By Ruth Lando, Style Magazine
Malaka Hilton is known for her chutzpah. “I’m not afraid of being turned down,” the Admiral Travel International founder and co-owner admits. “What’s the worst that someone can say, ‘no’? I’ve asked celebrity chefs to do trips and they’ve said no. I don’t go into a corner and cry. I say ‘OK,’ and go on to the next one.”
Hilton is fearless, whether she’s contracting exclusive excursions with Chef Jean Georges Vongerichten, or Il Borro winery owner (and fashion designer extraordinaire) Salvatore Ferragamo, or former pro-football star Dan Marino. She’s also been the only one in a crowd of 800 who dared to ask Virgin Airlines owner Richard Branson to take a picture with her. But the greatest gamble was creating a world-class travel emporium
from scratch. Malaka credits her dad, Dr. Mahfouz El Shahawy, an Egyptian-born cardiologist, for her confidence. “Growing up, my dad was the type who was always so pushy that my brother and I would get a little bit embarrassed,” she says. “But now I recognize that’s where I got it from.”
Admiral Travel International has two locations, including a flagship office downtown that Malaka opened in 1997, just four years after graduating from FSU with a degree in hospitality. A fast learner, she began answering phones for the now defunct Horizon Travel in Sarasota, until one day her Dad called and told her there was a storefront available on Palm Avenue.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
Malaka wasn’t sure, but took the plunge. Two months later, she was a customer on one of Zimbabwe-born wildlife photographer Ryan Hilton’s photo safaris in South Africa. She jokes about pulling her handsome husband “out of the African bush’” and how they’re complete opposites. But Malaka also had her culturally diverse parents as role models: an Egyptian father and a Yugoslavian mother who came together in Austria. Malaka and Ryan married on Valentine’s Day 1998 at the Ringling Museum.
They thrive as a couple, and as business partners, by cultivating distinct spheres of responsibility and expertise, Malaka says. “I’m the hands-on person, day-to-day running the business, and Ryan’s the behind-the-scenes guy.” She also believes in stepping back and allowing experts to do their thing, citing her wedding as an example. “Phil Mancini of Michael’s on East calls me the easiest bride he ever worked with,” she boasts, “because I just let him do what he does best.”
Persistence and vision have earned Malaka the highest accolades from her peers in the travel industry. Since 1999, Admiral Travel International has ranked among the elite boutique travel agencies of the world as a member of Virtuoso, which Malaka describes as “the highest, most upscale group of travel professionals, not just in this country, but also in Australia and South America.” ATI is routinely recognized as one of the most
innovative travel advisors in the business by superior cruise lines, tour companies and hotels.
That’s because, in addition to guts, Malaka has brains, connections, talent and taste. Always a risk taker, the newest product in her suitcase is AuthentEscapes, an ultra-exclusive, experiential tour company launched in May 2009, with offices in Sarasota, Los Angeles and Cairo. AuthentEscapes expands ATI’s escorted journeys for travelers who can afford being led to exotic destinations by icons of food, wine, sports, entertainment and global culture.
“Everyone is looking at ways to get creative and take advantage of their celebrity, and we’re connecting it with travel,” Malaka explains. Last year the Hiltons took 14 guests backstage with Andrea Bocelli in Italy. Placido Domingo happened to join the singer, so the lucky travelers met him, too. “How do you do it?” people keep asking her. Malaka’s answer: “What I attribute it to is creative marketing, but also thinking outside the box.”
She’s a master at forging partnerships that give rise to ever more specialized niches, even during a recession. In 2010, ATI and Sarasota’s Gulf Coast Connoisseur Club (a rewards program of the Klauber-Moulton-Mancini family of businesses), will take members to Champagne, Bordeaux, the Loire Valley and Northern Spain with A-list chefs and prestigious winemakers for one-of-a-kind food, wine and cultural experiences. The hook is that GCCC members traveling through ATI earn a 5 percent credit for every dollar they spend, which translates to free dining, catering, hospitality and wine. Malaka says this formula has proven to be a great incentive for savvy travelers seeking added value.
She’s also diversifying the “extreme adventure” part of Admiral Travel’s portfolio with excursions that include crabbing trips to the Bering Sea with the captains of TV’s “Deadliest Catch” on their ship, the Time Bandit. “I’m thrilled about it, but I wouldn’t do it myself,” Malaka admits, laughing. This is no trip for the faint of wallet, either. It’ll cost tens of thousands of dollars for five days of extreme crab trapping. “I love creating it, I love putting it out there, but it’s not something that I would personally do,” she says.
Malaka’s been globetrotting with her parents since the age of 4, and says the one place she hasn’t yet seen, but would like to, is The Maldives, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean. Her idea of extreme adventure was meeting Richard Branson at the unveiling of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital excursions, an event held in the Mohave Desert, under hurricane-force winds, with zero-degree temps. It was, Malaka recalls, a “weird weather day, and the tent ended up blowing away and everyone was evacuated.” That was exciting enough, although she’s always wanted to cage-dive with sharks off the coast of South Africa near Cape Town. “But now that I’m the mother of kids ages 9 and 6 (Alexandria and Carter), I probably won’t do that,” she avers. Husband Ryan is another story altogether. He enjoys gorilla trekking in the mountains of Rwanda; and adventures in Antarctica and space are definitely on his bucket list. Ryan is one of only 60 accredited space agents for Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flights that will cost around $200,000 per person.
The Hiltons are always looking for new angles on customized trips that can’t be duplicated by searching on Google. “I’m trying to bring sexy back to travel,” Malaka says. “I want travel to be something that is just really cool, hip, sexy and fun experiences. And AuthentEscapes is going to bring that because it’s all experiential.” One upcoming voyage will explore the waterways between St. Petersburg and Moscow with the former White House chef to presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Ex-Broncos tight end and CBS sports analyst Shannon Sharpe will be leading a custom tour thanks to connections made through Malaka’s brother, Magdi El Shahawy, a senior associate athletic director at USC.
Malaka also has a reputation as an unmatched Egyptian expert, praised by Travel + Leisure magazine and National Geographic Traveler. She visits this beloved destination often, insisting “Egypt is one of the safest places in the world. I have no qualms stepping outside of my hotel at anytime day or night in Cairo — alone. Egyptians are the friendliest people in the world. I can say that with 100 percent conviction.” It doesn’t hurt that her father still has nine brothers and sisters living there.
Born in Minnesota, Malaka has lived on Bird Key since her parents settled there in 1975, when she was 5. Currently, the Hiltons live right next door. Malaka saw the world from an early age alongside her parents, as her father traveled to Russia, Japan and elsewhere for medical symposia — trips his daughter began organizing for him fresh out of college. She is certain that traveling is an education that has also made
her children thrive. “I’ve lived such a charmed life, and have been able to do things that many people may not ever be able to do. I’m fortunate that I’m able to share that with my children,” Malaka says. Alex is especially worldly. At 9, she’s already on her third passport.
After more than a decade of almost constant travel (the Hiltons each average about 16 weeks a year, though rarely together), Malaka-the-mom is ready to stick closer to home. “People make an incorrect assumption about traveling with their children,” she says. “They think they need to be on a beach somewhere that has a kids’ club that will entertain the children and keep them happy. You’ve got to think about taking them to destinations where they will learn, as well. They’ll be bored on a beach. If you have the ability financially to take your children once a year on an international trip, they will come home more accepting of other religions, cultures and races. They will really be able to see and appreciate what they have and where they’re from.”
She will continue to participate in her company’s exclusive product trips with celebrity hosts, but other than that, Malaka wants her staff to be able to experience the world. “I have a really great, young staff, and they have the enthusiasm to travel,” she says. Malaka’s favorite trip is the one she makes with her kids to the bus stop every morning. She’s been getting more involved with leadership roles on the boards of top cruise lines, such as Crystal, and there is satisfying work to be done with local charities, such as Dick Vitale’s V Foundation for Cancer Research.
Recently, Malaka fell in love with Costa Rica and plans to celebrate her 40th birthday there with friends and loved ones in July. Who knows? There might even be a new adventure waiting in the rainforest with her name on it.