It all started simply enough. Years ago, Lorna Macleod, an employee of Micato Safaris, was waiting in a parking lot when a little boy approached her carrying a note that indicated he was trying to collect 700 shillings for a school uniform. Once he had the uniform, the message said, he would be admitted into school. Macleod quickly gave the boy what was the equivalent of $15. Instead of dashing away, as most shy youngsters expectedly do, he started crying and said, “God bless you.”
Jane and Felix Pinto (sitting) and Dennis and Joy Pinto with their children, Sasha and Tristan, in Kenya's Amboseli National Park
It struck Macleod: Micato brought thousands of people to Kenya every year and had access to an affluent clientele. Why not put these people in touch with the most vulnerable citizens of Nairobi, those women and children who had been impacted by the brutal HIV/AIDS pandemic?
Twenty years later, what started as a personal mission has manifested into AmericaShare, a foundation that has improved thousands of lives since its inception. Macleod is executive director of the program, whose seven staff members are fully insured by Micato Safaris. This fact ensures that all of the contributions to AmericaShare go straight to those in need. Funding comes in many forms—most commonly, through the sponsorship of a child.
The program today is a success, but 20 years ago, it was a different story. As Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris, recalls, “The theory was great, the practice was challenging. Twenty years ago, AIDS was not something you discussed. We were trying to convince people to go to Africa, but people then also thought they could get AIDS from a mosquito bite or from some guy sneezing on them.”
Today, AmericaShare is part of the Micato product, supported widely by the many luxury travel advisors and their clients who visit its facilities while in Nairobi, and who sponsor children upon their return.
The experience, which goes beyond enrichment, is a bold departure from a vacation that might simply have been about viewing wildlife. “We have found that travelers want to do more than just sightsee,” says Pinto. “The truth is, most safaris are somewhat hermetically sealed experiences. You go from a luxurious game lodge surrounded by lots of animals to another luxurious enterprise, and then, eventually, we bring you to an airport, and you come back home. You really haven’t seen Africa. Most tour companies that bring you into Nairobi want to take you out of Nairobi. They don’t want you to experience the urban environment.”
Paul Largay (left) and his colleague and uncle, Roland Largay flank Micato Safari Director Charles Mwangoma on location in Africa.
Micato purposely shows this side. The company’s “Lend a Helping Hand on Safari” program visits AmericaShare’s Harambee Center, in the Nairobi slum of Mukuru, as well as its local orphanage. Harambee’s buildings serve as a community center, allowing residents to gather for lectures, educational sessions and meetings. The stop, however, is not meant for gawking (photography, in fact, is restricted).
“It allows us to talk about things other than wildlife––urbanization, tribal systems, poverty, the whole gamut of what we think you should know if you’re going to Africa,” says Pinto.
Great friendships have been forged as the result of these visits. “For many of us at Micato, it makes life so satisfying when our travelers come back and sponsor children,” Pinto says. (The School Sponsorship Program, which spans primary to high school education, supports 290 orphaned and vulnerable children by rescuing them from the slums and placing them into reputable boarding schools in and around Nairobi. Each sponsorship covers the costs of one student’s room, board, clothing, books, school supplies, medicines and other essentials.)
In one instance, a gentleman was so touched by his experience with AmericaShare, he wrote out a check large enough to fund an entire complex. When he found out his name would be displayed prominently on the complex, he balked. That was not why he made the donation, he said. “I got on a plane one week going on a trip to Africa, and I came home a changed man,” he told Pinto on the airplane ride home from Kenya.
This is typical of the feedback Micato receives from its travelers, says Pinto. While many are ramped up—and rightfully so—to see wildlife, rarely do they come back describing that activity as one of their top three experiences. “They also never mention luxury,” Pinto says. “That aspect is totally irrelevant to them once they come back. Instead, the trip is all about the people they’ve met along the way.”
The vacation experience that provides a strong sense of enrichment is all the rage these days, but it’s been a Micato staple since the company was founded in 1966 by Jane and Felix Pinto (Dennis’ parents), in Kenya, just three years after the country declared its independence from Britain.
“The prognosis by the pundits was that Kenya would not survive,” says Pinto. “Looking back, it was amazing that [my parents] thought [Micato] would be a successful enterprise, but my dad is pretty farsighted in most things he does.”
At that time, companies that projected the “white hunter image” dominated Kenya’s tourism business, says Pinto, whose father wanted to take an entirely different tack. He hired only local guides and focused more on the cultural aspects of the African experience and less on the wildlife.
Because Kenya was under apartheid rule, the local Kenyans had no hospitality training. So, Felix Pinto hired for attitude. He and his wife brought their own definition of hospitality to the game by entertaining guests in their own home, where they also put up travelers when their flights arrived late in the evening.
“They did it because it felt right to them,” says Pinto, who, as a young child, had a love-hate attitude toward the open-house policy. “On the one hand, I loved the interaction. On the other hand, I hated it because I had to keep my room tidy all the time.”
There was no question that Pinto and his sister Anna, who today is the executive director of sales, would be a part of the Micato enterprise from day one. (Another sister, Fiona Dias, is not part of the family venture, enabling her to provide invaluable advice, says Pinto.)
“It was fun to go into the office,” he recalls. “Looking back, my parents had created a very friendly atmosphere. Today, that’s a management technique that’s used to motivate your employees. Back then, it was just what they did.”
Such intense interaction with Micato guests was bound to have an impact on the young Pinto’s fate. On one of his first guiding jobs he led a group of researchers from Stanford University. “They had just spent a year with Jane Goodall in Tanzania and were quite forgiving of my inexperience,” he says. “At the end of the trip, they asked me, ‘Why don’t you come to the United States and apply to the university?’” At the time, Kenyans typically went to Britain for their education, but Pinto bucked the trend and set off for the States. Because foreign policy required that he work while in the United States, he found a job with Cardoza-Bungey Travel in Palo Alto, CA.
At the agency, his primary role was collecting commissions. “We had a room full of vouchers in those days, and I’d be harassing people to send us the commission that was owed,” he says. To this day, Micato remains diligent in paying commissions.
After college, Pinto received further education—this time in world travel as an employee of American Express Bank. Asia was the main focus in those days, and he traveled well, flying first class for flights that lasted more than four hours and staying for six weeks at a time at the Taj hotels in Mumbai and Delhi and at The Grand in Calcutta.
After seven years, however, the family business beckoned Pinto back. It was the mid-eighties, and the elder Pinto wanted his son to open an office for Micato in New York with the goal of expanding its U.S. client base. Customers were coming primarily from Japan and Europe at the time.
Taking an entrepreneurial approach, Pinto set out on a cross-country trip interviewing executives at travel agencies, incentive houses and airline clubs to determine just what their needs for Africa were. His conclusion: The high-end incentive market, which at the time was transitioning from domestic and European destinations to the exotic, was the niche to focus on, even though most programs took four or five years to come to fruition. It was precisely that barrier that made competition in the incentive arena a bit less fierce, and Micato—which was then focusing on Kenya and Tanzania—ended up getting the lion’s share of the market.
The incentive groups Micato was moving through Kenya and Tanzania were large by any count, but they were also comprised of some very wealthy, demanding guests. “These people really were on FITs; they just happened to be on a General Electric incentive program,” says Pinto.
Anna Pinto visits with participants in the AmericaShare program.
That factor enabled Micato to hone its skills in servicing the luxury market, which in turn helped it expand its business to providing shore excursions for the burgeoning cruise industry, which was also expanding to more exotic destinations. The Micato enterprise expanded rapidly, handling clients for Radisson Seven Seas, Cunard, Holland America and Princess—a move that helped cement Micato’s reputation with the U.S. travel agency community. At the suggestion of Mark Conroy, who at the time was with Renaissance Cruises, Micato brought its land-operations expertise to India, where the cruise lines needed help.
It was the mid-nineties, and the Pintos jumped at the opportunity, eventually growing the business into an enterprise known for providing over-the-top bespoke experiences.
Along the way, Pinto says he benefited from the advice of the luxury travel advisor market, which was not shy about telling him what he was doing wrong. “Fortunately, we were receptive to their input and we tweaked what we were doing and built those relationships over time,” he says. “Many of them were the biggest producers for the cruise lines, so I’d get a periodic phone call saying, ‘I’ve got Mr. and Mrs. Smith coming into your destination. Keep an eye on them.’ That network of friends just continued to grow.”
Today, Micato Safaris moves between 5,000 and 7,000 clients a year throughout Africa and India. Although it provides a wide range of programs, it truly considers its schedules as just the starting point for an amazing adventure. “If you book one of our brochure products––in theory, it’s a set itinerary, but our staff is charged with the responsibility of deviating from that,” says Pinto. Today, there’s no doubt that the company’s experience of moving large incentive crowds has paid off, and Pinto and his family are always looking for ways to perfect the art of moving clients from one place to another, seamlessly.
“My all-time love affair is with FedEx,” says Pinto. “How can they take an envelope at 9:30 at night at 2 Leroy Street and for $10 get it to some guy in California by 10:00 the next morning? That’s an example I use when we look at obstacles and people tell us it can’t be done.” Pinto notes that Micato often looks outside the tour-operator community for ideas, whether it’s FedEx or Nordstrom, Starbucks or Virgin America.
“It’s just part of our core training process to create a wow experience frequently for our travelers,” he says. Today, Micato still operates very much as a family business, and Pinto jokes that it works because there are several thousand miles between each member of the clan. His parents are very much involved, handling inbound operations from their home base of Kenya. In addition to his sister, Dennis’ wife, Joy Phelan Pinto, handles marketing. Alan Lobo, Micato’s COO and Dennis’ cousin, is based in New York.
Micato’s success, however, is not all about the family. “We’re fortunate in having great staff,” Pinto says. “It’s the people that make the difference. My dad has never laid off anyone. Because of his soft touch, we’ve got incredible staff who treat the company like it was their own. They go above what one gets from a normal interaction with a tour company. They’re taking people into their homes to meet their families. They’re arranging special events in the bush. Things that people now plan and package and put into their brochures as ‘experiences’––this is what we’ve been doing for 40 years.”