Inside the Jon Robert Experience
How Becoming an Expat Made Him One of the Top Travel Influencers
Now that two years have passed since covid-19 first arrived at America's doorstep, it's fascinating to look back on the journey we each took as it changed our lives in one way or another. I'm reminded of how the pandemic has pushed many of us to overcome and achieve as I look back on an interview I conducted with travel influencer and curator, Jon Robert, in 2020 and I am glad to share it with you all -- my readers.
During 2020 at the height of the pandemic, you may have noticed your social media timeline filled with photos of friends and colleagues fleeing the grasp of Covid-19 in the United States in exchange for the soft, sandy white beaches and crystal waters of Tulum, Mexico. With the pandemic adamant to overstay its unwelcome many people ditched the states to live their best socially distanced lives in other countries where the requirements for quarantine were minimal. When Europe got shutdown for the second time and other places laid down restrictions, Tulum was an increasingly sought-after refuge. For some, travel abroad may have been put on pause, but seeing the lavish possibilities through social media gave much to look forward to when the world finally “opened up” again. I too observed the growing popularity for the town on the Caribbean coastline of the Yucatán Peninsula but would soon learn that the pictures I scrolled through on the gram were just a glimpse of all it has to offer.
Maybe you saw him fall into a pool of allegorical doom in his iconic tribute to the statement "Black Lives Matter" or it is possible that you saw him emerged from a body of water surrounded by the natural beauty of God’s artwork. Perhaps you saw him fully immersed in the experience of embracing diverse culture donning a stylish suit, but I first came across Jonathan Robert Curry, known as “Jon Robert,” when I saw him epitomize the meaning of self-care; a black man rightfully taking up space exuding excellence and opulence. In the middle of a pandemic. A few months after the height of racial tension in America after George Floyd’s murder.
Like many in 2020, Jon Robert was furloughed from his job in March. Before Covid, he worked in the hotel industry and the desire to travel and having access to traveling discounts was the right combination for what was to come next in his life. As an only child of two missionaries, “Travel has always been an intricate part of my life,” says Jon Robert. “My parents had a global perspective of the world and wanted me to have the same thing so that I was exposed to different types of people and cultures.” That curiosity continued to grow. After being told by his peers for some time that he should curate trips, he planned on pursuing that endeavor in 2020 and then the world went into lockdown which he thought would halt his plans.
A short time after losing his job, he wanted to get away and left his home in Atlanta and flew to Tulum. “With Covid, America was locked out of a lot of countries so there was a very limited number of places that we could go. Tulum had already been on my list so when I saw that I could come here without a major issue I bought a one-way ticket.” With the security of employment stripped away, “Being furloughed gave me plenty of time to make no excuses.” It was the blessing in disguise that he needed to launch Thejonrobert, his own travel company, in the middle of a pandemic along with Yacht Club Company which he is a co-founder with his partner William Lee.
What has been the biggest challenge in starting and growing your business during a pandemic?
I think one of the biggest challenges for anyone is perfection (laughs). I think oftentimes we use perfection as an excuse not to do anything. “Oh, I want to perfect this before I do this, or I want to perfect this before I do that.” Some things you will only learn from doing. I think the hardest thing for me—and I used it as a clutch—was wanting everything to be perfect. I want exactly nine people to book at this time. When I drop the information, it should sell out in two hours (laughs). You have to go back and say, “No, that’s not a realistic expectation. Your price point is not five dollars. It’s a 1,900-dollar, 2,000-dollar vacation in the middle of a pandemic. Be okay with having a plan and being able to adjust it but still walking towards the direction of what you are setting out to do. Now that you are your own boss it’s important to make sure you really are disciplined. Normally when you’re working for someone else, you can sometimes milk the clock and take the two-hour lunch break (laughs) but when it’s the difference of you being able to have a place to stay for an extra day or a week versus being homeless in Tulum your approach is a little different.
What is the time frame between you being furloughed and officially launching your business?
So, I was furloughed on March 23rd of 2020. I was living in Orlando, Florida at the time and so once I got furloughed, I moved to Atlanta, Georgia on April 1st and I stayed in Atlanta until July 8th and then flew to Tulum and have been in Tulum since July 9th. I officially launched my company in late July or early August. One of the things that happened with me being here was making relationships and learning the land. Originally, I had planned on curating a trip to Tulum to start my company. It was going to be Cuba or Tulum because I love Cuba, I know enough about it to do it but I knew that Tulum was going to be an upcoming hot spot, so I wanted to be one of the first people to get here and offer trips to Tulum. It was so weird with me ending up moving here, which was not planned, to then feeling like this makes sense. There’s a demand here and I helped a friend curate his trip here. Me doing that showed me that I had all the things in me already to step out and do it. The next night after the trip, I decided I was going to do it. I put it on social media and was like, “Ok! It’s real now.” I did that on purpose. I put it out there one night and then just went to bed and woke up to it.
You have traveled all over the world. Why, Tulum?
They say sometimes your destination chooses you. The original deal I made with myself—and a lot of people I don’t even tell this story to—is that once my toothbrush dies—cause I have an electronic toothbrush—then I’ll go back home. Well, what happened was my toothbrush did die but I sent a friend to go get my charger and bring it back to me. I’ve been to many, many countries and I don’t think I’ve ever fallen in love with a country the way that I fell in love with Tulum. It’s just such a relaxed atmosphere, it’s not pretentious, it’s still close enough to the states where if you need to get home or need to handle business you can take one flight and be there within three hours. So, it’s realistic from a business standpoint. For half of the year Tulum is in central standard time and the other half it’s in the eastern standard. The dollar is 22:1 here so the American dollar goes further. All those things helped in seeing that this is doable but every time I tried to leave I couldn’t. I was like, “What is going on? Why am I being gripped by this so much?” especially for someone who has been to so many places as I’ve been it was like, “This is different.” When I have that sense I try to go with those senses because they have never led me wrong. It’s when I don’t go with them that I found myself in trouble so I realized, “Okay, this is where I am supposed to be planted in this season of my life.”
What are some of the biggest rewards you have had from starting your business in Tulum?
It’s been so rewarding because I am my own boss so if I decide today that I don’t want to do any work and I don’t want to clock in, I don’t have to. I can decide to work half a day and then go to work beside the beach. Pursuing a dream and a passion has been rewarding and I think overcoming fear, that’s been the most rewarding. A lot of times fear has killed more dreams than racism, sexism, Catholicism, religionism, more than any of the isms. So, to be a giant killer is probably one of the most rewarding. I want to continue to do it in other areas of my life and also push people to do it because I think there’s so many giftings that the world has yet to see, and they just need to hear a story like mine or see it being done. To look fear in the eye and say, “Okay, I recognize you’re there but there is something in me that is so much greater.” Then something else I had to tell myself is I know what this is (points to the view behind him) because I’m here, so if that doesn’t work, I could always come back to this. But if that works, then it’s going to be so much greater than this. Hopefully, I can be an example to my peers and other people around me to go live your life and do it unapologetically.
What advice would you give to those who want to travel during these uncertain times?
There’s been a lot of travel shaming happening for people who have traveled and what I want people to understand is that we’re in a pandemic which means that it’s a global issue which means there’s nowhere you can go that you won’t be affected by it which also means that you could stay perfectly in your home, never leave the house and it could still come knocking on your door. For example, before coming here I lived in a 24-story high rise in Atlanta, Georgia. Every time that someone got Covid and reported to the apartment complex they told us. If I did total Instacart, never left the house, only leaving to go to the elevator to take out the garbage and to get my mail I still came in contact with Covid because people got in the elevator with me and so my thing is exercise wisdom. But I always tell people if I get Covid, do I want to get it in Bali or Baltimore? I would prefer to have it in Bali. Be wise, understand that some countries are making you get a test, do the testing and you have to do what’s right for yourself. It may not be, "Come to Tulum," it may not be going someplace international, it could be going to a getaway house in your city or going to a cabin somewhere and just have that time for yourself. There’s been so much trauma in 2020 that we sometimes forget to take care of our mental health. Mental health is at an all-time high right now with people being furloughed, losing their job, not having an income, all the racial tension, and the election, not to mention whatever else you have going on personally. Don’t believe you owe anyone an explanation for what you need to do for your mental health. Still, be wise we are in a pandemic but find that balance of still being able to live your life and staying safe.
What advice would you give to those who want to start their own business during these uncertain times?
Go ahead and start your business. You don’t have to be an expert at it today. Most everyone who started their business was not an expert on day one. They learned as they went and had some ups and downs. Know your niche, don’t worry about who else is doing it, there’s always going to be 10,00 other people doing things that are similar to you but you find your niche and how you fit in that particular community. Don’t be afraid of partnering with other businesses that may help give you leverage and vice versa. Be open to the possibilities. There’s not always a straight road to your destination, not always a clear indication of how it should look like and how it should happen. Be okay with sometimes being inconvenienced to be convenient later. When starting a business, things aren’t going to always go your way just like life. But every opportunity is an opportunity to learn and grow and if you take those things and pour them back into your business then you’ll be successful. Also, don’t lead with money. Yes, money is a part of owning a business and being an entrepreneur however if you’re not passionate about it then it will never connect with the customer. When you’re passionate about something it spills from you. When you hear someone talk about someone they love or something they love, their face lights up, and it’s like they took you on a journey versus someone who’s just doing something because it’s something to do. If you’re going to go into business, make sure it’s something you’re truly passionate about because that’s going to be the connection between you and your customer.
What are the plans and goals that you have for your business as well as life in Tulum?
Right now, I am working with a realtor so I’m looking to buy a home in Tulum. Knowing that Tulum is only at the beginning of its growth, I think it’s a great investment opportunity for me. With the Yacht Club Company, I think our next goal is to expand into Cancun. We get customers from Cancun but I think we want to be able to have a fleet available in Cancun and I’m looking to push that before December so we have a lot of work to do to find the right company to work with, but I think it's just the thing to consider for our growth to be able to offer people yachts and tie in Quintana Roo. For my travel business, I aspire to do more than Tulum. Travel is such a difficult niche in some regards right now because we just don’t know. With Covid, there’s a lot of uncertainty. For right now, while Tulum is hot, I’m going to continue to do trips to Tulum. I have reshaped my focus for the year and am pushing my Martin Luther King trip and getting things going in that direction. Hopefully, once things open back up across the world, I’ll be able to offer trips to various countries and continue to get my personal country count up.
What can people expect when they come on a trip with you?
Expect to have fun. I think a lot of times as Black people in America we’ve been tied to always have this extreme level of humility and I think humility is a good attribute to have but there’s also sometimes where you need to exercise the confidence and the whole boldness of who you are. I want people to be able to escape whatever they’re going through when they come on the trip so they’re able to put that to the side and be able to tap into the culture and experience. I love having authentic experiences so there’s a little bit of, “I like to go eat at a high-end restaurant but then I’m going to take you to the corner breakfast spot like the diner back home but it's rancheros and eggs versus hash brown and grits.” Expect to have a cultural experience, expect to meet other people like myself because I believe you attract the energy that you put out. I’m grateful to attract other people who have that same kind of energy. Though it’s a vacation for you, you just never know who you may encounter on a trip with me that could potentially be someone that you become business partners with or best friends with. Be open to that and that’s also the kind of people I want to attract on my trip so if that’s not your energy, stay home (laughs).
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
It’s important for our culture but also for other black men to see black men traveling. A lot of times we’re not in that space but the women are always represented. I think one of my biggest goals is to change that narrative and do my part to show that black men can be worldly but also do that at a level of excellence that’s undeniable. Sometimes people are like, “You gotta wear a suit in every country you go to?” and I’m like, “Yeah I do.” It's just something that I choose to do because it tells the world that I carry myself a particular way and so my encouragement is if you know a black man encourage him to get his passport, encourage him to have a way to leave the United States at any point if he needs to for his own mental health. Also, I think the greatest education that I ever received was from travel. As a culture, I think it is important for us to start investing in ourselves as it relates to culture. Some shoes, some bags, they are always going to be there but spend that money and purposefully experience something that you’ve never experienced before. My encouragement to people whatever they are doing, and whether it’s starting a business, if you’re at a job and you feel like you’re being overlooked for promotion, continue to do the right thing. Continue to make sure that you are passionate about the work that you do and eventually at some point something will break. I’m just so grateful that that happened to me connected to moving to Tulum.
Dope and inspiring article. Looking forward to part 2 and hearing about the expansion!