“Beyoncé is to my friends as Jimmy Buffett is to me,” Brooke Benson, a just-graduated college student, tells me in the shadow of a ten-foot-flip flop. Benson wasn’t allowed to attend concerts until she turned 16. For her birthday, her parents offered her either a Sweet 16 party or Buffett tickets. She chose the tickets.
Benson is one of the eight college kids attending the first annual Margaritaville College Ambassador Roundtable, a company-sponsored weekend retreat for Buffett’s most loyal junior fans. They (and I, full disclosure) got sent to Florida to talk about “Mr B” for three days straight and sleep on pillows that said “Changes in Latitude” on one side and “Changes in Attitude” on the other. I have almost a decade on these kids, and the first notes of Buffett’s empire-building song “Margaritaville” send even me less to Bermuda and more to flashbacks of drunk dads at my high school pool parties. But somehow, a bunch of teens ended up stanning for a song that came out in 1977. I travelled to Hollywood, Florida trying to figure out what these kids apparently don’t see in Carly Rae Jepsen. For the record, the big flip-flop in the hotel lobby that watches over us all may or may not be a Jeff Koons, but it’s attributed to an anonymous artist so that guests can assume for themselves that it is. Those are the kind of minute details that Margaritaville Holdings LLC has completely planned for.
Forty years after the release of “Margaritaville,” Jimmy Buffett still has Deadhead-style loyal fans. (Buffett’s crew call themselves Parrotheads, since you can spot them by the blinding light of their tropical clothing). As his original fans age and then check themselves intoMargaritaville-themed retirement homes, Buffett is building a millennial stronghold just like any other skilled business owner. Last year, the company launched its college ambassador program to harness youthful energy into a corporatized version of a street team. You know the business-speak phrase, win-win-win situation? These kids are that for Buffett.
The weekend is a combination focus group, job interview, and vacation for the chosen eight out of 150 junior brand reps. As reward for their two semesters of free promotion, a bunch of college kids who love Jimmy Buffett enough to take on an unpaid part-time job promoting his brand were invited to spend the weekend helping plot out Instagram stories, pose for photos, shop for “Five O’Clock Somewhere” shirts, design branded sweatpants, and lounge poolside at the Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort.
We’re at a Margaritaville-themed resort; I show up to our first group event in a bathing suit and shorts like the professional journalist I am. In my first hint that the next generation will save us all, the students are all shiny and dressed for success in Florida formalwear of Hawaiian shirts under blazers and bright teal dresses. They’re ready to take the morning’s challenge—a scavenger hunt for symbolic Buffett lyrics around the hotel—very, very seriously. There’s a dolphin trophy at stake. We’re technically following an impeccably prescribed itinerary, but at least everyone is doing it in floral print. That night, after a steak dinner at a restaurant with the buttoned-up name JWB (James William Buffett, obviously), the students are dismissed into the central Florida night with a homework assignment to come up with a logo for the group. You’ll be seeing a version of the winning design on sweatpants and hoodies at an airport gift shop near you very, very soon.
Margaritaville, as any of these 21-year-olds will gladly explain to you, isn’t just Jimmy Buffett’s 1977 song about the shaker of salt. It’s the state of mind that the rum punch in your hollowed-out pineapple is always half full. The brand distills the lifestyle in this ubiquitous promo paragraph. In Margaritaville, it says, “passports are not required. Island music rules. No waiting lines for anything. There is a beach and a thatched roof bar perched on the edge of the turquoise sea where you can always find a bar stool.” Of course, a laissez-faire lifestyle doesn’t come free. Margaritaville is now a licensing company worth $1.5 billion. You can drink LandShark Lager while playing a game of floating pong on a Margaritaville raft while staying at one of the nine Margaritaville hotels. You can turn yourself into a margarita with a St Somewhere Spa salt scrub treatment. Instead of spending money on actual vacations, you can listen to Margaritaville Sirius XM Radio on your commute. Eventually, you can die in one of those Margaritaville retirement homes.
Once accepted into the program, the students get a big ol’ swag box with beer koozies and powdered margarita drink mix singles to entice peers to hand over their email addresses. For comparison’s sake, I was a rep for a group called Democracy Matters in college, and I got a bunch of fact sheets about the privatized prison industry to hand out. The perks are a big deal for the students—Instagram is filled with photos of the youth holding up the brand’s official ‘Fins Up’ flag in far-flung locales—but most of them are genuinely in it for the love of Buffett. Cash compensation isn’t among the program’s perks, and no one even seems to mind.
Since I’m too jaded to imagine anyone doing something for no reason, I ask around if the students are here hoping to score jobs after graduation. Mostly, the students would like to be excluded from that narrative. Benson, a musical theatre major, tells me her goal is to start a Margaritaville ambassador program across cruise ships. Others have accepted jobs or internships in totally unrelated fields, from agricultural communication to special education. Job hopefuls get some inspiration from Margaritaville’s newest Marketing Coordinator Kristina Genovese, the former ambassador who was hired straight out of college. “They told me ‘don’t wear a suit,'” is what Genovese has to say about the recruitment process.
When pressed, none of the students can name an artist they care about as deeply as Buffett. I offer up Beyoncé, The Grateful Dead, Umphrey’s McGee, my girl Carly Rae, but they’re not interested in other fandoms. (One girl says Future, of all people, is her second favorite after JB). “We were all grandfathered into the music,” says University of Cincinnati student Lindsay Ruddy, who once earned herself a signed Buffett CD, much to her father’s jealousy. “I think my dad wants to be Jimmy Buffett,” agrees Katie Gitlin of UDel. The ambassadors all seem to associate Buffett’s music with these good-natured vibes, and especially with family. Dads, I quickly learn, play a big role. The students’ dads are Parrotheads; “Margaritaville” was the first song another ever heard; one’s father has been to 30 Buffett concerts. Can you imagine listening to music to get closer with your family? These kids wear the sheen that comes from being well-adjusted.
Ambassadors have three official duties and they complete them with a professionalism that’s distinctly unchill. Students have to show the brand how they “embrace Margaritaville” in their daily lives; they have to spread the gospel of island time and prove it with tangible results like email sign-ups and redeemed discount codes; last but not least, they’re asked to make the world a better place “in any way.” Most do complete some sort of charity work, often inside their existing communities on sports teams or in a fraternity/sorority. Buffett’s adult “ParrotHeads” live by the slogan “party with a purpose.” (I’m told that the ParrotHead conventions get pretty wild). Becky Armas at Illinois State organized a raffle of Margaritaville merch to benefit her local Cancer Center; Brooke at ECU partnered with her local ParrotHeads to raise money for St. Baldrick’s.
- A great article and message to all our youth. Yes, you can have fun and contribute to the benefit of society. The two are not oxymorons, they are compatible to each other. I like the Jimmy Buffett philosophy and put it into my Caribbean/Florida Keys spy series once in a while. It fits perfectly into the unfolding plot. ONWARD!