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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 23, 2016 2 years ago

'More travel, less hate'

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The hunt for new clients leads a travel entrepreneur to ask: What else can she do for her customers?
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Malaka Hilton and her team of global travel gurus at Admiral Travel International are so good at what they do they sometimes talk themselves out of more business.

The Sarasota-based agency specializes in creating high-end unique trips, from Iceland to South Africa, that center around one key factor: the experience. It's a millennial-fueled trend in the travel industry — trips that are all about creating a Go-Pro experience suitable for instant social media updates. Hilton says Admiral has been doing it that way for years, initially to survive.

“We've always had a vision that travel should be something that's experiential,” Hilton says. “We knew to grow our business we had to provide something people can't Google.”

Admiral, with seven employees and 10 trip agents who work on a contract basis, has thrived in that environment. Revenues rose nearly 10% in 2015 over 2014, from $11 million to $12 million, strong growth in an industry where traditional travel agencies are relics.

But Hilton, who runs the firm with her husband, Ryan, says the growth, and the success in booking high-end trips, has exposed Admiral to a weakness: It does little or no work with existing clients on the easier, less exotic trips they take to places in the United States.

That can be anything from Disney World to California for a week to national parks tours. Hilton says Admiral, through affiliations and partnerships with Virtuoso Reserve and other travel networks, can get clients perks and upgrades they can't get on their own, even for basic trips.

“We need to get the message out there that we can do a lot more and book everything for our clients,” says Malaka Hilton. “That's a challenge we are really focusing on and what we have to do better at articulating.”

The global side of the business, says Hilton, has grown mostly through word of mouth over the years. The firm is diligent about maintaining a high-end approach. It charges a $500 fee, good toward the trip, in the early stages of working with a client to eliminate price-shoppers and tire kickers. The firm's travel personnel include three African safari specialists, two in marketing and a private client group that works with high-net-worth travelers.

Another key to the firm's success has been to create the exclusive experience-based journeys. This past April, for example, Admiral organized a trip with 22 people to Havana, Cuba with area chef and restaurateur Tommy Klauber and his wife, Jaymie.

Admiral Travel will celebrate 20 years in business next year. The Hiltons have run the firm together — she's an award-winning Egypt expert and he's a renowned authority in South African safaris.

Travel is something Malaka Hilton, 45, did for years prior to Admiral. The daughter of an Egyptian-born doctor who ran medical symposiums worldwide, Hilton went to Egypt by the time she was 4 years old. She'd been to Japan and Moscow before she turned 12. Hilton's passion for world travel remains the driving force today to both grow Admiral and help people become more familiar with other cultures. The Hiltons' two children, for example, have gone on several overseas trips, which have been eye-opening lessons in how others live.

“If we can do more travel,” Hilton says, “we can have less hate.”

Exotic lands
Admiral Travel International founder Malaka Hilton was recently name to Travel + Leisure's 15th annual A List for her role as an Egypt trip specialist — her 14th straight year on the list.
But the honor has somewhat of a bittersweet hue, given the recent drop in travel to Egypt. She says she's gone from booking hundreds of trips there a year to now three or four. The perception and the actual reality of danger in Egypt and the Middle East, says Hilton, has caused the slowdown. “It breaks my heart because I love Egypt,” she says. “But I understand people's concerns.”

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