For one reason or another, the paths of Celyta Jackson and INBOUND have intersected time and again over the years through different stops in a career that had her working in the hotel industry in Washington, DC; at the storied Plaza Hotel in New York for a decade; as vice president of tourism for New York City & Company when it was still the New York CVB; and as a Miami based strategic planning, marketing and communications official. Like others in the special constituency of international travel consultants who speak multiple languages (for Jackson, they are English, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish), she was ready to go on site and work in many countries on a moment’s notice. Some would contact her for help in promoting a new program in markets in Europe and South America—especially in Brazil—and she was always a reliable source when called upon to recommend someone to talk to or refer us to an expert in some market.
Then—it was sometime in 2017—she “went dark.” Lights out. Was she writing a novel? Was she holed up at some ashram, re-connecting with who she is, or wanted to be? Then, earlier this year, it turns out that she had just taken a break, spent her time chilling out in Miami Beach and decided to open a café along one of the city’s main tourist thoroughfares. Not just any café. No. By the time this profile piece is published, she should have marked her re-entry into the tour and travel industry as the owner of the The Cat Café South Beach. The rest is, well … read the excerpted version of our one-on-one interview with her last month as she was putting the final touches on her new venture.
INBOUND: So, when did you get the idea to pursue a career in the tour and travel industry?
Jackson: The original plan was to be a diplomat. I went to George Washington University, and received a degree in international affairs. I took the foreign service exam and passed. Then, after graduation, after all this, I had the existential moment that you’re supposed to have in your freshman year, and realized that I wasn’t blue-blooded enough … George Washington wasn’t Ivy League enough—for me to ever get a significant posting. And I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in passports in Angola, or wherever, which is where I would likely end up, speaking Portuguese as I did.
In talking to a friend who had worked in a hotel during his college years, he told me, “You should be a concierge! Because all you have to do is speak a couple of languages and call up some restaurants.”
That sounded like a possibility. I was in Washington, D.C. There was a hotel that was opening at that time. So, I stood in line and filled out an application for concierge and was hired, and that was that. I was in the hotel industry.
INBOUND: How long were you in D.C.?
Jackson: From 1981 to 1984. I moved to New York with Omni Hotels, and then went on to the Plaza in 1989.
INBOUND: Where are you originally from?
Jackson: That is the hardest question. It has always been the hardest question for me to answer my whole life. I was an Army brat. So, I’ve lived in a lot of different places. Miami Beach is the 13th city in which I’ve lived. Lucky 13—I hope. So, the concept of “home” is a little ethereal … even growing up in Brazil, it didn’t feel like home. The only physical place that felt like home has been New York. And I can’t even explain why.
INBOUND: You’ve lived in 13 different places?
Jackson: Wherever I was, if my work took me away, I always felt like a New Yorker. New York has become part of my persona. When I go to other places, I’m always Celyta Jackson from New York. When I’m in Brazil, I’m introduced as Celyta Jackson from New York. Here in Miami Beach, it’s “Oh, Celyta? … she’s from New York.”
What defines a New Yorker?
INBOUND: If you had to answer in just a couple of sentences, What is it that defines a New Yorker? Is it the way one carries himself or herself? The way they speak? Their references?
Jackson: I think that being a New Yorker is about being savvy … as far as doing business is concerned, as far as being able to get things done … it’s a pace and rhythm of life … a worldliness, if anything.
INBOUND: Where did you acquire your other languages?
Jackson: The Spanish? By necessity. At the Plaza Hotel, after Brazil, I was assigned the rest of Latin America, Spain and Portugal. So, Portuguese is very close to Spanish-not identical, but it was enough to go and speak and immerse myself in the language. You pick it up. My mother was of German descent, so at home we spoke Portuguese, English and German.
Over the years, because I’m not using my Portuguese as much, I can hear the American accent that I have when I speak Portuguese. And it is mortifying, and I am teased mercilessly by a friend and family in Brazil. It’s more a cadence than an actual accent … yes, I have developed an accent when I speak Portuguese, to my chagrin. It goes away, though.
Why a Cat Café? … “It Happened”
INBOUND: Like so many others in the past 15 years of your life, I know of you primarily as a person in the tour and travel industry. All of a sudden, it seemed to many people, you kind of dropped out during the past year. Then, word came that you are opening this cat café. What gives?
Jackson: First of all, I have to tell you that it’s nice that people even noticed that I was gone. It’s awfully nice to be missed. I went dark because of necessity. There were all kind of reasons not to announce the project—in marketing risks, audience fatigue, too many things could go wrong, people would start dropping kittens at my doorstep. So, I needed to work quietly with a complicated project. It took a lot longer than I expected. But I didn’t expect it to take such a long time.
It happened. It wasn’t a natural segue by any means. It was an idea that was kind of thrust on me, and I was hounded ceaselessly until I was convinced. In Miami Beach, I live next to a small little coffee shop that was run by two brothers from Morocco who were using financial investments in business as a path to citizenship They are younger, and into all kinds of—anything that was new and trendy. And one of them happened upon some videos of a cat café and thought that was the coolest thing on the planet to do.
Because I was involved with cat rescue here—they had seen me coming and going with boxes of kittens—something clicked, and they thought I would be the perfect person to be brought aboard. A conversation started and then just morphed into a business plan.
INBOUND: Where do you get all the cats? Do you have a limit?
Jackson: We are going to be large cat café. We can accommodate thirty-plus rescue cats. Miami Beach is a lot like Rome. Cats are part of our bio-cultural heritage. The cats were brought to Miami Beach by one of the early developers to take care of the rat problem here. That was very successful, except that—we’re an island, and it created this tremendous cat overpopulation situation. We are known in the country as having one of the largest cat populations. In Miami Beach alone, we have a community cat population that’s estimated at 150,000.
So, everywhere you go in Miami Beach, you’ll see cats. Most of the condominiums have a community of cats that live there. I inherited the care of the community that lives in my little condo. I have 10 outdoor cats that I look after. Cats are part of Miami Beach, and it’s a good thing … because cat cafes go out of business for two major reasons: One, they ran out of cats. There have been a couple in Canada that have closed, because they have no more cats. It is inconceivable to me; I would have sent them plane loads if that were the case. Or, two, they run out of people. We’re not likely to do that, either.
→ This Way to Be with the Cats
INBOUND: What makes you think you can make your Cat Café a tourist attraction?
Jackson: It has all the right components. It’s part of, as I’ve said, our bio-cultural heritage in Miami Beach. It’s a local feature. Our location is ideal for any kind of attraction. We’re easy walking distance from two of the main tourists drags (Lincoln Road and Española Way). We’ve got a stellar food and beverage component. There’s the novelty component—of just the words “Cat Café.” That’s new to the United States. There are only about 50 of them nowadays. A year ago, there were only 27. So, it’s something that’s increasing in popularity, but it’s still scarce. Yet, it gets very widespread coverage on the internet with videos and everything else. In a place that’s notorious for bars and clubs, we’re very family friendly. So, it will be a good place for people who come here with children to have an alternative to the beach.
We’ll have unique activities—we have a stretch class with cats, juggling with cats … We’re ADA compliant. We make accommodations for people who are allergic to cats, who have food allergies. We’ve got vegan and gluten-free items on the menu. The place is divided by a big glass wall so that people who are allergic to cats can stay safely on the other side of the wall and see the crazy antics of cats and people interacting with them. We have the ubiquitous gift shop that people will exit and enter through, plus … I’m going to promote the hell out of it!
INBOUND: A big part of INBOUND’s audience is comprised of international and receptive tour operators. You’re going to go after domestic business, obviously, but what about overseas traffic?
Jackson: Oh, very much so. That’s a huge part of the tourist business that we get here. So, I’m using all of my contacts in the international press that I’ve acquired over the years to promote the cat café. We have a special information package that facilitates international adoptions; if someone from Brazil, for example, falls in love with a cat, that’s OK. They can fly home with a new four-legged family member.
INBOUND: So, you’re going after every segment?
Jackson: I am—yes and no. With groups, it’s a little tricky because of the cats. Studies show that when groups of five or more humans —and they’re people who know each other—are together, they’re loud. And cats don’t like loud. So, we’re a great place for the right kind of group, if they can use their “inside” voices. We have to be careful with the kind of groups we can take. Plus, because of the financial structure of the business, our margins are miniscule. The minimum donation required to enter “Purradise” goes toward the care and feeding of feline residents. (I can’t) I don’t have the financial wiggle-room to pay commissions. I can’t do the 30 percent markup. So, wholesalers are not likely to feature a visit to the Cat Café in their Miami Beach packages unless they accept direct deposits into their account at The Bank of Good Karma instead. But that’s OK.
I was known at the Plaza Hotel for not working with receptive operators. Made me hugely unpopular in some circles. It took me awhile to mend those fences, which I did when I was at NYC& Company. (I think. I hope.) But, at the Plaza Hotel, for the 10 years that I was there, I didn’t work with receptive operators for the Brazilian market. It was all direct-to-customer business and business with travel agents for the most part. My reach was that enormous. But that is another story altogether.
INBOUND: Then, does this mean that you be a part of the tour and travel community again? Will you be a part of the CVB?
Jackson: Certainly the CVB. They’re going to be a very, very helpful partner. As well as the local chamber of commerce.
INBOUND: What about your timeline? What about the next five years? The next 10 years? Do you have any hopes, any aspirations?
Jackson: The cool thing about the Cat Café is that it’s a scalable business. So, there are plans for a cat-themed trade show. There are a couple that already exist—POP cats and Catcon.* (We both chuckle.). Yeah, I know: Who’d a thunk it? I never thought that I would say this: but I miss trade shows. I miss going to IPW. I miss that. So, it’s like, godammit—if I don’t have a place for it there, then I’ll just make my own event; I’ll make my own trade show. And then, there are also plans to do a cat film festival.
INBOUND: A cat film festival? What would that involve?
Jackson: Much like any other film festival, people would submit their little cat movies or cat videos. There would be prizes. It would be a week-long event of watching cat videos and cat movies.
It’s already taking up a lot of space on the internet. People like them. There are a couple of venues here in Miami that I think be ideal and would like the idea—so, we’ll see where it goes.
INBOUND: Have you missed the travel industry? The trade shows? The people. The Hotels? The Traveling?
Jackson: Oh, I do. On the one hand, it’s nice to be away from the politics and the ups and downs. But I do miss it. The hospitality and tourism industry—it’s like a virus; you never really get it out of your system. So, I’ve gone dark, but I’ve been watching it. And the people are so special. There’s a camaraderie that you build with people over the years. We may change our roles and our geographic location, but it’s still the same motley crew.
*More than 16,000 people attended CatCon 2018 August 4 and 5 in Pasadena.
For more on the Cat Café, visit: http://www.catcafesobe.com/