Original Article - Posted by the Sarasota Herald Tribune
Updated Mar 6, 2017 at 6:14 AM
By Maggie Menderski
It's been two decades since U.S. airlines cut commissions for travel agencies, and just about that long since Admiral Travel International opened its doors.
The Sarasota travel company launched almost simultaneously with that major blow to a steadily evolving and struggling industry that since then also has been battered by the turbulence caused by internet bookings and the economic uncertainty of the Great Recession.
But the staff at Admiral Travel continues to book luxury group travel and individual trips.
Admiral's owners, Malaka and Ryan Hilton, have found their niche in VIP treatment and in personalizing travel experiences in a way that web-based companies cannot.
It's true that there's less need than there was in the '90s for travelers to have people coordinate flights and to book hotel rooms for them. Expedia.com, Hotels.com and countless other websites can track down good rates and book travel and accommodations. Travel agent employment is projected to decline 12 percent from 2014 to 2024, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the Hiltons say unique experiences and attention to detail have kept Admiral relevant. The seven-person Admiral staff organizes up to four large group trips per year with as many as 80 people on them. They also handle smaller groups with just a few couples and individuals' trips, too.
The individual attention extends beyond the office. Ryan Hilton spends at least 100 days annually in Africa guiding groups there. Some of the excursions are listed on the company's website, but others are handcrafted for groups of like-minded individuals. Those invitation-only trips fill up.
Much of Admiral's success comes from its affiliation with Virtuoso, a luxury travel network that connects it with the industry's top players worldwide. That network gives the Hiltons a greater chance to foster the large and small touches that make a vacation memorable. When one of their guests in France didn't care for wine but loved almond milk, Malaka Hilton called the general manager at the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris and had it waiting in her room. Things like that set the tone for the entire trip.
"We've always built personalized experiences, but we've learned to specialize even more in the travelers and their preferences, their likes, their dislikes," Ryan Hilton said.
Better than a Bentley
There is one macro trend that is working in favor of travel agents.
Following the Great Recession, there's been a shift toward spending disposable income on experiences rather than things, said Steven Kirn, executive director of the David F. Miller Retailing Education and Research Center at the University of Florida. The luxury sector is no exception.
He cited a huge uptick in the number of ads for high-end trips combining air and cruise ship travel as an indication that there's a market for them. An older group of consumers with significant disposable income is more interested in investing it in time with the people they care about.
"Something like that is a much more appealing way to spend their money than upgrading from a Jag to a Bentley," Kirn said.
Group travel also allows Admiral to add a celebrity twist to create the voyage of a lifetime. Admiral's travelers have dined at the foot of Egyptian pyramids at a meal hosted by celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi and winemaker Salvatore Ferragamo. On one trip, their guests attended a barbecue that Sting hosted at his villa in Tuscany.
Sarasota's tendency toward culture and relative luxury provides a strong client base for Admiral's storefront at 1284 N Palm Ave., but over the years the company has gained a national reputation, too.
National reputation for international travel
"We're in a position where people come to us for expertise," Malaka Hilton said. "They're not looking for the least expensive hotel room. They're not looking even for cheap airline tickets. They're coming to us because we specialize in different parts of the world."
Admiral has been written about by publications such as Conde Nast Traveler, the New York Times and Bloomberg News in articles about Malaka Hilton's expertise on Egypt and Ryan Hilton's knowledge of the rest of Africa. Today, about 40 percent of their clientele comes from outside of the Sarasota area. Africa and Egypt often act as gateway trips, but the company has about an 80 percent rate of repeat business, Malaka Hilton said.
That was the case for Bob and Lin Williams. An African safari brought them to the Admiral's store initially, and now the Sarasota couple in their mid-60s travels about six times a year with the company to places such as Morocco, Japan and Italy.
"There's so many things that they bring to the table that it's not just going to stay in a luxurious villa in Italy and having the time of your life," Lin Williams said. "You do that, too, but there more."
In Morocco, they took Range Rovers out into the dessert and then used camels to go the final stretch to a camp. They rode donkeys up into the hills and had dinner with a Moroccan who performed a traditional tea ceremony for them.
"You have real peace of mind with them, and they're good at what they do," he said.
Knowledge of personal preferences
The Hiltons know how he and his wife like to travel, Bob Williams said, down to their love of balconies in hotel rooms and the type of seats they prefer on an airplane.
Jim Kittle, another Admiral traveler who has a home on Bird Key, said it was easier for his family to have Admiral plan his daughter's wedding abroad than it would have been to host it in Sarasota. Kittle had taken his family on an African safari with Admiral a few years before and his daughter had fallen so in love with the culture that she wanted to be married there.
Admiral and the camps they stayed at in Kruger National Park handled all the details large and small, whether it was the Champagne they drank or the ride up to the top of the cliff where they were married.
Kittle has traveled with them about dozen times over the years and found that the true benefit is in those details.
"I think you can do anything today by yourself, but could you do it as well?" Kittle said. "I don't think I could, and we travel a lot."
Now that they've hit the 20-year mark, the Hiltons are bracing to dial back their personal involvement, at least somewhat. They'll always travel, but they'll be relying more on their staff over the next five years or so. The couple has another big anniversary in its immediate future.
The couple met 20 years ago on Malaka's first site inspection trip to Africa. Ryan was her guide. He moved to Sarasota to be with her six months after that trip.
Now, they've been married 19 years and have two teenage children. They know that time is growing thin before their kids head off to college. That's an entirely different adventure for their family.
Even though they seem to have the entire world at their fingertips, the place they want to be most for the next few years is home.