As the entrepreneur who launched Whet Travel in 2004, (and subsequently The Groove Cruise) Grand Rapids, Michigan native Jason Beukema decided to usher in a new dimension to live dance music in the United States. The result was a bi-coastal escape to rave heaven, which is often imitated, but never duplicated. This spring break season also sees the expansion of Jason’s enterprise into Inception At Sea, the first electronic music festival all-inclusive spring break opportunity via Whet’s partnership with Student City. Beyond dance music, Jason has also expanded into other markets with interest-centered cruisings including: Shiprocked (rock bands), Salsa Cruise and the Zen Cruise.
Jason took some time to speak with EDMT out on the decks of the Norwegian Pearl:
No cell phone, out in the ocean, middle of nowhere, no idea where I am, nobody knows anything. It’s just awesome. There are no worries out here.
At what point did you decide that this organic growth was something you really wanted to turn mainstream?
JB: From the beginning in 2004, it was only 125 people. My original plan was in 5 years to charter a ship. The goal from the very beginning was to go “big time.” So my original business plan was 5 years, charter the first ship from Miami, then 6 years LA. 7 years was like, New York, 10 years was Europe, Asia… and I’m still trying to execute that plan 12 years later (laughs); But that’s been the actual goal from the beginning. We’ve actually added other cruises like Shiprocked and Zen Cruise and Motorboat, Salsa Cruise, Inception at Sea. We have the framework to do it as a travel provider, and we know how to execute these events.
Have you ever thought about taking this back to the underground with you and your friends – as a more intimate and longer trip? Or does this suffice for you all?
JB: Back in the beginning—what I miss, personally—is that it was so small. 200-300 people, and everyone really knew each other. And that was such a core thing, because you really did see the same people every day, unlike this cruise, with 2,700 people, you can see somebody on the 4th day and you’re like, there’s NO WAY you’ve been on the boat the last four days.” (laughs) But that really is balanced with the production, the party, the atmosphere is so much bigger. I have thought about renting a smaller boat — 50, 100, 200 passengers, week-long cruises — for past GC fam who may not come back. (They always do. they may say they’re not, but they end up coming back.) They’ve brought that up—”why don’t you do something smaller, longer, more intimate?” We’ve thought about it, but we’re so focused on our additions at the moment. Executing a 200-person event is not a whole lot different than a 1,000-person event. More staff, calls, questions, emails… but it’s not that much different from the other trips we do.
Changing gears a little bit — your team has an unbelievable ability to curate your lineups. Is there any secret that you have in terms of who you go for, especially in terms of your up-and-coming artists?
JB: Ryan, Tim, and Marcus handle the talent buying. Tim & Marcus came on to help us with the Miami bookings this year. They do ~200 shows a year in the northeast, and Ryan travels around the world working with DJs and clubs, so they all have a pulse on the market. We look at who’s selling tickets, who’s hot, who’s trending on Soundcloud, Spotify, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, and see who people are interested in. Most importantly with Groove Cruise, we read all the post-cruise surveys that come back. We do surveys after each cruise, then we do 1-2 during the rest of the year. We look at those religiously, because it’s not what we want, it’s what the GCFam wants. But again, sometimes there are up-and-comers that nobody’s ever heard about, and there’s several on this ship.
You have lots of artists who come back every year, Markus Schulz being one of them. How do you develop those relationships?
JB: Well, Markus became friends with Ryan somewhere along the line, and a lot of it’s just been personal relationships. People Ryan or I met out somewhere. Sometimes GCFam refers them to us. “I talked to so-and-so, and they’re interested.” That’s a big thing. And then we have to go through the procedures with the agent and stuff, but to know that the artist is interested is a huge difference vs. throwing offers at the wall. We want artists who are just as excited as everyone else to be here! (editor’s note! you can totally feel that from the artists) Those who are hanging out at the pool like Markus Schulz and Dash are right now, and aren’t in the room doing whatever. Michael Woods, this morning, I think we were backstage or something and Michael’s like, “this is wack!” He goes out in the middle of the dance floor by himself and is dancing to Chus and Ceballos.
It seems as if Groove Cruise Miami and LA have very different lineups, & different strategies. Would you say this is accurate?
JB: Yeah, on the LA trip, we had a bit more trap, which we don’t have here on the Miami trip. Before Holy Ship, dubstep was getting really big, and I just personally couldn’t connect to it. And it was so big. Dubstep this, dubstep that. And we were just like, that’s not Groove Cruise. And I think trap, to a point, is—if it’s done right could fit. That’s maybe the only difference between Miami and LA. We had so many different frickin’ genres. We have people who say an artist is a trap artist, or house, or that Markus Schulz is a trance artist. “Technically” trance, or whatever you wanna call it. But it’s still the same core of people on GCLA and GC Miami. The majority of the people on LA are from the west coast and the majority of the people on Miami are from the east coast. The musical styles are just what’s working in those markets. And it’s interesting because we’ll do GCLA and GC Miami surveys and they’re not that much different—there are some differences, but not many.
And we’ll also do attendee surveys, and then we’ll do public surveys, and compare the two. It’s a giant, GIANT jigsaw puzzle, really challenging. Sometimes you’ll have an artist playing on the pool deck and 6-8 offers came in for that spot. And that’s why it takes so long to put the lineup together sometimes. We’re not Gary Richards at Live Nation, who has unlimited resources and us buddy-buddy with every single DJ and makes music with them. We don’t have those connections, so sometimes it’s challenging because we don’t have the leverage that he does for talent buying. He can put in offers for festivals and gigs all together with the cruise as an additional “fun thing”. But it is what it is. He’s a great guy.
I haven’t been on Holy Ship for a few years. I was on the first one—it was definitely a younger crowd, more dubstep, different styles of music. It’s not 96 hours like Groove Cruise is, it stops—sometimes between sets, sometimes the music just stops completely. Theirs is 3 days, whereas Groove Cruise is four days.
Do you DJ? Or have you ever DJ’d?
JB: I do not DJ. I DJ’d for about two months in college at a radio station. (laughs) That was pretty much my extent of DJ’ing. Just this past summer we went to our friend’s wedding in Indiana and I asked her, “do you have a DJ for the wedding?” And this is right before the wedding starts. It was after the wedding, there was a band playing, and I said, “do you have a DJ playing after the band?” And she said, “nah, we just took your Spotify playlist and we’re just gonna play that.” And I’m like, “what?! are you kidding me? No, you’re not using my Spotify playlist, because that’s just artists I’m thinking about maybe booking, or have booked, and so I’m like, we’ve gotta figure this out. I’ll try to DJ or something. They only had… it was like, a wack mixer, and it had one aux cord. So I plugged the aux cord into the thing and turned the volume up. Then I had two phones — my wife’s cell phone and my cell phone. I’d find a song, and I’m searching on YouTube and Google for “top dance wedding songs”. I put on Groove Cruise radio for a while while I’m figuring out what songs to play. So I’d play one song, then I’d take the aux cord out, then plug it into the other iPhone and play the next song. (laughs) I had everybody going crazy.
Be free, be crazy once in a while! Be silly, be a kid again. There’s so much stress in your life—all these people with families, kids, jobs…and then you get on the cruise, and you’re just like, f**k everything.
Have you or any member of your own team thought of putting on a mask and just hopping on the decks for a few hours?
JB: Hasn’t crossed my mind, but now that you put it in my mind…
So Groove Cruise is known for some pretty insane & exceptional theme parties. Does any particular theme stand out to you from past years?
JB: I’ve gotta give the theme party props to my wife, completely. She’s the one who gets in the girls’ groups, coordinates with them, organizes the theme parties. We have the final say, but she comes up with some frickin’ awesome themes. So random, like… the ABC [Anything But Clothes] one, she’s been wanting to do for a while. There were some really scary ones last night, but some really good ones too. Tutus and ties was one we did a couple years ago that people loved. I think that this occurs because on a cruise you can get away with themes that you could never get away with anywhere else. The themes have kind of taken a mind of their own, ever since the 1st Groove Cruise where we had an 80’s Prom Night. We’ve always had theme parties.
It really adds to the ambiance.
JB: Yeah, it adds to the whole experience; with the captains being the centerpiece of the cruise, not necessarily the ship or the destination. That’s what makes a party. It’s the people in the crowd. When you actually give them the tools to be creative and influential, and the space, freedom, and safety to be themselves — girl’s don’t have to be concerned with unprovoked advances from guys, etc. — they can be free, they can be themselves, and they’re not gonna be judged. There are very successful people on here who would never wear the clothes they’re wearing here. We have CEOs of major companies on here, like last night, wearing…well. (laughs) Be free, be crazy once in a while! Be silly, be a kid again. There’s so much stress in your life—all these people with families, kids, jobs…and then you get on the cruise, and you’re just like, f**k everything. I’m free. No cell phone, out in the ocean, middle of nowhere, no idea where I am, nobody knows anything. It’s just awesome. There are no worries out here.
People joke about not sleeping on the Groove Cruise. How much sleep would you say you average a night?
JB: I usually sleep 3-4 hours every night. I took a different approach out in LA, where I did 2-hour naps. That worked out okay, but it was kind of weird. But the rest of the cruise…I have no idea. Some people maybe even sleep more. Some of them sleep too much, some of them don’t sleep nearly enough.
They’re the ones you don’t see at all the last day.
JB: Exactly. It’s funny, because I’ll do those announcements in the morning to wake people up…
Don’t stop those.
JB: (laughs) I did the one this morning, and so many people on the pool deck, you could tell they just woke up. And they’re like, “thank you so much, I needed to get up…”
Yeah, we thought you let us sleep in a little bit this morning.
JB: Yeah, on sea days I let people sleep in a little bit. I mean, there’s not a ton going on between 8am-11am. But tomorrow’s gonna be early. 7:45. I want everybody to get a full Jamaican experience—people are excited about it, and I don’t want them to miss it. It’s all-inclusive, it’s free, I want people to get the value out of it that they paid for.
The casual discussion that followed was about the charitable arm of Whet Travel known as the Whet Foundation, which organizes and executes a charitable reach out in every port city the cruise docks in each year. Future feature piece about the Whet Foundation is forthcoming.
JB: It’s cool, I can’t believe how many people brought stuff this year to donate. Every cruise gets bigger and bigger—I think this year we have 40 people signed up to go. Sometimes people are like, “that was the highlight of the frickin’ cruise.”
Thinking about the business model in place right now, do you think you’ve found a sweet spot? Do you ever think about doing anything longer, shorter… any different business model for Groove Cruise specifically?
JB: Well, Groove Cruise started out as a 7 day expedition, which was too much. 5 is too much — well, maybe not, because you can go to different destinations on a 5-day trip, so that’s possibly an option in the future, but we’d have to get a really good price on the ship. The interest is also there, being that a large contingent come into Miami a day early for the Pre-Party, but yeah, we’ve tested—this is the 23rd or 24th Groove Cruise in 12 years. There are a couple of years where we did 3. We did them in May, August, October, November—testing out times of the year that work, times that don’t, partnerships that work, promotional companies that work—just kind of figuring it all out as we went along. Ultimately, though, we feel like the 4-day trip is good, because you can go to more destinations. 3 days is an option for Miami in the future. It’s an option for LA in the future. 4 days out of LA or San Diego is an option, 4 days out of New York is an option. Overall, though, we think 3-4 days is the sweet spot. 3 days sometimes feels short. We did that on GCLA but it goes by very quickly. 4 days feels a little more—
It seems like the right amount of time.
JB: Exactly. Groove Cruise 2014 was the 10th anniversary, so that was—I think—the 14th Miami Groove Cruise, the 10-year anniversary. In LA we’ve done them ‘05-’09, then we chartered our first ship in ‘13, so we’ve done 8 GC LA’s. 3 full ships.
Do you think you could fill an even bigger boat?
JB: We look at it every year, but the price is a little too much to stomach, and the risk is almost triple because the ships are three times the size of this one. But the issues with those ships—all the new ships, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival—they’re absolutely huge, and they try to make them so they don’t feel huge. So all the venues—the pool, the theater—are small and compartmentalized. So there may not be one big pool; there’s 3 smaller pools. One pool here for everybody—kids, adults, whatever, and you can do shows. You can fit 5,000, 6,000 people on those boats, but their event venues are not conducive to getting all the people on the ship in one location. And with a bigger ship it’s going to be less intimate, too. There are way more restaurants, way more balconies, it’s newer, it’s nicer — lots of different things you can do to create unique environments on the ship, which we try to do on this ship more and more. So it’s not just main stage, it’s main stage at sunset, theater, chill room, Bliss open decks — we started that on GCLA.
We think that’s pretty cool, the Bliss Open Decks.
JB: Yeah, we’re gonna change the strategy next time, because there’s too many damn DJs who want to spin. We’ll have to do a lottery or something.
I was waiting for the mix contest — I wanted to put together sort of a pseudo-classics set and submit it, but I didn’t come across the opportunity in time, or felt that it quite fit with the ‘Chill Lounge.’ But I think that’s a cool thing you do.
JB: Well, it doesn’t have to be chill… you can play whatever! Except dubstep. Just kidding.
Itching to become part of an epic, all-inclusive Spring Break EDM escape? Book your Inception At Sea cabins now!