Everyone, if lucky or brave enough, has that decisive moment. It may seem reckless or foolhardy or a little bit crazy at the time, but an inspired act of cutting loose from the deadening 9-to-5, of leaping before you look, casting fate to the four winds, could lead to a radical new vision of life.
Ask Sheree Mitchell (B.A. ’01, M.A. ’04). It was only four years ago that the Miami-based professional left a successful management career in the medical industry to embark on a grand adventure. “I decided IT WAS TIME to live out my lifelong dream of literally QUITTING MY JOB, giving up my apartment, giving up my car, putting my things in storage and TRAVELING AROUND THE WORLD FOR A YEAR,” she says. “And I DID THAT.”
Mitchell traveled from Latin America to Asia to the Middle East, to Europe to Africa and back and forth to some of her favorite places before winding up in Portugal, the one single place that she couldn’t quite get away from for very long. “I fell in love with Portugal,” she recalls, “and decided I wanted to do something there.”
As Mitchell revisited that moment during a recent conversation, her voice became more emphatic, buzzing with passion. “That trip around the world was the most empowering experience I’ve ever had in my life,” she says. “I felt invincible. I knew if I was going to take a chance anytime in my life, that was the time, to take advantage of that energy that I cultivated through that trip. Whatever the risks, they had to be taken at that time. “
And so a new life was born.
Mitchell’s internal conversation with herself went like this: “I became accustomed to moving around and having a blast every day, so there’s no way I can go back to an office. So I will try to find something that’s going to allow me to stay on the road in this way.”
She reinvented herself as an entrepreneur, pioneering new frontiers in the tourism industry. Mitchell founded Immersa Global, a company that specializes in “experiential travel.” The concept is very different from “old-school travel packages where you’re flipping through a catalog,” she explains, or the Caribbean cruises where tourists spend more time in tacky gift shops than discovering any real color or flavor.
Rather, these are meticulously researched and orchestrated small-group excursions, with a strong emphasis on food, wine and culture, that take clients off the beaten path and give them time, space and some insider tips to make their own adventures. And Portugal felt ripe, the perfect spot at the perfect moment to try something completely different.
“You could feel the buzz,” Mitchell says of Lisbon, the nation’s capital and one of the world’s oldest cities, with origins reaching back to 800 B.C. “The younger generation, the level of innovation with technology was very visible. This is coming from someone who lived in Spain. I was married to a Spaniard, so I thought I knew the Iberian Peninsula very well. Portugal surprised me.”
Mitchell was caught in an early wave of the nation’s tourism boom, which began to boost its economy right when Portugal was coming out of the bleakest moments of its financial crisis. Much as Mitchell did, people were finding a lot to love there.
“Portugal has long been an amazing under-the-radar destination for food, wine and culture,” says Lana Bortolot, a New York-based wine journalist with 15 years of travel experience in Portugal. “Its popularity now, I think, is due to its affordability, authenticity and accessibility. In the large cities like Lisbon and Porto, most people speak English. The food and wine are unlike anything else in Europe: There are really no cliches when it comes to the gastronomy. And for culture fiends, the entire country is a visible mosaic of historic buildings, exotic architecture, music and craftsmanship.”
Beyond the romance of its Old World charm – its castles and cathedrals – and the modern dazzle of its public works projects – such as the stunning Vasco da Gama Bridge, and Santiago Calatrava’s neo-Gothic Gare do Oriente – Lisbon and the rest of Portugal offered major bonuses for a globetrotter like Mitchell. Prices were a good 35 percent cheaper than elsewhere in Western Europe, and the streets were safe. “It may be in the top six of the safest countries,” she says. “As a sole female traveler making her way around the world, I could tell.” Public transit was on point. And, well, everything is just so damn beautiful. “Lisbon is a gorgeous city. It’s on the water. It’s colorful. I did not speak Portuguese at the time, so I was getting by on my Spanish and English, but everyone was so accommodating.”
The country’s unique cultural mix, richly infused by the presence of immigrants from Portugal’s former African and New World colonies, has made it a kind of crossroads of three different continents. “It’s Old World meets Africa meets Brazil,” says Mitchell, who, as a woman of color, was very responsive to Portuguese inclusive attitudes around race. “Jumble them all up, and you have Portugal.”
Owning her own business had been a lifelong dream. Mitchell gave herself a year and a half to make things work. Despite hitting an initial strategic speed bump, “things moved so quickly, in a way I couldn’t have planned for.”
The job was a relatively novel one for anyone not keyed into the travel industry. “I curate travel,” says Mitchell, who also lends her expertise to international tourism boards and ministries to shape appealing travel products for the North American market. “I’m not a tour guide and I’m not a travel agency,” she explains, although she includes high-end travel agencies among her clients. Her closest competition is an enterprise like Times Journeys, operated by The New York Times, which lines up participants with Times journalists or other experts for trips inspired by articles in the paper’s travel section. Mitchell is likewise dedicated to creating what she calls “exclusive product” for sophisticated travelers who may already have a passport crowded with visa stamps. “They’re looking for something different than what they can find on their own, or with normal travel agencies. They want exclusivity and unique experiences.”
In fact, though, this intrepid traveler, who commands four languages and has visited some 40 countries, had gone back to a kind of first love. “It has a direct connection to FSU,” says Mitchell, who as an undergraduate majored in Spanish language and Latin American studies, and as a grad student majored in Spanish literature. During her first year as a grad student, she was asked by the International Students Organization to put together a two-week impact trip for students to go to Costa Rica. Although she had never tackled this sort of assignment, she was on familiar turf.
“There weren’t many bilingual people in Suwannee County, where I grew up in the ’90s,” Mitchell says. “You were either native English speakers or newly arrived immigrant families, mainly from Latin America. Since I had a really good grasp of Spanish, my teachers and family often asked me to translate and interpret for these families in order to help them get the proper services they needed in the community. I loved serving in that way and decided to major in Spanish in undergrad. In my late teens, I spent my summers in Costa Rica living with local families and studying at language academies, so Spanish has always been a big part of my life.”
The Costa Rica project gave Mitchell her own immersive experience in travel curating. She loved it, and kept it going even after she graduated, and began teaching Spanish at a private school in South Florida, where she also designed travel programs abroad. She eventually left teaching, but found that she missed it. Now she could, in a way, get back to the basics, introducing inquisitive minds to new cultural sensations.
“It was a way,” she says, “to share information with people.”
Teaching also had prepared her for her new role in other ways. “Once you’re a teacher in the classroom, responsible for 75 kids in a semester with different personalities and work ethics, you are the master organizer and you can take on anything,” she insists. “I was able to transfer a lot of those skills to what I’m doing now.” Even the office environment in her Miami workspace could pass for a classroom, “with a teacher’s planner and sticky notes everywhere. All my phones and computers are in sync!”
What Mitchell calls “bespoke travel” is a trend that has become popular only relatively recently in North America. As she elaborates, it’s not only about the most obvious experiences, like “taking people to restaurants for amazing meals and then walking away.” Instead, if you take part in one of the programs that Mitchell has designed, you would find yourself doing an intensive workshop with the chef of that fancy restaurant – one adorned with Michelin stars, no doubt – whose calendar wouldn’t be free for just any interested party.
This desire to embrace the real as opposed to the prefabricated ties in with a shift in what Americans want out of life, Mitchell observes. “We have seen a rising demand for wanting to have connection with people and have authentic experiences with people.” She points to the locavore movement in food. “We are going back to, for those of us who can afford it, buying our food directly from the producers. Farmers markets and things of that nature have become increasingly more important in our society. I see this kind of travel as an extension of whatever is driving that need to connect to the root of the product or service you’re experiencing.”
Some of that enthusiasm could be related to the influence of cable television travel gurus like Rick Steves and the late Anthony Bourdain, whose popularity commands fan bases to rival any rock star’s. “They have skillfully been able to bring real-world experiences into our living rooms,” Mitchell says. “They’ve broken down so many barriers. If you want to experience the best escargot, then this is how you find it.”
To manifest all this for her clients, Mitchell has to turn herself into a combination of pilgrim, historian, epicurean, goodwill ambassador and gumshoe. When she arrives in Portugal, her part-time home, for a periodic excursion to find new sips, sights, tastes and scenes, her compact support team there already has a lot of new and intriguing possibilities lined up. “It could be something like this really cool winery, where they store the wine in the sea for 12 months,” she says. She might devote a couple of months to traversing a region, like the wine country of Alentejo, south of Lisbon and above the Algarve, working the terrain in a manner not unlike, say, a candidate for public office, going one-to-one. “I sit down at their tables with their families,” she says. Before she got to know the wineries and their owners, Mitchell says, they weren’t on the tour map. So she created the first route for North American travelers to discover them. And then, she adds, “I got lots of invitations to visit different wineries!”
Often, invites come from regional folk festivals that want Mitchell as “one of the starred guests, the sardine person or the hazelnut person.” Wherever she roams, there’s usually a photographer, even a videographer, along to document some “mini-Bourdain content” for Mitchell to share later at travel shows.
It also helps to have really cool allies. In addition to having Ana Mendes Godinho, Portugal’s secretary of state for tourism, in her local network, Mitchell has also made grand connections with some of the country’s leading tastemakers, like the Earl of Rocamor (André Meunier da Silva), aristocrat and bon vivant, who moves between the worlds of contemporary art, gastronomy and tourism, and journalist Paulo Salvador, a prestigious presenter and gastronome whose TV show “Mesa Nacional” hikes off in search of “the most obscure restaurants/recipes/stories in the country.” Salvador also runs the MUST Fermenting Ideas Wine Summit, one of the world’s top think tanks on matters of the grape. Mitchell also is well-acquainted with stellar chefs, such as Pedro Mendes, whom she has described as a “motorcycle-riding, headstrong badass who’s unapologetically disrupting the fine cuisine experience in conservative Portugal.” Mendes, a pioneer in sustainability for high-end restaurants, has also created new ways to appreciate common food sources, like the humble acorn, transforming them into elegant cuisine.
When she describes what she was up to between May and July, for instance, it’s easy to imagine Mitchell’s job becoming too much of a good thing. There are a lot of trips simply to check out wineries, hotels and restaurants, digging deep into Portugal’s distinct regions. It takes time, and it takes focus. Not to mention a certain stamina at the dining table observing Iberian social custom. “They want to show you everything they have to offer,” she offers about her multifarious hosts. “You don’t just go for a minute and get out. That would be considered rude. You have to spend a little time. Lunch starts at 1 p.m. You block out until 3:30, and that is a lunch ending somewhat on time, because people want to get back to work. But if it’s one of those wine lunches where they’re pairing Michelin-starred food or other creations, you probably won’t leave until 5 or 5:30. You might as well block out your calendar for the rest of the day and then go home and sleep because you won’t be able to do anything else!”
Some days, though, it’s all about checking out a newly reopened palace and catching a sunset with the Vasco da Gama Bridge silhouetted against the sky. Lisbon has palaces – really, a fancier name for an ornate mansion – like American suburbia has 7-Elevens. An ode, Mitchell says, to the nation’s golden age of nautical domination, a symbol of once-great wealth. Centuries later, the historic sites are becoming boutique hotels and event locations. “We’re not accustomed to having palaces every other block,” she says. “I’ve noticed Americans really, really appreciate visiting these properties. They’re taken care of when they’re here.”
Back home in Miami, life is more relaxed if noticeably less entrancing. Mitchell locks into TCB mode – taking care of business – as she oversees not only her Portugal enterprise, but similar programs in Costa Rica and a more recent, burgeoning endeavor in Israel. “Most days, it’s content creation and tweaking the experiences, and reaching out to clients, touching base,” she says.
The typical work routine rarely lasts long, however, before Mitchell is on her way back to the airport. Indeed, having only just gotten back from Portugal when we first spoke, Mitchell was soon to return.
“Since my first trips here, Portugal has always had an interesting effect on me,” she says. “And even now, I sometimes still ask myself, ‘Why do I like this place so much? What attracts me to a country that is much less glamorous than my own?’ A place where you walk around and you easily see the Old World elegance of Portugal’s richer days buried under hundreds of years of poverty and multiple decades of dictatorship.”
When she’s sipping a glass of wine at sunset with friends and colleagues from a splendid palatial patio, taking in one of Lisbon’s signature views, it’s not only the grapes that intoxicate. “I look out over the 25th of April Bridge toward the Cristo Rei statue, and I’m reminded of how magical this place is, how thankful I am to have found it, and how much I enjoy sharing it with others,” she says. “I’ve never felt like a foreigner in Portugal, but yet a friend from a different land.”