"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.
When the Margaritaville University program launched last July, the brand received over 700 applications in 24 hours. "One kid got on the phone with me and just screamed, 'I. Love. Margaritaville.," says Joey Robinson, a Margaritaville Digital Strategy Manager who co-runs the program. He got right in. Once accepted, the students spend the semester earning points in return for completed "challenges" like email gathering and social media posts. The brand also gives out discount cards, which strikes me as a vaguely nefarious but genius way to earn back revenue. Each student is encouraged to distribute their specific 25% discount code, with the goal of getting friends and family to spend $500 on Margaritaville merch. The kids then earned back 10% of the money that was spent… in the form of a Margaritaville gift card. "Pretty much my entire wardrobe is Margaritaville," says ambassador Peyton Richie, looking down at his palm tree buttondown and branded topsiders. (The hotel gift shop, it should be noted, is the most fun museum I've ever visited. You could live comfortably in there for weeks, eating only Margaritaville-branded salsa, swaddled in a tropical towel).
All that money spent on Margaritaville is even more staggering when you consider that the students aren't sanctioned to buy branded alcohol. The Margaritaville University coordinators will send students whatever they need to help make a charity event happen—except booze. (The discount codes are only redeemable on shoes and apparel. Margaritaville is already associated with a boozy good time; the brand sells more than 3 million domestic cases of LandShark each year. It's a clever move to sideline alcohol and focus on the many, many other ways to buy your way to good vibes thanks to Margaritaville Holdings. Students may not be able to Instagram themselves drinking Margaritaville Spiced Rum, but they sure do look great in the library in a pair of branded headphones taking a snack break with Margaritaville N'Awlins Ragin' Cajun Nut and Fruit Mix.
Most of our group of eight is over 21 and indulging in a responsible amount of LandShark Lager, but the few others are careful to wave off any wine-wielding waiters. "For the sake of this program, we pretend that the alcohol-related segments of our organization don't exist. We don't message it," says Robinson. "We need to really responsibly figure out how we'll handle that." Not only will the company not send you any of its branded tequila, Robinson also made a decision not to include a bottle opener in the students' swag boxes. Sometimes students ask for cups, he says, and even those requests are turned down. When Armas wanted to register her club with the school, she had trouble finding an advisor, she tells me. She went straight to the Dean to plead her case. He happened to be a Parrothead and now attends her events.
You have to watch the program's promo video. Filmed at one ambassador's campus wakeboarding contest, it looks like a trailer for Blue Crush starring white University of Florida students in bikinis. The subtext is very red-blooded, good old American fun, which also means there's not much academic about it. It's not exactly lying — there is a surf simulator at the hotel, so being the perfect ambassador could technically make you better on the waves. But during an "improvements and challenges" session, a few of the students suggest tying in the program more directly with education. "Notebooks and pencils in our welcome boxes would be a big help," one student offers. The program is planning to hone in on the college demographic this year, with Margaritaville University merch in college colors. (Remember when Victoria's Secret started selling UGA underwear? This is like that, for bikinis.)
If it seems disingenuous to sell relaxation as a monogrammed sweatpant or "Five O'Clock Somewhere" coffee table, it's also impossible to argue that Margaritaville isn't giving the people what they want. The ambassadors might end up with an internship at the end of a semester, but they'll definitely leave with dozens of "Fins Up" stickers and Buffett's autobiography. For these superfans, the opportunity to infuse some vacation vibes into their resume-building is enough.
The students tell me they typically spend about 10 hours a week on their Margaritaville duties. "I remember back when I was in college, and how stressful and complicated things can be, which has just been magnified now. And to hear our students say that what they do with the program allows them a break or a release, that's a really cool thing," says Robinson. And if they happen to be buying Margaritaville frozen Jammin' Jerk Shrimp and Instagramming themselves in branded tanks in the meantime, that's quite a silver lining.
Leah Prinzivalli is searching for her last shaker of salt on Twitter.