By Claudette Covey for Travel Weekly
Whatever you do, don't call Admiral Travel Gallery a travel agency, becasue as far as its owners are concerned, it isn't - certainly not in the traditional sense.
Malaka Hilton, who co-owns the agency with her husband, Ryan Hilton, has worked tirelessly to make Sarasota, Fla. based Admiral distinct.
"In the past, people have viewed travel agents as order takers," Hilton said. "We decided years ago that we didn't want to be classifiec that way because we do so much more."
One way Admiral differentiates itself is in the ambience of its new offices, which are located in the heart of the city's arts district. In effect, said Hilton, Admiral wants to showcase the art of travel.
"We moved into this gorgeous new office with leather walls and sliding glass doors," said Hilton.
Custom photography and original artwork and handcrafts are on display. IN December, Admiral will feature its first of an ongoing series of gallery opening and wine tastings.
Admiral employees are never referred to as travel agents but as travel professionals and travel specialists.
"Our vision is to employ a person who specializes in every destination in the world," said Hilton.
One of the Hilton's areas of expertise is Etypg, a destination that is like a second home to her, in large part because she has traveled there at least once a year since the age of four with her Egyptian-born father and Yugoslav mother.
"I can do things for my customers that nobody else can," she said, adding that she hosts barbecues at family members' homes in teh Pyramid district and offers other events adn activities that would be extremely difficult for anyone but an insider to arrange.
Her husband, whom she met as a South Africa game reserve where he worked as a guide, serves as the agenty's Africa and safari specialist. While she oversees the personnel side of the business, he handles Admiral's sophisticated technology.
Both are group experts who take travelers on unique itineraries. Admiral partners with a host of cultural institutions that provide its customers with insider access to regional and international events, such as the Cannes Film Festival and Chinese New Year.
"My husband and I have made a conscious effort to get our name out locally through charity events and such cultural institutions as the Sarasota Film Festival and the Asolo Theatre Company. Cultural institutions have figured out that they can raise a lot of money through travel," said Hilton. "And I've stepped in and said,'I'd like to be your travel company of choice."
Admiral also partners with high-profile individuals, having formed working partnerships with such luminaries as Salvatore Ferragamo and chef Roy Yamaguchi, founder of over 30 Roy's restaurants in the U.S. mainland, Hawaii and on Guam.
"Exclusive product is our niche, and it's very important to us," said Hilton. "We cater to those travelers who want the wow factor."
Ferragamo will escort and Admiral group next year on a tour exploring Italy's Tuscany region. The itinerary will include a private tour of Florence and the Ferragamo Store and Museum. It will also feature a visit to his family's winery in Tuscany as well as the exclusive Palio horse race in Sienna.
Yamaguchi will join an Admiral group next year on a South African Winelands and Safari tour, which includes a private dinner with the chef at the Cape Grace Hotel in Cape Town.
"When I meet people I like to envision how we can do business together, and then I just start brainstorming," said Hilton. "Sometimes it works and appeals to the peopel I talk to and meet, and sometimes it doesn't. I make sure it's not only appealing to me and the future of my business, but to theirs as well."
HIlton said that creative thinking, impeccable service and 24/7 accessibility are what draws new customers and marketing partnerships.
"My cell phone is printed on my business card, and I keep my cell phone on all the time," said Hilton. "My customers know that no matter where they are or what time it is, they can call me."
Hilton said success will come to travel counselors who couple creativity with flexibility. "The ones whil will succeed have to be dynamic and willing to adapt to change," she said. "This is a dynamic industry, and it's always changing."