When your clients insist that every itinerary you create for them must be over the top, you’ve got to be resourceful, creative and rather fearless. And those are just the characteristics that Malaka Hilton has employed in the 10 years that her agency, Admiral Travel Gallery in Sarasota, FL, has been in business.
“Our clients are basically saying, ‘Show me something that is going to knock my socks off. I have been there, done that, and if I am going to do it again, there needs to be a wow-factor experience,’” Hilton tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
To deliver that wow-factor vibe, Hilton has embraced the strategy of including high-profile personalities in her “Exclusive Product” tours. These itineraries, which are promoted on Admiral Travel’s website, include not only insider access to venues in intriguing destinations such as Tuscany, South Africa and Egypt, they’ll also provide celebrity escorts such as Salvatore Ferragamo, Chef Roy Yamaguchi and football-hall-of-famer Shannon Sharpe.
These collaborations thus far have proven to be the ideal extension of a $10 million enterprise whose core offering is high-end group travel.
But first, a look at the world that Malaka Hilton inhabits, which from the very beginning, was much more far reaching than that of most other children growing up in Sarasota, FL.
Starting at the early age of 4, she traveled regularly to Egypt, the homeland of her father, who is also a renowned cardiologist. But her father (and mother, who is of Yugoslavian descent) also took Hilton and her brother to other far-flung lands, such as Tokyo and Moscow. These trips—whose itineraries were sculpted around an annual overseas cardiologists’ symposium—would last for weeks, as the family fully explored the region they were visiting.
As a result, by the time she was ready to enroll at Florida State University, Hilton was certain she wanted a degree in hospitality (a travel and tourism program had not yet been developed). She earned it easily enough, but after a few internships in Sarasota, she found she wasn’t thrilled about working on weekends.
She remained busy however, assisting her father with his own Continuing Medical Education (CME) symposium group of 150 or so, which also met abroad every year. She so obviously enjoyed helping to plan the trips that a friend of her father’s one day asked her, “Why don’t you get into the travel business?"
“It was like a light bulb went on in my head,” Hilton says with a grin. “So I went to a four-month travel school in 1994 and applied for a job at a now-defunct company in Sarasota answering phones and filing brochures.”
But she had much more responsibility than a typical entry-level travel agent, for Hilton was assisting with one very important, large group of business: her father’s CME group, which she was also accompanying on its annual global treks. At the same time, she was also building her own book of business, knowing full well that she wanted to open her own agency one day. After just three years, a retail storefront became available in Sarasota.
“That was a Thursday. By Monday morning I was sitting in a new office, sending out letters to introduce Admiral Travel,” says Hilton.
Fate wasn’t done with her yet, however, as she was also on the brink of meeting her future business partner and husband, Ryan Hilton.
It all unfolded easily enough. Admiral Travel had just opened, but because her father’s CME group was going to South Africa that year, Hilton needed to conduct site inspections in Cape Town, Victoria Falls and Sun City. Feeling uneasy about leaving her fledgling business alone, she decided to return home earlier than planned. But, before she could do so, she needed to get approval to change her return from her South African Airways sales rep, Jill Polsky, because she was flying on a free business-class ticket. Polsky refused to amend it, but only because Hilton had not yet visited a game park. “I am not sending you to South Africa to not visit any game parks, so go enjoy yourself,” she said to Hilton.
And so Hilton proceeded to Londolozi, as originally planned. As she stepped outside to go to dinner, a tall, blonde man dressed in khaki gear approached her and said, “Hi, my name is Ryan Hilton and I will be your guide.”
It didn’t take either long to realize they’d made an instant connection. After just a few months, Ryan Hilton left the bush and moved to Sarasota, FL to marry Malaka.
Today, on the cusp of the agency’s 10-year anniversary, Ryan Hilton is co-owner of Admiral Travel Gallery and a widely acclaimed safari expert. Malaka Hilton is lauded worldwide as an Egypt FIT expert. Their two children, ages 3 and 6, travel the world with them just as Malaka did with her family as a child.
Hilton is still leading her father’s group— she’s been on 20 trips with them in all. “They have watched me grow into it and now when I bring my kids they love it,” she says.
Groups, in fact, are key to Admiral Travel’s core business; it also provides annual excursions for other large gatherings that have spun off from her father’s CME group. Incentive and affinity groups, plus a culinary club in Sarasota with 60 to 70 members, also turn to the agency for their annual international trips.
“What we learned a long time ago is that the group business is what we’re good at and what we wanted to specialize in,” says Hilton.
Admiral Travel was able to greatly enhance the quality of the experiences it provides its groups once it was invited to join Virtuoso after being in business for just two years. Hilton says that the Virtuoso relationship allows her agency to work with on-the-ground operators who focus on delivering creatively customized travel experiences for her clients.
For example, when she had the CME group on a Crystal cruise last year, “we were docked in Kusadasi, where our Virtuoso on-site had organized a private dinner at the Library at Ephesus. When other passengers on the ship heard about it, they couldn’t believe it. That made my clients feel like, ‘Wow, we’ve done something really special,’” says Hilton, who is also a master at the FIT.
One “beyond-luxury” itinerary she booked was a six-week private-jet experience for a Saudi royal family, who took up an entire floor at each luxury hotel they visited. Last year, she partnered with another Virtuoso agent and the two of them together took their clients on the same itinerary to Egypt. “The benefit to the clients was that they were able to take advantage of private jets and a private day with Dr. Zahi Hawass (Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt), all because the fixed cost was shared with more people,” says Hilton.
It’s been easy to be inspired by the magic that comes from serving up these once-in-a-lifetime moments, and so Hilton has launched a series of “Exclusive Product” escorted tours, which are available within many of the group experiences she creates. Separate Exclusive Product programs are available to those who want to travel in high-end style with a limited number of companions.
The concept came about when the Hiltons were pondering one day what would happen if their core group business went away, says Hilton. “Ryan has his specialty with Africa and has been recognized by Condé Nast, and I have my FITs to Egypt, but we wanted to create something that will stand out on its own.”
To scope out the details of her Exclusive Product ventures, Hilton will fly 12 hours to get to a remote land to research unique offerings for her clients. “My time on an airplane is to brainstorm, to determine what is it that the customer has never been offered?” she says.
For example, a 10-day “Classic Italy featuring Il Palio” program will be hosted by Salvatore Ferragamo, a winemaker and the grandson of the world-renowned shoe designer. The relationship with Ferragamo was forged when Ryan Hilton met him at the 2005 top-producers gala for Silversea; he suggested his wife get in touch with the Italian winemaker.
“This is when Salvatore’s wine label was just becoming popular and he suggested we take the entire ship to Il Borro (his family’s vineyard, which is located in a 1,000-year-old Tuscan village vineyard) for lunch. So I took 90 people to Il Borro, where they were exposed to his wine, and we also took them to the Salvatore Ferragamo (shoe) Museum,” says Hilton.
Thus, a collaborative relationship was forged and is still growing. For example, with the aforementioned 'Classic Italy' program, guests will be able to view the famous Palio horse race from a Contessa’s private apartment overlooking the Piazza del Campo in Siena, thanks to Ferragamo’s relationships in Italy. There’s more to come. “Salvatore and I are working on unique packages together, which for me will create wonderful travel opportunities and for him will create wonderful public relations opportunities to get his wine labels out there,” says Hilton.
Similarly, Chef Roy Yamaguchi, founder of Roy’s Restaurants, this year will be part of a 10-day Egypt land program with a three-night Nile River cruise aboard the Sun Boat IV.
Establishing this program took a bit of courage on Hilton’s part and she laughs when she recalls how it all came about. “A year ago I went to my partners in Cairo and said, ‘I have an idea. I want to charter your yacht on the Nile but I don’t want to have any financial risk. If you are willing to work with me and allow me to market this program, what would the parameters be?’” The supplier went for the idea, agreeing that it would take back any of the 40 cabins that Admiral Travel had not sold by February 2007. There was no need to do so, however, since Hilton sold it out. (She’s also arranged to have the Egyptian Museum opened privately for the group, who will be flown throughout Egypt in private jets.)
Hilton estimates that half the clients on this trip are from her existing book of business, while others came from Yamaguchi’s customer base; he promoted the departure in his 30 or so restaurants around the country.
Hilton’s alliance with Yamaguchi was ignited when she was organizing a film festival charter to Cannes and the private chef who had been hired was unable to make the trip. She quickly got in touch with Yamaguchi through a local connection, as one of his restaurants is in Sarasota.
“He was willing to come to Cannes and cook for 150 passengers,” says Hilton. “He also did a fabulous dinner for our guests on the beach at the famous Carlton hotel. A few days after the event, he e-mailed me to say, ‘Thank you, let me know if I can do it again next year.’ My e-mail response was, ‘I’m on my way to Africa, would you consider doing a trip with me where we would simply hire you to be our chef for the trip?’ So, here we are, two years later, one trip to Cannes, one trip to Africa and now we’re going to Egypt. Next year we’ll be in Australia and New Zealand.”
There are more celebrity alliances to come: Shannon Sharpe, from CBS’s “The NFL Today,” will escort an Exclusive Product trip to South Africa next year.
The evolution of the Exclusive Product program has spurred Hilton to move away from the day-to-day activity of selling travel so she can focus on growing this burgeoning business. She can do so easily because her agents in Sarasota are also quite adept at selling customized luxury experiences to a clientele that has strong pockets across the country, in California, Chicago and the surrounding Midwest, and of course, Sarasota. And while there’s a large concentration on the baby-boomer market, Hilton says many of her clients are in their forties, still working and spending their money to travel well.
Admiral Travel also has a burgeoning clientele that comes from its newly formed relationship with Starwood, which tapped the agency to be the official travel partner that provides exclusive travel experiences to those in the ownership program at the St. Regis Aspen. The program took a while to take off, but after Starwood opened it up to the 13,000 owners under all of its brands, it skyrocketed.
On Admiral Travel’s website there’s a quote from Ryan Hilton stating that “Malaka is not afraid.” When asked about that comment, she says, “I always want to continue to challenge myself to see what else is available because there are a lot of markets that are untapped.”
A story about Malaka Hilton would not be complete without mentioning the annual bash she throws each year at Virtuoso’s Travel Mart in Las Vegas. Only the top suppliers doing business with Admiral Travel are invited. “You would be surprised at how many suppliers call on us during the year and introduce their company by saying ‘We hear that you throw a kick-ass party in Las Vegas for your suppliers and we want to be invited this year, so please, can you start doing business with us?’” she laughs.
Hilton says she is glad the event is appreciated “because in this industry I feel like we rely on the suppliers to always treat us and our clients well, so we decided to turn it around and be the ones to say, ‘Thank you.’”
“At Admiral Travel, we just want to keep raising the bar and it is really our partners who are allowing us to do that,” she says.