Ep. 159: How this pharmaceutical rep turned her passion for home into a successful online travel agency business with Guerline Emmanuel
In this week’s episode, I speak with Guerline Emmanuel who has turned her love for family vacations into a full-time business guiding other travelers through cultural experiences in her home of Haiti.
She is the CEO of Belle Vue Tours Haiti and a proud Haitian woman raised by an even prouder Haitian father who encouraged her to travel the world, speak only Creole at home and immerse herself in her own culture.
From that love and passion for home, she built a successful travel tours company and luxury travel gear line. Now she wants all Americans to visit Haiti when they are in search of history, culture, and beauty.
Listen on to find out how Guerline has been able to build a successful online travel agency business.
Hey everyone! Thank you so much for being here today. I’m so excited to be speaking with my guess, Guerline. Hey Guerline! How are you?
I’m good, Debbie. How are you?
I am amazing. Thank you so much for being here today.
Before we get to all of the amazing stories that we have, can you tell us a little bit more about you and why you live an offbeat life?
Good morning, Debbie. First of all, thank you for giving me a chance to speak to you and your listeners.
My name is Guerline Emmanuel. I and my husband are the owners of an outbound tour company to Haiti and we specialize in historical and cultural tours.
A lot of times Haiti is not seen as a travel destination so hopefully after our little talk today, a lot of people will see Haiti differently. And figure out that this is the perfect example of a place that if you are an offbeat traveler, you must visit.
That’s amazing. You really started this travel company in a location that most people will find or will say is dangerous.
We talked a lot about this before we got on this interview – a lot of people are afraid to go to certain places in certain countries around the world. And you, coming from there knowing the country, knowing so many different parts of the area, obviously, there’s always going to be somewhere dangerous and every part of the world, but it’s not everywhere.
How did you start this company knowing that there’s so much fear that is on the media and how did you make it flourish?
The funny thing is that, for us, a lot of times, when you do not know a destination, you’re apprehensive – that’s one. And two: if it’s a destination that the main language is something other than what you are accustomed to. So there’s that enormous barrier.
So, for us, Haiti is home. My family migrated to New York, I would say, my mom, in different parts in the late sixties, early seventies, And then we came later on. So, for me, its always been a place that I left as a child that I have great memories – fun memories that I love. And it’s the same thing for my husband as well who found who left Haiti when he was twelve and I left when I was eight.
We started going back. I started going back when I was in college in my twenties. My husband has always traveled from the time we were sixteen. So, for us, the way that we look at Haiti is totally different because we still have family back there. My father is one of the few people that I know that moved back after he retired and I used to visit him constantly.
So, for us, it was never a place that I had like a huge disconnect from even when I was growing up here in Brooklyn. My father always took me to Haitian shows – things that were basically centered around the culture of Haiti because he was big on that.
I speak fluent Creole and it was never a huge disconnect for us. When we started going out and got married and have kids – that was one of the things that are important for us. So, we vacationed in Haiti and it was an easy transition when we had the kids. We wanted to make sure that they would travel to Haiti as well.
So my boys: the first one has been to Haiti since the time he was one – walked his first steps in Haiti. And he goes every year. So, he’s been to Haiti at least 16,18, 20 times. The little one probably 17 as well. The same thing – he’s been going for years.
It was an easy transition for us because when we started taking them they were actually enamored with everything that they see. They love it: the freedom that they have over there, going to the beaches. They experienced it differently so their outlook and their view of Haiti are different.
And that, I think, is really where we started getting the idea that, “Hey! If the kids love Haiti that well, we have other nieces nephews that are also interested.” And over the years, we started taking the family back home and that’s how we kind of transition into seeing it as a business and the opportunity of bringing so many other people back and visiting here.
People who’d never experienced a country like Haiti and wanted to actually go to Haiti.
So, Guerline, before you even started this company that you have right now, what were you doing before this?
In New York, I’ve always worked in sales and as an account manager. For example, I used to be a Sales and Service Manager at JPMorgan Chase, I worked as an Account Manager at USDA, sponsorships for an event marketing, and Sales Executive at Madison Square Garden. And I also worked as a Pharmaceutical Sales Rep for GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals.
So, I always had a sales, account management, and marketing background.
Well, it’s really a great thing to have that type of background especially when you’re starting your business. It is a lot of sales and you’re doing so much work in terms of marketing and sales, obviously, in the beginning, and throughout your whole business.
How did you prepare for the journey to become an entrepreneur and really start this business and really transition to make this big change?
We started the business in 2009, all the legal paperwork and everything that we needed to do. It took us, I would say, about three years of doing a lot of research. Because when I came back we wanted to do a business plan, we were looking at how many people travel to Haiti. Is it the kind of business that you would do that you would have people that come in daily and you would take them to different day trips? What is the best way to do it?
We also did not want to reinvent the wheel because the whole point of us working in Haiti is we wanted to impact the local economy. We want to do something that was different and bring something back and also participate in the development of the tourism industry of Haiti.
So, we did a lot of research in the beginning. We did not want to just go and open an office and then just do tours. And then we have other tour companies that have been there even though not a lot compared to other islands in the Caribbean or the countries in the Caribbean.
When we started to do the research, we wanted to execute for the past three years and research which was the best business model for us, which was the best business model to execute and impact the local economy.
And what we have done after three years of doing our research was that we work with local businesses on the ground that’s already there. So, for example, we don’t have transportation where we have our own bus. So what we do is that we have contracts with transportation companies.
We have a tour director that also is a historical guy because we specialize in historical and cultural tours. So, we have a historian that we work with, he is our tour director. We have a local guide in all of the most popular sites that we work with. So we hired them, they have their own company, and they work as subcontractors for our company.
It took us a couple of years of trying to research, figure out which way we wanted to do, which model makes sense based on the reason and why we were doing this company in the first place. And we found out what works best for us.
I love the fact that you are also giving money, giving back to the community, and making sure that the economy in that area, in that country, in that space that you are at is also benefiting from it. Because a lot of times we hear from people that they just start hiring out people from overseas so it’s not really doing much with the local economy.
This is also great because your family knows the area, you’re from there, there’s still a lot of families that you have from there. So I think these types of businesses are really great in that sense because you have the means to do it.
So, Guerline, what is the biggest setback that you were encountering currently as an entrepreneur? I know, right now, there’s a lot of things happening in the world. What is the biggest one that you have?
Well, there are a few things. When you are in a destination and there are always things that go on in that destination: there is political unrest, there is the fact that people are manifesting for their rights, they are not happy with the labor laws – they are changing. It’s just society in general. There’s some destination that feels it more compared to another – Haiti happened to be one of those places.
Let me give you an example: Haiti is one of the largest countries in the Caribbean. We are not an island alone, we are an island with the Dominican Republic. We are, together, one of the top four countries in the Caribbean alone. We are one of the top four as well as a separate country in the Caribbean.
Having said that, a lot of times when things are happening in Haiti, for example, the unrest that happened in France, right? We could say, “Okay. Something is happening in Paris,” but we don’t take the whole country as a whole. The difference in Haiti is that whatever is happening in a section of Haiti, even though it is a larger country in the Caribbean compared to most, we always say “blanket Haiti”.
So, something could be happening in Port-au-Prince, and then we think that, “Oh! That is Jacmel. Like Haiti had an earthquake. There was an earthquake in Haiti. Yes, in the country of Haiti but the place that was impacted was mostly from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel – that area, right? But in Cap-Haïtien in the north, nothing happened. So, you still had Royal Caribbean conducting their cruise in Labadie.
So, we kind of learn that in advertising and marketing for Haiti, it is always a blanket statement. instead of just taking the country as part of a whole. So when something is happening, like let’s say there is a demonstration, there’s unrest, there’s this and that, it is taking it looked upon as the whole country as a whole and the first thing you will always impact is the travel industry. So that’s one part.
And then, from there, you now have the coronavirus. The coronavirus is impacting the world but for some countries who have a more, I would say, fragile tourism industry, they are going to come out of this and be impacted more compared to another country. And, while we are doing this interview, we are in the middle of it right now.
I’m in New York, the epicenter of what is currently going on. And what is going to happen, I will guarantee you that when it’s finished, certain countries’ tourism industries are more seasoned and sophisticated. They will get back, run, and then push heavily. And probably it will take a couple of years, of course, but they will succeed better than someplace else that doesn’t have that solid foundation in their tourism industry.
So, the outbreak that we have right now, obviously, this is making a huge impact on everybody – big businesses and small businesses alike. What are your plans for your own business? And how do you foresee how your business is going to change whether you’re going to make any differences to it or what you’re going to keep?
I guess I’m just asking if there are any strategies that you’re doing right now in order to prepare for what’s to come? Because, honestly, we’re all still boggled by everything that’s happening right now. And I know people are still in shock and we definitely want a plan for this but still like crazy right now, but have you made any plans for that?
I think, like you just said, everyone is still in the mist. We are in the eye of the storm. So how do you plan for this? We don’t have any blueprint that we can really look at because when we look at the past and all major pandemic that impacted the world, the tourism industry technology, everything was not so sophisticated as it is right now.
So for us, what are we doing? We are staying the course. We are evaluating the way that we do business. We still think that our business model works for us because, even more so than ever, when we come out of this our subcontractors or tourism partners on the ground are going to need all of us to actually shore up that industry, right?
But, also, we are aware that there’s a lot of people who might not be working at the moment when we come out of this. So does it mean that we strategize for the next 3 years? What can be immediate as far as the people that can travel in the immediate future, people who want to take a break, people who want to impact the local industry that they are traveling to?
Once we are through this that is a great way of doing that for those of us who still have some type of income, right? Because if right now the world is closed off, for a travel industry that is even more fragile, people are going to feel it even more. And then coming from this day are some countries that are going to take longer to recover from this as well.
So, we don’t know when one country is done with having the peak of the coronavirus. Like China is doing better than, you would say, right now, the United States, right? So, how is China recovering? We are looking at all of these countries, you are looking at how they are going to come out of this.
And also, for us in the industry, there’s a lot of us who are at home, who are talking, who are looking at, “Okay, how do we evaluate this? How do we come out of this? How does it change our business model? How do some of us probably work better together where we never had the opportunity to before?
For me, as a historical and cultural tour company, we are doing more research, we are looking, we are reading. We are always students of this world so I am always looking at people online: picking classes, learning how to sell a destination. And then, hopefully, well, not hopefully, definitely this too shall and shall pass. It’s not going to last forever, we just don’t know when.
And then, when we do come out of it, we also do not need to bombard the tourism industry because they need to get a footing on their country and how things are going to start a movement. But we don’t know what that looks like so I think that we have to look at what we’ve done in the past. Look at other countries how they are doing it as well, how they are coming from this.
We have to respect the local economy and the local country that we want to do business in. We’ve always relied on our partners on the ground. So we still have communication with our partners throughout all of this. And we know that we are going to take a hit and then, also follow that local political dynamics that are going on in COK. What is the best way to navigate to all of this?
But one thing for us, me and my husband, is that we never look at it as a way of walking away. There’s no walking away. We’ve been doing this for approximately ten years in the tourism industry in Haiti. We have some great partners on the ground throughout the country, another just in a local area. And, hey, if they could stick it out, we sure can and do our part and that’s the way we look at it.
I think, too, as entrepreneurs, obviously, there are so many bad things that are happening but it also allows us to become more innovative thinkers, right? Thinking outside of the box and also seeing what we really need to be better at in terms of our business with all of this happening. And how to be more resilient and how to create sustainable income in other ways other than just one stream.
For example, because right now, obviously, a lot of freelancers and entrepreneurs are getting hit really, really hard by all of this. And for people who do have a steady job who can do it remotely, it’s really hard for them obviously. But for somebody who has clients, were entrepreneurs, and who have employees that they are responsible for, that’s even harder.
I feel for them because there’s not just them, there are other lives that they’re taking care of. So, it’s definitely a crazy time for us, but also a wake-up call as well and what we really need to do in order to make a change for our businesses.
I think the most we learn from all of this is how connected we are as a world and how we impact each other. So, if you always think that you are the only one that matters, we see how that is so trivial. Because one thing impacted the whole world from one continent to another, from one country to another.
I think, for me, the biggest learning lesson out of this is that we are all interconnected. And while we are all individuals in individual countries and that’s great and we love our individuality, out of that individuality as well, we are still a part of a whole sum. And then, we make up that “sum” and we can impact it in a great way or in a bad way. And I think that, for me, is the biggest lesson out of this coronavirus pandemic.
It’s also really interesting because before any of this happened, we were so into our screens. When you go to dinner with people you’re on your phone and then, now, we’re like, “I just want to be outside. I want to listen to my friends and family. I want to hug them. I want to shake a stranger’s hand. I want to make a real connection.”
So it’s kind of like the universe and God be like, “So, this is really what you want? Alright, I’ll give you exactly what you want. The only thing you have are your screens. How do you feel about that?”
That is so true.
So now, Guerline, let’s fast-forward to 50 years from now and you’re looking back at your life. What legacy would you like to leave and what do you want to be remembered for?
Oh my God. That is a great question. What do I want to be remembered for? Well, I think I want to be remembered as the person who looks at the world from her viewpoint, disregard what I’ve been told as far as, like you said, the screen, the media – advertisement.
And taking what I’ve seen with my own eyes and fashion it in a way to show others that, “Hey! There is another viewpoint that this is not all there is to a place or person. And there are places that might look a little bit rough on the surface but underneath is a gold mine, is a diamond. It’s just that it takes a little bit of polish for you to see it.
And if you are looking for it and you are not finding it then, create it. Create it your way, show it from your viewpoint and then put it out there because there’s going to be some people who are looking for that and those people will come when you least expect it.”
And that’s what this tour business has been. We, sometimes, started with 10 people. There was one tour, we had two people that attended, and then we started getting towards that 50, 35. We’ve met some wonderful people along the way. We’ve been discouraged by people who are closest to us who, we thought, would naturally understand it.
And then, the day when me and my husband realized that, “You know what? We don’t need these people to give us their blessing and say, ‘oh this is a great idea.’ You should really do it,” we just say. “Well to hell with what they’re saying. We are going to do it anyway.” And then, my God, it has been the most wonderful experience.
And I wouldnt change the bad, the disappointing experiences because they all made the complete story and the journey of where we started. Just a love of going back, from all of us sharing it with our boys and then sharing it with our nieces and nephews to having a company.
We’ve been to places that we would have never dreamed of, never thought of. We didn’t imagine it, we could not have imagined it.
It’s so funny sometimes where life takes you because you have these failures or mistakes in your life that you think is like the end of your world and then you realize later on that it actually led you into something so much better than what you would have expected for yourself.
So, yeah, it’s pretty amazing and I think we don’t realize that until later on. It’s hard to really realize it at the moment like even now. So, I’m pretty sure maybe a year or even months from now were going to be like, “Yeah, that was a wake-up call and you now we appreciate it.” And I think now we actually have more gratitude because of this.
Life is very strange, isn’t it?
Yeah. We are learning to breathe.
Yes, absolutely. Like we could stay home and spend time with people we love.
So, what are you currently working on that is really exciting to you?
Well. What we are currently working on is that, out of all the years that we’ve been doing the tours, we’ve learned a lot about Haiti’s history and culture. How we are the first: we are the first country that celebrates Christmas in the Americas, we are the first country that is impacted by Columbus voyage, we are the first who created the first black Republican.
And I said “created the first black Republican” because, originally, when they landed on the shores of Haiti, it was the Taínos that were there. So, you had an important year of people being enslaved. We are the first who had a successful slave revolution and then created a country from descendants of different people from different countries, different tribes in Africa.
We took all of these different languages from Africa, we put them together, and then, we created Creole. Some died in the slave revolution. We are on the frontline of Generals, Warriors, and Liberators. We are not thwarted by that impact, not only Haiti but impacted the world – the world that we now know.
And we are taught about all the men: Dessalines, Toussaint, Christophe, Pétion, Mackandal, but we don’t talk about all the women. So what I am currently working on is that I am a lover of bags and shoes. I’m always driving my husband crazy because, “Oh! This bag is not right.” Because of travel, also, when we are doing our tours, before we take you to an area in Haiti, we go ourselves.
So, we travel to different locations. We look at how long it takes to get from one point to the next. The obstacles – can we really sell this area in this part of Haiti? So, we don’t only stay in the north, we go to different parts of Haiti. And our goal is, God willing, by the time I leave this world is to visit every single place in Haiti. Even though we might not be able to take people to all of these places, for us that’s what we wanted to do on a personal level.
So, as I travel, I’m always not finding the right bag. And my husband is like, “Okay. You have about 10 bags, what do you mean can’t find the bag?” When I’m traveling, I can’t find the bag that I want.
I have a friend who is also my stylist and she came over, she looked and she saw the bag is packed and everything. ‘Cause we give gifts when we go to Haiti, you come into the tour we give you a knapsack, towels, t-shirts, so on.
And I’m complaining like I’m packing and I pack like about a month or two before and at that moment a lot’s all over the place. And she said, “But you have this knapsack why you’re looking for this bag and you’re complaining? Why don’t you just create your own bag?” And I’m like, “Oh my God! I’ve been looking for this bag for 5 years. You’re right! I’m going to create my bag with all the features that I want.
And then, as I am creating the bag and all the features that I want, I didn’t just want to create only a bag because I have been complaining with our Tour Director in Haiti. And I’m always telling him, “We have done so many wonderful things in this world, right? Haiti as a country and our past leaders as Liberators, but we are not known especially the women.
And I remember one time we were having a discussion about the women and he said “It’s because we are not doing what we’re supposed to do, that everybody is supposed to contribute to us telling our story. And we have some phenomenal women and we are not letting the world know who these women are and what they were able to accomplish.”
The funny thing is that we talked about life. This is not like a discussion that happened one time, right? This is like a continuation of different discussions. And over the years, I’ve met some great people. The person who does the artwork on our t-shirt is Kevin Andre and he specializes in like historical artwork – he’s phenomenal.
I’ve met him once. I didn’t know he writes children’s books but really there are no children’s books about the history of Haiti that he did not know. And he took it upon himself and started writing about all these historical figures.
So, we are always having this discussion among us. Everything is aligned this past year because I said that if I’m going to create a bag, I looked at my husband and I said, “I want to create something that is going to have people stop and take a look at the bag.” It’s not only about the beautiful features and the look of the bag because as a bag and a shoe person, that’s what I love, but I wanted to have something that symbolizes something for me.
So, that’s where I started getting the idea of creating an infinite design with 10 women from the history of Haiti and have their names fashion on this bag.
Right now, we have been working for the past two years on creating this bag. So, it’s two-fold creating the bag itself where I wanted the bottom portion for my shawl, my blanket, my shoals, and my clothes as well – something to put at the bottom of my bag. And then, also, in the front, I wanted to be able to go to TSA easily and just take things out. But then, the outside of the bag took us a couple of months.
How do you choose 10 women from the whole hundreds of years from an area that impacted the world that no one knows about?
Guerline, do you have a website where people can find those bags and they could see them themselves?
Yes. It is BVstylez.com. And so we chose 10 names of women from the Taíno to Law Independence. Women that we thought are phenomenal women and that’s just a drop in the bucket – that’s not even all the women that we have.
And that was the first bag that we created, to honor them, to have the bag as a fashion statement but also a historical and a conversational piece for people to know that while we are looking at all these women in the Army, in the military, and so on, there’s a country in the Caribbean. And when you look, it’s a very small country compared to a lot of places but we have these phenomenal people that are giants that should be known about, that impact the world that you see right now.
So everything you see that is going on: how people are looked at, the obstacles that are faced, the legacy, and the impact that the transatlantic slave hide in the culture, in the history of the world. Well, you have a country that you can look at, that their history actually impacts everything that you know right now and that country is Haiti.
And that is the story that is not told as much as it should. And for us, in our lifetime, we want to be part of the few people, part of the people that are talking and sharing that story and that history for you to look at it in a different light
I love that you’re able to put that out there and people could actually wear it and they’ll have more discussions about it.
Now, Guerline, if our listeners want to know more about you, where can they find you?
We are on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We have 2 sites: BVToursHaiti.com for the tour company and for our travel gear, it’s BVstylez.com.
Perfect. Thank you so much, Guerline, for being here with us. I really appreciate it.
Thank you so much, Debbie, for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today. And I really appreciate it.
Listen to Guerline’s extended interview where she shares how to build a travel business in unconventional places.
What you’ll find:
In this episode, Guerline will make you realize that no matter how unconventional a place is, you can still build a travel business on it. Find out how you can apply the things Guerline did on her own business.
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