Love to Travel? What if you could build a business based on your passion for travel? This may sound too good to be true, but that’s what our guest did. Rita Perez is a self-professed cruise junkie and the founder of RitaVentures. Her business spawned out of her love for event planning and her background in hospitality management. Rita is also a certified Master Cruise Counselor and the host of The Cruise Retreat Podcast.
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Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Rita Perez, welcome to Get the Balance Right podcast!”
Rita Perez: “Thank you, excited to be here!”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “I am super excited to have you here. I've been really enjoying your podcast and you have taken a passion for travel and turned it into a business all-around travel. This is so exciting because I have had people come to me and they were like bloggers that wanted to talk about travel and they actually like wanted to deduct all their travel expenses and I'm like, ‘Hey, you're not really making this into a business’. But you made it into a business.
So tell us. how in the world did you start getting into travel as an occupation?”
Rita Perez: “I started back in 2010 and it was a collision of two big things.
And that was, I was finishing up my master's degree. I was taking an elective on creativity. I honestly didn't think I was a creative person, but I found that entrepreneurship was a form of creativity. So that was one thing. And then at the same time, one of my really good friends was getting married. And she was like, ‘I'm not getting married in the states, I’m going to get married where my future husband's family is from: in Tunisia’, which is a small country in Northern Africa.
So those two things, and like just the life-changing experience that happened where us as friends like really became family and meeting his family really became our family, just the connections and the relationships.
I was like, ‘I want to create these types of experiences for other people’. And that's how the travel business started in fall of 2010.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Wow. You started off as an entrepreneur in travel, then you actually went straight from your passion. Wasn't like you learned the ropes. What were you doing before that?
You were a student, but did you have a career before that?”
Rita Perez: “Yeah, so my background is majority in the hospitality industry. So I'm based in Orlando, Florida. And I've worked at many of the major theme parks, different hotels, resorts here in the area. So I was doing the travel business part-time while working full-time in the theme parks.
And it wasn't until last year, I know for many of us, especially with everything that happened in the pandemic, lots of things, kind of were revealed. And I just took the plunge and I went full time in my travel business last year.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Wow. That's so exciting. And how long have you been doing the podcast?”
Rita Perez: “That started out of the pandemic. Also, I started that June of 2020. So it'll be two years in almost a month.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Well, and tell us about your podcast.”
Rita Perez: “It’s the Cruise Retreat Podcast. I do a couple of different things, but I really have been focusing this year on giving you lots of tips and insights. I specialize in creating retreat experiences or group trip experiences on cruise ships.
And this can be like big ocean ships or river cruise ships. I take all the insights, especially from this amazing year that I've had traveling, almost every other month now. And I share those different experiences with you because I know that one, not a lot of people know that you can plan group trips, especially educational sessions on cruise ships.
And then how does that actually happen? What does that look like? What do you need to be planning or aware of during the process?”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “These group programs are these to go on to the company retreat. Is it to put on maybe a business retreat for female entrepreneurs, or is it completely educational for kids to learn who is going on these cruise ships?”
Rita Perez: “All of the above. Especially really in more 18 years. Entrepreneurs is one side. So I love that you mentioned like female entrepreneurs getting together, doing some networking, having a little bit of coaching or strategizing masterminding during the sessions that you might have.
This is also really great for teams. If you wanted to bring in this can be like, small mom and pop business, or this can be large corporate teams to bring their teams on board, either strategize for the year. Or I also work with a local tech company and they bring their team kind of like as a kickoff for the year.
And they do a lot of their recognition for people who have achieved things throughout the year. So like high earners in sales or just people who have stood out with different relationships that they've built throughout the company. And it can also be completely leisure. You don't need any education at these types of events, if you just want to get away, get together and just like completely be more of a networking opportunity and maybe like some education off and on. Or even I recently came off of a river cruise in the Provence region in France, and I did a lot of professional photos.
I've picked up a little photography passion with it myself. And all the recent travels, a lot of the people on that trip have awesome photos that they can showcase in their social media or whatever content they have now.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Wow. And then do they tag you? How do you get more business? How do you drum up more referrals for your business? Is a lot of it through social media?”
Rita Perez: “There's some of it through social media. So I'm most active on Instagram and LinkedIn. LinkedIn has been pretty popular for me recently because I have been posting and exposing people to the possibilities of utilizing river cruise ships in Europe to put on these types of retreats, as opposed to like a hotel conference center or a retreat center. I've been able to schedule a lot of like connection calls recently.
So if somebody is not using, or hasn't been using LinkedIn fully, I say both, you need thought-provoking posts to engage with potential clients, but also comment on other people's posts. I think that almost is even better than having my own content, even though it’s important. Showing the effort and not just like, ‘Hey, that's great’.
Like actually commenting something of substance on another person's posts is really meaningful to the original content creator.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Yeah. And they really appreciate it as well because it helps them with the algorithms and it shows that people are engaged with their content and they didn't waste their time developing the content.
A like is fine, doesn’t get you enough bang for your buck when it comes down to it. For my own business, I have been very interested in putting together business retreats. And during a pandemic, it was really difficult to schedule something because everything was so up in the air and changing all the time.
But what I found in my research was that it's a lot easier to plan a business retreat through a cruise line or using a cruise than it is trying to arrange hotels or like a big Airbnb that everyone's going to stay in or activities and all the things. Because on a cruise it's self-contained and you got the meals taken care of it.
Is that kind of what you have found? And is that why you lean more towards cruising?”
Rita Perez: “Yes. Yeah. And I love that you mentioned that I'm like, ‘Whoohoo!’. So like bring the awareness that that's even possible, one of the biggest reasons that I love utilizing the vehicle of cruise ships for retreats is that it's a mostly an all-inclusive environment, depending on the cruise line that you sail with.
Meaning that once an attendee pays for their cruise fare, most, if not all, of their meals are included, beverages are included, entertainment’s included, activities are included. Entertainment and activities, in terms of the cruise ship, this doesn't include your activities, of course. It helps you as the retreat runner, save so much money because that is extra dollars that you're not having to shell out from your original retreat budget, it’s just what comes in the cruise fare.
And that also includes your meeting space on board. So if you needed like projector, projection, screen microphones, podiums that is included.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Wow. And it seems like there's more predictability than around what the pricing is going to be. Because that was another thing I found and it was dependent upon, well, if you get 12 people, the price goes down and it's all dependent on size. Where a cruise, I would imagine that they have more of a flat fee.
How does that work with the pricing? You know, if you said, ‘Okay, I would love to have 10 people’, but then only five people sign up. How do you work at the pricing? Is there a difference?”
Rita Perez: “It is definitely more flexible because I know you kind of like are going into attrition and if you don't sell so many, kind of hotel retreats, then you are responsible still for making up the cost of that.
Whereas on a cruise ship, it's a little bit different. It's more, it's like this invisible block. So I can say that I want 10 cabins and this was how much those 10 cabins are going to cost, but graciously for the most part, if I don't fill those 10 cabins, cruise line is just going to take back those rooms and they're going to sell them on their own.
Similarly, if you need more than 10 rooms, as long as there's availability. And pricing hasn't changed, or you can communicate if there's any pricing changes, you're able to add what you need in there as well.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Wow. If people are thinking about, ‘Hey, I want to do something like this’, is this something where you would recommend check out a cruise beforehand, or is there a way to see the ship or just kind of go for it?
Like before you started this, had you kind of checked out cruise lines beforehand before getting into this, what are your suggestions for people?”
Rita Perez: “I am an avid cruiser. I think I'm hitting almost 30. At the end of this year I'll be at 30 cruises. So if you have cruised before you obviously are going to have a little bit of leg up as to the difference. The types of meeting space, the lounges, and conference centers that you can utilize on the cruise ships.
But that's also a benefit of working with someone like myself, who is a professional travel advisor and who has been on many cruises is that we are like your cruise retreat matchmaker. We talk with you and discuss what your goals are. Kind of like what you're envisioning this retreat being. And can automatically start filtering. ‘Okay, you’re not meant for this cruise line but maybe we can go through this cruise line’. Similarly, ‘This itinerary is not gonna work for you, but Alaska probably could work for you’. There are so many complexities based on really what your goals are and how much education, how many sessions you want to have aboard.
And then how much downtime as well as like, ‘What are your dreams as the retreat host? Do you just see yourself going to the south of France and being like, it's okay if I have to cut a little bit on the education because I really want to travel here and I know many people want to travel with me’? So let's do that instead.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Okay, so you're actually the person. You hire you, then you take care of all the arrangements.
Are you the one making sure that there's going to be a podium in the room or?”
Rita Perez: “ Exactly, I've got you covered.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Wow, okay. So let's back up for a second. You said you were from Orlando and mentioned the parks. Of course, I'm going to think of Disney and not saying that you necessarily worked for Disney, but of course, Disney has cruise lines.
Is that kind of how you got interested in cruising, was through the theme parks you were working for, or, I mean, Orlando is not by the ocean. There is the semi, I don't know if that's got any river cruises on there.”
Rita Perez: “No, it is actually about an hour away from two large cruise ports, which is Port Canaveral and then the Port of Tampa.
Florida is just a big cruise hub. We have the Port of Miami, Port Everglades, which is in Fort Lauderdale. I grew up with cruising. I think my first cruise was on a Disney ship, I think when I was in seventh or eighth grade. Fun little fact, Disney has these ambassadors, they select certain cast members to be ambassadors for the year. And the ambassadors are kind of like that ambassador for the company.
And my cousin happened to be one during that year, I think it was 99 or 2000. Because there are special perks that come with that we were able to sail on one of the maiden voyages.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “That's so cool. I knew somebody that, he took his kids on one of those and it was unbelievable. He said, they'd come back to the room and there was like stuff on the pillows for the kids.
Wow. You know, I'm a vegan so of course, I think about my necessary diet. When you think of cruise lines, you think of giant buffets with carved meats and the, you know, all that kind of stuff. And I know that the cruise lines are going out of their way for people that have dietary restrictions like gluten-free and maybe nut allergies.
Do you have any feedback on that and are certain cruise lines better for that?”
Rita Perez: “Oh, yes. I love that. You mentioned that because I am an auto-immune patient. So I have something called Hashimoto's thyroiditis. And in the past year I have cut out a lot of stuff, and that includes gluten and dairy. I am very cognizant of certain things like that.
Immediately, when you said vegan, I'm like Virgin Voyages. Because virgin is a brand new cruise line and was supposed to come out in 2020, but we all know what happened there. But all their menus are identifiable, whether if something is a vegan option, a vegetarian option, or a gluten-free option. And not only that, but their food is so high quality and delicious.
I was so impressed when I sailed them and I was like, ‘I need to like plan a group trip on here’. Because I know like if I liked it, I wouldn't consider myself somewhat of a foodie, and they were able to take care of my dietary needs, I would feel comfortable that they'll be able to take care of anyone else’s. And same the river cruise line that I work with very closely on the water, I’ve never had any issues with my dietary needs. And I know that they have special vegetarian menus that I'm sure I'm pretty confident that they can make those vegan as well.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Wow. Yeah. Cause that is one of those things. Stuck out at sea as I traveled to Mexico and they've got Cascos there even, you know, so you can, at least I know I'm going to get some soy milk and some cereal.
So though, sometimes I bring that in my suitcase with me. You followed your passion. So you worked in hospitality beforehand. What have been some of the benefits of following your passion? It sounds like you've been doing a lot of traveling.”
Rita Perez: “Oh my goodness. Well, I resigned from my full-time position last May. And not that I can advocate for everyone doing this because everybody's in a different situation, but it was literally life-changing in so many ways.
It's very cliche to say that I wish I had done it sooner, but the world literally opened for me when I did that. I was talking with a friend earlier that it's not even that I've been able to travel as much as I have been this past year, but I just feel more fulfilled.
I have better relationships with people. And because of that, there are certain, we were talking about stress and being in a job that you don't like and don't feel appreciated. And once that burden has kind of been lifted, you're able just to open your capacity to so many other things. I cannot exude joy more, more than I can because it's coming up on the one-year anniversary of when I did put in my resignation notice.
I hope that everybody can feel this elation because I feel like everyone deserves it. You've worked your booties off throughout the years. I recommend following your passion and really leaning in on that. Because other people see the joy within you also, and they just, it's very charismatic. It's a charismatic feeling.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “One of the scary things though about following your passion is when you first start a business, you're like, okay, well, this is great. I'm following my passion, but where am I going to get these sales, where am I going to get clients where they come from? I'm not going to say that you poach people from your other job, but were you able to kind of tap into your network from your prior jobs? Or how did you build a business from the ground up?”
Rita Perez: “I was kind of very quiet at work. Eventually, it got out that I was the travel person, but it's really been a strong base of family and friends and then referrals. I was not a networking person. And I feel like that's what held me back because I thought networking was a sleazy thing.
And I thought it was going to be like that creepy old guy being like, ‘Look, I have this pens. Do you want to buy this pen for me? You should really buy it’. So I avoided it. But once I started doing more networking, I'm like, ‘It's not like that at all’. Especially if you have like-minded people who are very giving and generous. Like I found myself networking, but not even networking.
Like for me, really, even though obviously that's what the goal is, but I want to connect other people so that they are also successful in what their passion is. I highly recommend networking, putting yourself out there. It is scary as heck, but again, super rewarding once you do it.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “The thing with the networking, other people are there to network as well.
If people want to work with you, are you working with people like all over the United States? Is it just in Florida?”
Rita Perez: “It's easier for me to work with, obviously, Florida, if you're going to be working with a travel professional, make sure that they're licensed, especially in certain states, they have insurance. The travel industry isn't heavily regulated, especially if I'm going to compare it to like the real estate industry where you need to be licensed, take a test and all that.
So just make sure that whoever you collaborate with, they have credentials. Like different certifications that are in the industry that they're affiliated with industry associations, like the American Society of Travel Advisors. That's one starting point, but yes, Florida United States. But yes, I can assist. I am open.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “If the businesses here in America, you can always help them get on a cruise that's overseas somewhere, I would imagine.
And where do the cruises usually take off like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami?”
Rita Perez: “You've listened some amazing places. Los Angeles, San Diego, if you're going to Alaska, Seattle, Vancouver. There are so many different cruise ports because you can also do like Boston area, Maine up there during fall time. Various places in Florida, Texas Port of Galveston is really expanding right now, too.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Oh, wow. So does that go to Mexico generally?”
Rita Perez: “Generally, yes. And those are just the US Ports. Because Mediterranean cruises are usually like from Barcelona or from Greece, Italy. And then you have the river cruises that sail interior in the country.
So you're sailing through countries and not just to them. On the Danube, you can start in Budapest, Hungary, and sail all the way up to Germany and maybe do like a pre or post in Budapest or in Eunick, Prague, all these different little areas across Europe.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Wow. Okay. So when you said river cruise, all, I thought it was like the Mississippi with the paddle boat.
Like that's what I was thinking, like a lot of gambling and a paddle boat. Okay. That sounds really cool. I was supposed to go on my first cruise this past year, but because of the pandemic, it was changed. Some people might be thinking with cruise lines, there’s that stigma now of, ‘Oh, you might get stuck out at sea because everyone's got COVID or something’.
Put that aside because that could happen anywhere that you travel. You could get stuck in a country. We don't know what's going to happen with the world. But for people that are hesitant about cruising, what are some of the benefits of going on a cruise line? Sounds like you've got everything at your fingertips. It's awesome.”
Rita Perez: “In terms of safety, I don't think a lot of people know this widely is that cruising those right now, one of the strictest vacations that you can be on right now in terms of safety protocols. So at this moment, because things can always change, everyone I believe ages five and up does need to be vaccinated to board a cruise ship.
You also need to be tested at least two days prior to arriving to the port and make sure you produce a negative result in order to board the cruise ship. Masks right now are not required, they are encouraged, but they're not required, since cases have gone back down. They've upgraded HPAC systems.
There's still social distancing that's present on board. So they’re not selling out the ships like they used to. I just had a small little bachelorette group sale this past weekend. They said there were only 450 passengers on like, I believe the ship can fit at least 2000 or 3000 people. So tons of space. It's not always that case, but if you can get something like that, it's like your own private yacht ship.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “ So if people want to book one of these ships for a business retreat. How much time do people usually rent these rooms for, you know, business training? Like, is it like the first few days at sea before they go to port? Like how many days of training should people kind of work into their retreat?”
Rita Perez: “It depends on how immersive you really want to be.
I'll give a good example of the corporate retreat that I plan every year. So they are usually sticking with four nights. And the popular itinerary that we like to go on is on a Cozumel itinerary. So day one will be kind of like a kickoff event, maybe like two hours total. And there'll be some icebreakers and setting expectations really is what the first day is.
Second day is usually a sea day. Sea days are perfect for educational sessions because this ship is going to have other activities, but for your programming purposes, this is where you can do like keynote speeches, breakouts, more icebreakers, networking sessions, all that on your days at. So then when you're on your day in port in Cozumel, Mexico, everyone can either go on their own exploring, or maybe you can coordinate a group excursion to either do some snorkeling or visit some of the Mayan ruins and just get that like real downtime and real connection time outside of just being like in a session.
And then your next day, usually a day at sea. So you'll be able to wrap up and do just a conclusion type of event and say thank you. And then you're sadly back in port and it's time for everybody to go home. That's a typical four-night itinerary."
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Okay, and like you were saying before the planning, we can probably plan this out maybe a year in advance and get the rooms all booked up and everything.
This has been so exciting that you have followed your passion and you've made this really awesome business out of it. And you get to travel. Do you go on trips with all your clients to kind of make sure everything is running smoothly? Or how does that work?”
Rita Perez: “I like to go for that reason because I want to make sure that you are focused on your people and the content you're presenting. That you don't have to (real life story), go up to the buffet to get some bananas for your keynote speech. I actually did that for one of my clients. So I'll take care of all the logistics, making sure water gets filled up and you just take care of your people and make sure that your presentations are top-notch.
It doesn't always happen that I sail with clients, but if you want that extra experience, extra luxury on board, I'm more than happy to come along.”
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Oh, that's very cool. That's that's great. So then you don't have all that worry, like, ‘Oh God is the sound technician gonna be there’, or whatever.
Wow, that’s really cool. Okay. So Rita, let's tell everybody how they can find you, where you're at and the name of your podcast.”
Rita Perez: “It’s The Cruise Retreat Podcast and you can find it on any major podcast platform. I am most active on Instagram with my username @ritaventures, or you can find me on LinkedIn also.
And then I have a special little goodie. If you're really wanting to dive into the planning process, I have a cruise retreat planning calendar that you can get off my website: https://ritaventures.net/calendar."
Heather Zeitzwolfe: “Awesome. And we'll have all of that in the show notes. Well, thank you so much, Rita. This has been really fun and I've had so many questions about cruising and retreats. Thank you so much."
Rita Perez: “Yes. Thank you so much for having me. I've enjoyed gabbing a little bit on travel, but also like having fun on retreat.”