Mark Gerling feels blessed to live in America. But leaving the country makes him feel alive.
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Mark Gerling is not in Kansas anymore.
After growing up there, dreaming of one day becoming a competitive bass fisherman, he moved to Florida in 1995 to work on a fishing boat in Key Largo.
“Growing up the son of a pilot, travel was always a part of my life,” he says.
But he never dreamed of flying planes himself. He wanted to be the traveler.
Today, he and his wife, Shayla, do transport clients around the world, though — only they do it through luxury vacations they organize based off of their own experiences to faraway lands.
“It’s nothing short of a knocking-on-heaven’s-door type place,” Mark says of Africa, he and his wife’s favorite destination. “We’ve invested our lives and our hearts in that area. … It’s a game-changing experience.”
Next year, the Gerlings will finalize the adoption of an African child — a fifth addition to their family.
“(Africa) is just not what people think,” he says. “People think it’s full of disease and crime and famine — which it is in many places. … But trust me that I’m putting you in safe environments.”
Gerling considers himself a “doctor of travel.” Exotic locations can be rough, he says, but finding quality lodging, safe water, areas free from civil war — it’s been his life the past seven years.
The Gerling brand started earlier, though, by Shayla in 2004, as a sports-marketing side business. Today, about 60% of the couple’s total revenue still comes from booking stays for sports organizations.
“We started from cold-turkey scratch, with nothing,” Mark says. “Just a marketing background and a dream.”
Those first few years weren’t easy, either, going from a guaranteed paycheck to zero in the heat of the recession. But for the Gerlings, the timing felt just right.
“It was probably the best time to start,” he says. “(The economy) gave us a breathing-room window. It was just, Let’s learn what we can.”
So he started traveling, exploring, looking for his niche. His confidence was growing, but sales were slow.
“We were able to hang on for dear life, and it slowly grew,” he says. “I guess I was very confident that I could bring clients to us through marketing strategies I learned over the years.”
Before Gerling Travel, Mark worked for the Ginn Co. He’s been involved in travel and hospitality since his 20s.
He’s crouched in the African bush and watched a multigenerational family — nervous grandfather down to juice box-slurping grandson — react to a herd of nearly 20 elephants advancing toward them. He’s been on foot near rhinos, lions, buffalo. He’s felt that adrenaline rush.
“That’s what you come for, just to be a part of it for five minutes,” he says. “You feel alive.”
Gerling has traveled to more than 15 countries so far. Still on his bucket list: Peru, the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, Kilimanjaro. The list goes on.
“The world is there for us to see,” he adds. “I feel sorry for (those) that have no desire to ever leave Flagler County.”
That’s one reason he, in October, held the inaugural meeting of a new quarterly travel club. About 115 people showed.
“It’s about opening people’s minds,” he says. “There’s so much out there, and travel is just one way to see things a different way and try to make the world a better place.”
The goal is to cater mostly to elderly and single travelers for group trips, organize shared experiences to last a lifetime.
“The world is a beautiful place,” Gerling says. “It’s really hard to explain what (seeing more of it) does to your soul until you explore. And then you get that thud. … It really gives you a new perspective.””
But first — get to 100 employees by early next year. That’s the plan.
Achieving it will mean more late nights at the office. And the Hales are OK with that. Working just comes easier in flip flops.