Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Fantasy by the Sea: St. Thomas Winner of UVI’s 13D Entrepreneurship Competition Turns Dream into Reality

Patsy Bruenlin in the Reception Area of Phantasea Tropical Botanical Garden, Home to more than 1,000 Orchids
For years, Patsy Breunlin dreamed of starting her own business.  So when she learned in 2013 that she did not have to be a matriculated student at the University of the Virgin Islands in order to take a course in entrepreneurship, she dashed over to the University and registered.  The course would enable her to participate in the University’s 13D Entrepreneurship Competition, a collaborative program between UVI and 13D Research (USVI) LLC in which students compete to win start-up capital for their emerging businesses.
Gifts and Refreshments
Patsy had a big project in the works: A tropical botanical garden that was ready to be transformed into a local eco-attraction.  But first she needed financing and some business expertise.  Her instincts were spot-on; the course, taught by Dr. Tim Faley, provided the coaching and preparation she would need to successfully compete in the 13D program, and her second-place finish yielded $20,000 in start-up capital.  After 20 years of clearing and weeding, trimming and pruning, digging and planting, the Florida-born architect and general contractor was finally in a position to realize her dream of opening Phantasea Tropical Botanical Garden to the public.   
“The garden was my passion even before I owned this property, and creating it has been a labor of love,” said Patsy, gesturing toward a gently sloping path which leads visitors into a naturally air-conditioned, and perfumed, cascade of more than a thousand orchids and hundreds of bromeliads, heliconias, gingers, palms, aroids and succulents.  “I brought my plant collection to St. Thomas when I moved here in 1987, and spent the next six years looking for the perfect place to put them in the ground.  It wasn’t until a friend told me that the garden ‘was just too good not to share it with others’ that I decided to create a traditional botanical garden for St. Thomas, since it didn’t have one already.”  
Steps Leading into the Garden

Patsy’s discovery that botanical gardens were allowed in her zoning area near the top of St. Peter Mountain on the north side of St. Thomas, overlooking Magen’s Bay, galvanized her to obtain a business license in 2000.  This led to the construction of the garden’s labyrinth of paths, steps and planting areas.  She also collected and installed many new plants, which she looked forward to sharing with visitors from near and far as she transitioned away from architecture and contracting toward what she had already started to think of as her “retirement career” in the garden.  The start-up capital that she secured through the partnership between UVI and 13D provided the funds she needed to complete the parking area and buildings.  Phantasea opened to the public on February 7, 2015. 
“The garden is a one-of-a-kind attraction on St. Thomas,” said Dr. Glenn A. Metts, Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship.  “Unlike other attractions which can be built over a year or so, a botanical garden takes many years, even decades to mature.  Patsy’s love of gardening existed long before she turned it into a business.”
Ms. Bruenlin found the course and the competition’s requirments to be both rigorous and helpful.  Under the supervision of Dr. Faley, she constructed a detailed business plan that prompted her to research approximately how many tourist-filled safari’s drive by her property on an average day (68) and the popularity of gardening (fifth most popular hobby in America.)  She wrote an effective “elevator pitch” and learned how to create persuasive Power Point presentations.  She developed a marketing strategy, which led to a solid web presence complete with website, social media, and a fruitful account on TripAdvisor.  “The UVI program was tough,” said Patsy. “They teach you how to understand your business in terms of how economically viable it has the potential to be.  Several people dropped out along the way.  It’s not an academic exercise; it really is about getting successful businesses started in the Territory.”
Patsy Behind the Front Desk
One year after she opened Phantasea, Patsy has a guest book filled with glowing remarks about the magnificent beauty and transcendent serenity of the garden.  She has 51 reviews with an overall rating of excellent on TripAdvisor.  She is, according to Dr. Metts, a “patient, hard-working and extremely determined entrepreneur.”  Nevertheless, she is frustrated by how difficult it has been to break into the excursions marketplace on St. Thomas, much of which is controlled by third-party organizers.  “I’ve enjoyed a lot of support from this community,” she said.  “I thought that it would be easier to get in with cruise ship tourism.  I also didn’t realize just how much work it was going to be to maintain the garden while at the same time managing guests and keeping up with all of the marketing.” 
Despite her concerns, the Phantasea Tropical Botanical Garden appears to be holding its own with 168 visitors during the first three weeks of January, most of which were referred by TripAdvisor, and a steadily growing reputation locally and online.  Dr. Metts agrees that the garden is a tough business, but remains optimistic about its potential to provide a good living for the owner, while at the same time enriching the St. Thomas community.  “Once she can get enough attention through the media, I think Phantasea will be a great attraction for St. Thomas visitors,” said Dr. Metts.  “Patsy is not a major corporation so she has to rely on local media more and she deserves all of our help in making Phantasea a success.  What we need to realize about Phantasea is that the cost of actually developing the garden over more than a decade was tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention the cost of the property.  A tropical garden owned by an individual requires a lot of money over a long period of time with no payback.  That is the real value of Phantasea; nobody can just install a botanical garden.  It reflects decades of work just to be ready for the first visitor.”

If you have a great idea for a business start-up, consider entrepreneurship classes at UVI.  You too will have the chance to win $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000 in start-up capital. Entrepreneurship classes are available to all students regardless of their major, as well as to members of the broader Virgin Islands Community.
Purple Orchid in Bloom