Don’t be afraid to get personal. Vacations and experiences are exciting! This is a fun thing we are doing, getting to plan trips that clients will look back on fondly during their lifetime. Our greatest clients are the ones we now call friends.
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathleen Hall and Melanie Marsell of Dive the Americas.
Melanie Marsell is the Co-Founder of Dive the Americas, a boutique travel agency specializing in custom and group dive travel throughout Latin America. She holds a degree in Travel & Tourism from the University of Florida and has over a decade of experience in the industry, including management experience at Costa Rica’s acclaimed The Springs and Peace Lodge resorts, as well as generating over $5 million in luxury vacation sales during her tenure at an award-winning travel agency. Melanie is a Costa Rica native and a lifelong resident of Central America, giving her a deep cultural understanding and expertise that she brings to travel planning.
Kathleen Hall is a biologist, travel, and scuba diving expert. She is the co-founder of Dive the Americas, a boutique travel agency specializing in group & custom dive travel throughout Latin America. After moving to Costa Rica in 2015, she began her career in luxury tourism, noted as a consistent top performer producing over $3 million in luxury vacation sales. www.divetheamericas.com
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Melanie Marsell: I was born in Costa Rica and raised in Florida, so I spent a lot of time traveling as a kid. I knew early on that I wanted to be an Entrepreneur (like my dad!) and working in travel seemed a natural fit for me. I studied Tourism Management and Business at the University of Florida and began my career at 19 when I got my first internship at a resort in Costa Rica. I started at the bottom working at the outdoor activity center and soon worked my way up to Director of Groups and Events. After about 5 years in hotel management, I wanted more flexibility than resort life could offer, so I pivoted to working as a luxury travel advisor (where I met Kathleen), which then brought us to start our own travel company, Dive the Americas.
Kathleen: Fate brought me to Costa Rica which paved the way for my career in tourism. I wanted to finish up my biology degree outside of the US and had my sights set on Chile. Costa Rica ended up having a better program for what I was looking for, so Costa Rica it was! Growing up, I never anticipated a career outside of the medical world, so unlike Melanie, I never saw myself becoming an Entrepreneur, let alone building a life outside of the US and in tourism. A mutual friend suggested a career in sales and I took a position as a luxury travel advisor. This is where I fell in love with Latin America, travel planning, and later, scuba diving. Six years down the road, Dive the Americas was born!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Melanie: I used to joke that someone should make a TV show about working at a destination resort because of all the crazy stories! There are plenty of bizarre, funny, and interesting situations from that part of my life — think ‘The White Lotus’.
But when it comes to my career in travel planning, the pandemic takes the cake. Our sales team went from 38 members to only 8 overnight. We went from a record-breaking sales month to handling angry clients, hundreds of cancellations, and reschedules, all while navigating so much uncertainty, not knowing when or if travel would ever be the same. I learned resilience the hard way, but looking back, it was one of the most transformative experiences in my career, and it’s actually what brought me to become scuba-certified.
Kathleen: I’d have to agree with Melanie and also go as far as to say that the most interesting thing that I have done in my career is starting a travel business in the middle of the pandemic.
It was a dark time for the industry, but we were determined to find the silver lining and the potential it held for our professional growth and the future of sustainable travel.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Melanie: When I was working as an event planner, I had this lovely couple from the US fly into Costa Rica with their large family group — think ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’. They wanted a traditional Jewish ceremony with a ‘chuppah’, which is a canopy structure you stand under. Since we were in a tropical setting, we had designed this beautiful chuppah made from bamboo and decorated with orchids. On the big day, I entrusted a maintenance assistant for the build. He was a hardworking, honest guy, who was on the shorter side, not much more than 4 feet tall. As I headed down for a final check before the ceremony, I immediately realized my mistake– measurements, or lack thereof. He had built the beautiful chuppah I had designed, but it stood just over 4 feet, perfect for him, but not quite big enough for the 6-foot groom!
You have to pay attention to the details in this industry and be able to adapt quickly. Luckily, we had enough time to fix it that day without the bride and groom ever knowing what happened. As travel planners, we can do everything in our power to design a flawless trip, but knowing what to do when things go wrong and jumping into action quickly is even more important.
Kathleen: Being an expat in rural Central America has its challenges. I love living in Costa Rica, but sometimes I miss my favorite treats from home. Once, I was on a call with a client and I casually told her that I was craving Cheez-Its. Fast forward a few weeks and we are meeting in Costa Rica at her hotel for coffee, when all of a sudden she hands me a giant 10lb bag of fresh cheese, still cold from the fridge. She misunderstood me and thought there must have been no cheese in the entire country of Costa Rica so she brought me enough for about six months! It was a funny moment and a lesson learned in communicating clearly, but it broke the ice and she’s a loyal client to this day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Melanie: There are plenty of people I can thank here, but when it comes to support, leadership, and confidence to believe in my ideas and take the leap into entrepreneurship, my husband is #1.
Kathleen: I can accredit so much of my success in my life to my foster mom, Christine. I have known and loved her since I was 11 and although teenage Kathleen did not like her challenging me, I wouldn’t have made it through life’s obstacles without her. She never doubted me and always supported me when I needed it most.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
Kathleen: In the dive world, there’s an excess amount of dive providers and not enough people behind the scenes to hold them accountable — that’s what we aim to do. We want to build a community in diving that is safe, inclusive, and fun, and those things don’t yet coexist on the scale we are looking to build on. For example, one thing we do is ask our providers in-depth questions about their operations and work together with them to make sure the client experience is the best it can be.
Melanie: Kathleen hit the nail on the head! I’d add that we are here for more than just diving, we want to open the doors for everyone to be able to find ways to experience the ocean. We want to be a support system for travelers and anyone curious about the sea.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
Kathleen: Through our own travels, we’ve found that there are good travel planners, and there are a lot of people who are good at diving, but there are not a lot of people who are good at both. We’re hoping to bridge the gap between the travel logistics, the local intel, and the diving.
Melanie: Statistics tell us that Scuba diving has traditionally been male-dominated, currently at about 70% men and 30% women. We want not just women, but families, people of different body types, and people from all walks of life, to dive and travel together while feeling supported. We want to shake things up by encouraging more diversity in the sport. By doing this, we hope we can get more people to fall in love with the underwater world and ultimately help protect it!
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
Kathleen: Consumers want to feel valued, and they want to feel their money is well spent. Flexibility and transparency are key moving forward, and that’s part of the reason why more people are booking with travel advisors now more than ever. Travelers are opting for trusted recommendations and simplifying how they book their vacations so they don’t have to worry about navigating complicated booking terms on their own.
Melanie: In addition, I think travelers are craving human connection now more than ever. More people are working from home and meeting on Zoom, so when they travel, they want to feel a real connection with the people, culture, and soul of each destination. That itch for connection and the post-pandemic ability to ‘work from anywhere’ is also fueling demand for longer trips.
With that in mind, we are introducing group trips in 2024 that bring the focus back to creating human connections.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
Melanie: This is a tough question! Obviously, I love a dive trip. To me, a ‘dive-eat-sleep-repeat’ is heaven — that’s what I’m doing for my honeymoon next year! What makes a travel experience perfect for me is one that is stress-free and leaves room for surprises, like stumbling upon an incredible restaurant or jumping in the water and seeing a species you’ve never seen before.
Kathleen: This is an ironic answer, but my perfect vacation experience is one that I don’t plan for myself! I love planning trips (obviously as I built my career around it) so I think the most relaxing part of traveling for me is when someone else plans the whole experience. I’m a very adventurous person, so it’s 50/50 whether you’ll find me camping at the base of Costa Rica’s tallest mountain or on a luxury liveaboard in the Galapagos Islands.
There’s one thing we both agree on though and it’s that we love a bougie hotel robe!
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Kathleen: Community & connection are two of the most important pillars of our business.
Educating our clients on taking care of themselves while taking care of the environment at the same time is something we value deeply. With Dive the Americas we have always wanted to show people how healing scuba diving can be on so many different levels. Wellness is something that we are incorporating into our group trips going into the next year.
Melanie: I’m always quacking about how scuba diving is my zen! So often I hear ‘I’ve always wanted to get certified, but I’m too scared, or too anxious, too this or that’. I was all of the above! When I’m underwater, it’s like being in a meditative state. I’m focused on my breathing and it feels like time slows down around me. It can be incredibly healing. I hope we can help more people find that sense of peace through diving.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be intentional with the trip layout. We like to think of planning a trip like storytelling. Each part should flow seamlessly into the next, building anticipation and ending with a ‘wow’ factor.
- Share your personal connections. We live in Latin America and travel it often, so we are intimately familiar with the destinations we offer. We always try to give our clients tips they can’t get anywhere else. For example, at X Hotel, there’s a fantastic bartender named Joe who makes the best margaritas. Before our clients’ arrival, I suggest they visit Joe and mention that I sent them. That personal connection makes a big difference!
- Manage expectations. Setting clear expectations from the start is key! If there are limitations or potential challenges during the trip, it’s best to be upfront about them. This is why we vet our providers and put so much emphasis on experiencing the things we offer ourselves, so we can manage expectations, avoid disappointment, and build trust.
- Listen actively When you are planning a trip, you should fully understand what is most important for your client. Ask open-ended questions and dig a little deeper to make sure you create the perfect itinerary. What you like isn’t always what your client is going to like.
- Don’t be afraid to get personal. Vacations and experiences are exciting! This is a fun thing we are doing, getting to plan trips that clients will look back on fondly during their lifetime. Our greatest clients are the ones we now call friends.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Melanie: We make it a point to incorporate goodness into every trip we design. Sometimes it’s something small but impactful like adding a stop at a local wildlife rescue center to an itinerary or adding reef-safe sunscreen options to our packing lists. We’ve learned to make difficult decisions and even given up sales when something doesn’t align with our values.
Kathleen: Educating our clients on protecting our home is at the forefront of our business. Before we started Dive the Americas, we had these shared values but now can put them into practice. Education and knowledge is the key to change!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We might sound like a broken record but for us, it’s about getting more people to fall in love with the ocean and do their part to protect it. There’s so much of the world underwater and we hope we can inspire more people to see and learn about it.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They can check out our website at www.divetheamericas.com
Instagram: @divetheamericas, https://www.instagram.com/divetheamericas/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!