It wasn’t pie in the sky, but a ‘foot firmly planted on the ground’ plan that enabled Michael ‘Hank’ Hampton and Micheale Zazo to give up their land-based life, buy a beautiful yacht, and embark on a successful career in St. Thomas’ famous crewed yacht industry. The couple’s careful planning is an instructive story for others who would like to follow in their path.
Hampton, former franchise operations director for Red Robin, and Zazo, a Certified Sommelier with a passion for wine and fine dining, met through mutual friends in California. On their first date they flew to Chicago for a Jimmy Buffett concert. Little did they know that seven years later they would live a Buffett-lifestyle in the Caribbean. Once home, the two cast off on day and overnight trips aboard Beneteau 465s they chartered as members of a yacht club in San Diego. This gave way to a weeklong bareboat vacation in the BVI.
“We started talking about chartering on that first trip to the BVI,” Hampton explains. “We met folks who had chartered for ten years and talked with them. Moving from the corporate world to entrepreneur was a huge jump for both of us. We found there’s a wealth of information and a willingness to help and enjoyed the mentorship of others already in the industry.”
The couple originally thought they’d wait 10 to 15 years to charter. Then they realized that they were in the prime of life, both had successful careers, and a deep desire to do something out of the box. It was time to follow their passion. They laid out a strategic plan. First, they lived more simply and ultimately sold off many of their belongings including their beach community home. They used annual vacations to test out a variety of cruising grounds. They bareboated in the Abacos as well as in St. Maarten, St. Barths, Antigua, Saba, Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. These trips served two other purposes: To experiment with menus and daily itineraries with friends and family and to test out different makes and models of yachts. This gave them a realistic idea of where they would base, how Zazo would provision and prepare her signature food and wine matched meals, and the best vessel to fit their needs.
“We wanted a catamaran for the space and for what our business is all about: entertainment and hospitality,” says Hampton. “The Voyage 500 is a stable platform, it has five cabins, so we can do eight-pack charters in the BVI, and is big enough to hold all of our water toys, which include a 15-foot Caribe with 70 HP engine, wake board, surf board, knee board, tube, two SUPs and a kayak. What’s more, it has lots of galley space and two drop-down freezers, which makes Micheale very happy.”
Zazo adds, “My goal was to create a fine dining experience with food and wine pairing and all with a Caribbean backdrop. It’s part of our budget, one of our niches, to have a wine program to complement the food. I love entertaining.”
The couple bought Feel the Magic in June of 2012 and arrived in St. Thomas three months later. Yet, it was in the beginning of 2012, as soon as the purchase agreement on the yacht was signed, that they established themselves with a clearinghouse, introduced themselves to brokers and started to get charter offers for the Christmas and New Year holidays. During the two months before the St. Thomas Charter Yacht Show, in November, Hampton made non-stop improvements to the yacht such as installing a new water-maker, and Zazo met with wine purveyors and located where she could purchase the freshest, tastiest ingredients.
“We both had butterflies in our stomach at that first boat show,” Hampton says. “It was like being interviewed for a job 60 times.”
The process paid off as Feel the Magic is now booked until the beginning of August.
“We both came at this with hospitality backgrounds and with a business model in mind,” Zazo explains of the couple’s success. “It’s hard work, but very rewarding. We love the lifestyle and the chance to guide our guests and show them what we fell in love with.”
For more information about Feel the Magic, visit: www.ftmcharters.com
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.