked harder. They look at their vacations or their relationships and wish they had more time with their family or their friends, or more time experiencing the world and things like that. It would have to be something along those lines, similar to what I’m doing now, for sure though.
Oscar DiVeroli: Jason, your entrepreneurial journey has been exciting and inspiring to hear. I want to thank you for spending a little time with us today. On behalf of EO South Florida, again, I’d like to congratulate you for earning your prestigious ranking on the 2014 Inc list as one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States. Thank you so much for fueling the entrepreneurial spirit in South Florida. Again, it’s been a pleasure.
Jason Beukema: Thank you so much, Oscar. I really appreciate it.
Oscar DiVeroli: Thank you.
Jason Beukema: Thank you.