Global Travel Pop-up Launches First Excursion To Cuba For January 2017
Meet Kalisa Martin and Jeff Belizaire, the founders of The Runaway Jamaica, a community-oriented luxury bed & breakfast that launched in November 2015 and is focused on amazing local food and curated cultural experiences. It’s also the first and only crowdfunded bed and breakfast in Kickstarter history, selling $46,000 in reservations and perks in just 45 days. The couple left their lives in New York City to move to Jamaica and pursue their love for food and travel. Now the pair is expanding their reach with the launch of The Runaway Experience, global curated travel experiences which will begin in January 2017. The first stop? Cuba. With the United States’ recent ease of the US travel restrictions to Cuba and US airlines beginning to offer direct flights to the country, many travelers are looking to explore all that the island has to offer.
We chatted with Jeff and Kalisa about why they chose Cuba as their first trip, what people can expect on the excursion, and why these curated travel experiences are so important to them. Check out what they had to say below.
MadameNoire(MN): Why the decision to build a curated experience in Cuba?
Kalisa Martin (KM): Cuba represents a lot for Americans as this coveted destination that we haven’t been able to go to for 50 years. As people of color, it’s a really great example of the struggle and a certain era in time and victory. There’s such rich culture and so much we can learn. If you’re going to travel to a destination and get a different perspective and learn something and be really inspired, Cuba is that place. It’s not even because it’s trendy, it’s because we genuinely want to experience it. We have certain standards that we’ve established as a travel brand. We’re excited to apply our knowledge and our reputation on a group trip so that other people can visit Cuba through our lens.
Jeff Belizaire (JB): One of my minors was African American studies and I learned a lot about Cuba during that time. There’s an appreciation level there. Cuba has been behind this curtain for so long. Being able to see it before it becomes commercialized would be an honor and something we want to share with other people.
MN: What can people expect from the experience?
KM: We are going to handle all of their bookings so that it’s completely seamless for our guests. Everything from airfare to lodging to food – we’re going to handle that beginning to end. We’ll apply our five values (food, community, sustainability, design, culture) to the entire experience. We’re going to be connecting with local bed and breakfasts to be on-the-ground operators to ensure we’re creating an authentic experience.
JB: Part of what that will include is touring the city of Havana and Trinidad led by folks that actually live there…visiting museums and historical sites…visiting farms and really cool things like learning how to roll a Cuban cigar. It’s touching on the things that have been distinctly Cuban. [The trip will be about] being able to connect people with the folks that live that every day.
KM: The idea that we have at Runaway Jamaica, which is that folks are visiting us at home, we’re going to maintain that as the on-the-ground hosts in Cuba and all the destinations that we go to. We’re going to be the ones that have experienced everything and answered questions. We know it’s awesome and we’re going to be going on it with you.
MN: What kind of research went into planning this experience?
JB: Our trip to Cuba is coming up. We’ll be spending quite a bit of time there. We connected with an operator who specializes in Cuba. Most of our research has been through this company. They have given us a thorough download. We do our own research as well. We will be visiting Cuba with them in order to get prepared for this new offering next year.
MN: How do you make sure that the business is both fun, rewarding and financially viable? Do you have any general business tips for aspiring travel entrepreneurs?
KM: The Runaway Jamaica ended up being a really awesome first branch of the business and was also a really big research opportunity for us. From it, we learned what we are very good at, what we prefer to outsource, what we love, and what is too time or physically intensive. We’re applying that to this venture. When we go to Cuba, we are not going to buy a property, renovate it, and open up a bed and breakfast as we did in Jamaica. We’re going to be connecting with other awesome bed and breakfasts so that we can extend the brand without having to start from scratch. There are awesome places that exist already that we are excited to feature, promote, and be apart of.
JB: The key to the process of the startup is that your first product is really your prototype. For us, that was The Runaway Jamaica. Your prototype is really meant for you to learn as much as possible so that you can improve on it and develop a really awesome final product. The Runaway Experience is an evolution of our first prototype and is much closer to what we think is a solid product and way more financially viable and a lot more sustainable from an operational standpoint.
MN: Will The Runaway Jamaica remain in existence?
JB: The short answer is yes, but the long answer is we’re going to define how that process will take place in the near future. The Runaway Jamaica will exist in some form. It goes back to the point of improving our prototype and applying our key learnings to dissect everything.
MN: What do you think will be your greatest challenge?
JB: I think we faced the majority of our challenges with The Runaway Jamaica which is why we are reconfiguring some things. Regardless of how great your product is, the gap between your product and selling it is all about marketing and being able to get your message and product out to enough people that you reach a critical mess that can build the business for you. If I had a wish today to wish for one thing that would make a huge difference in our barrier of success it would be having the finances to power the marketing behind it.
KM: One challenge that we face with Runaway Experience that we didn’t have to face with The Runaway Jamaica is that we’re going to be offering specific dates for people to join us as we run away to different destinations whereas with the bed and breakfast, we’re there full time. People can book dates that match their schedule. Our audience has grown a lot since launching The Runaway Jamaica. [The Runaway Experience] is going to be all about marketing, selling specific blocks of time instead of offering open reservations.
MN: What excites you the most about launching The Runaway Experience?
JB: The main exciting thing is going to more places. It’s something that Kalisa and I have been wanting to do since we met. We’ve wanted to travel to different places and spend a considerable amount of time there. We’re also excited to make friends and expand the Runaway family.
To learn more about Jeff and Kalisa’s story building The Runaway Experience, check out their episode on the Dreams In Drive Podcast 8/17.