|Ken Fish in Hanoi: In 1990 he was the first U.S. operator to send Americans|
The business model for Absolute Travel, an international travel company offering culturally focused luxury itineraries, is best summed up in a conversation its founder and president, Ken Fish, once had with the then-Prime Minister of New Zealand. Upon meeting Fish, she respectfully said to him, “I understand you send a lot of people to New Zealand.”
“Actually, that’s not correct,” Fish promptly replied. “I send people who spend a lot of money to New Zealand.”
|The Absolute Travel Clan in Manhattan: Kneeling, Christie Mealo, Robyn Mark, Kyoko Honma, Marisa Costa and Ken Fish. Lisa Sun, Sasha Lehman, John Cagle, Colin Bertrand, Jessica Rizzolo, Matt LaPolice, Leslie Overton and Gregory Chan. Brooke Garnett, Ashley Kiel, Katie Losey, Aaron Levitt, Jesse Hamburger and Neil Atkinson.|
In fact, it’s not the number of clients Fish is after; it’s the meticulously customized experiences he and his team can craft for their clientele, whether it’s to the rest of the South Pacific or Asia, Africa, the Middle East or Latin America.
“What’s really important now in luxury travel goes beyond sheer luxury; it’s about access to unusual experiences,” says Fish, whose New York-based company is frequently recognized by reader polls in consumer travel publications; in 2011, it won the Luxury Travel Advisor Awards of Excellence in the “Best Local Destination Management Company” category, thanks to its many strong relationships with ground operators throughout the world.
Indeed, some of the famous feats Fish and his team have accomplished include sending families to the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro where costumes were custom-made for them; having a nonprofit group traveling to Liberia meet the president of the country; and in Bondi Beach, Australia, setting up the opportunity for a husband celebrating his 50th birthday to learn how to surf from a famous local pro. In Uganda, clients trekked Bwindi Impenetrable National Park with United Nations recognized veterinarian, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zukasoka, and in India, they’ve taken a royal barge cruise on Lake Pichola, complete with musicians and rowers, in traditional attire, as well as dinner and fireworks.
Fish, a native New Yorker and whose international headquarters are in downtown Manhattan, is more than willing to put in the time and the miles to get a handle on what destinations really offer and who the players are in a given locale who can make magic happen for his clients. He’s on the road about six times a year and he’s willing to run a virtual marathon when it comes to determining whether an emerging, or currently inaccessible destination is worth the buzz it’s getting or if it’s overhyped.
Case in point: In 2006, he took a 30-day journey starting in Dubai, where the Burj Al Arab had recently opened and was generating a lot of buzz for the emerging UAE destination, where everything coming on line was just way over the top. From there he ventured into Iran, then on to Syria; he was set to land in Libya next but was unable to get a visa, so the explorer extended his trip within Syria and then went on to Lebanon, “which was really, really thrilling.” He visited Thailand, a familiar territory for him, since he’d opened his first office there, but the country had just experienced the tsunami and he wanted to see its condition. From there, he moved on to Bhutan. Fish, who credits his wonderful wife for being amenable to such travels, says all in all, “it was a fun trip.”
Seven years later, Fish looks back at the destinations he visited to see if they’re still exciting: “In Dubai, the newest luxury hotel is The Armani in the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Verdict: Hype? Yes, but Dubai is a great stopover en route to Africa, India, and Southeast Asia and other regional destinations like Oman and Doha, which are getting attention, too,” says Fish.
As for Syria and Lebanon, “I was glad to go when I did, but for now, we can only dream. And as for Libya, I’m still waiting.”
The news is still good for Bhutan, as well: “It’s replaced Tibet as the go-to Himalayan destination,” reports Fish.
The purpose of such assessments for the Absolute Travel founder is to be an expert in what’s possible for his clients, many of whom are just itching to explore the next frontier. It’s also vital for him to meet with people on the ground whom Absolute Travel can truly trust.
The local partners that Absolute Travel deals with “are small companies; they share our philosophy; they understand the needs of our clients; and they know how to deliver the level of service that our clients require,” notes Fish. “We work very hard to train them since we have very comprehensive protocols for client handling. They also have to be able to create personalized experiences to make clients feel special.”
Finding the next new place is in Fish’s DNA. He was the first U.S. operator to send Americans to Vietnam and Cambodia in 1990. His business thrived; his clients were experienced travelers in the U.S., waiting for a chance to visit these two countries.
“There are people like that out there,” says Fish. “And of course, the world is a finite place; there are only so many new places.”
Early days for Fish were nothing like the 30-day trek that took him from Dubai to Bhutan. In fact, family travel took place in a Vista Cruiser station wagon complete with a skylight on top. In his mind, “I am loading it up and getting on the road; everything else is a blank,” he recalls.
The travel urge had not yet hit the young New Yorker, but when it did, it hit hard. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University, Fish first tried his hand at international banking but just after a year, realized it wasn’t for him. So he quit Wall Street, even though colleagues and friends who were doctors and lawyers told him that he was crazy. But wanderlust had set in.
“I had to do it,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “What I tell young people now is that it takes a lot of courage to know what you don’t want to do,” he says.
He promptly met someone launching a travel company specializing in Australian travel and off he went to Oz. It was 1983 and Australia was in its glory; it had just won the America’s Cup, the first country to wrestle the sailing championship from the U.S. in 132 years. That meant it would host the event in 1987 for the first time ever. The newly hatched company Fish was working for had a vision as to how to handle the tickets and travel for the U.S. market and it ended up sending about 3,000 people to Western Australia between 1986 and 1987.
After such an experience, Fish had earned the confidence to go off on his own on what Aussies call a “walkabout.” He ended up in Southeast Asia where he launched his own travel company in 1989 in Bangkok, selling customized and culturally focused travel to Thailand, which had not yet been heavily promoted to the U.S. market.
He then began selling travel to Vietnam and Cambodia, for which opportunity abounded since there was virtually no competition for what he was offering, particularly because a U.S. embargo made it illegal for most to sell those destinations. Fish, however, had already established his office in Bangkok, without the intent of necessarily selling those two locales and so was allowed to sell Cambodia and Vietnam to U.S. travelers.
“It was such a frontier that we had to really look at ways to ensure our clients’ basic comforts; to find suitable restaurants, to find accommodations that were the best available and the best rooms in those properties, which were really guest houses,” says Fish, who had moved back to the U.S. to set up his New York office in 1989. “People now take such comforts for granted.”
But it all ended up serving as a strong foundation for Absolute Travel.
“It created this attention to detail in customizing experiences for our clients which continues to this day,” he notes.
Fish also set a personal policy early on in coping with a client’s fear of traveling to destinations on the edge. “If a client is afraid to go, there is no convincing them,” says Fish, adding that he doesn’t try to persuade them since it’s their decision alone.
It’s a practice he continues even today. One client, fearful of unrest in Thailand, told Fish he had called the State Department, which advised him not to travel to the country; he then called the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, which told him not to go. Fish replied simply, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t go.”
“But I really want to!” replied the client. “When we both heard the words we both realized he basically had just told me he was going,” says Fish with a laugh. “But I have learned never to try to convince somebody to go somewhere on my own.”
From Southeast Asia, the company expanded to China and India and Japan, where it began offering itineraries in 1993. These were established destinations, but Fish still endeavored to provide access to unique experiences for clients.
“We weren’t doing anything new or groundbreaking but we had to be prepared to offer service assistance as what we had done since our origins,” he said.
In 1997, he moved on to Australia, then to Israel and Egypt and Africa, where he established an office in Cape Town and then, in 2006, into South America.
Throughout, Fish has worked with the luxury travel advisor community; in fact, that’s how he started his business back in 1989. “I started calling on travel advisors; we recognize that the travel agency adds real value to the experience,” he says. In 2002, the company joined Virtuoso. “That is our only partnership, but it doesn’t limit us,” says Fish.
He is still striving to enhance the company’s relationship with the advisor community. He’s just hired Tony Poe as national sales director, a luxury travel veteran most recently associated with Virtuoso; prior to that he worked at Poe Travel in Little Rock, AR.
|Ken Fish explores Isfahan, a city included in Absolute Travel’s suggested Iran itineraries.|
Poe’s major responsibility is to reach out to agents to ensure they know the type of service Absolute Travel can provide and the regions it covers. That’s vital, since the company has throughout the years had a variety of names for its divisions, such as Absolute Asia, Absolute Australia and Absolute Africa. When South America was added on “it became too much,” says Fish, who credits Valerie Wilson, chairman of Valerie Wilson Travel, for simplifying matters when she said, “You need a new name for your company and it’s Absolute Travel.”
Having one clear moniker is crucial, says Fish. “The worst thing you can do when you rebrand is for people to say, ‘What do you call yourself now?’ ”
Adding to his commitment to travel advisors, he’s developing a new program called Nakama, an “inner circle” program launching this month (March). “I wanted a way for us to show our commitment to agents who in return are going to show a degree of loyalty to us,” says Fish. “So it’s going to be about providing clients with enhanced experiences. There will be travel incentives for agents; it will be about the interchange of knowledge that will help them close business.” The program coincides with the relaunch of Absolute Travel’s new website.
Today, Absolute Travel does a great deal of multigenerational travel where programs can include large families with younger kids to grown kids, and grandparents, and may cost well beyond $50,000.
“In the ’80s, we thought $10,000 was the benchmark,” for a family vacation; “now there is no limit,” says Fish. For that price, programs are customized because no one family is the same and the needs of every member of the group have to be recognized. Special attention is also given when the group is visiting multiple destinations. “That’s something we in particular are able to help them with,” says Fish. The trend for such large family groups is growing and the secret to making their trips a success is to communicate everything possible to clients and to get them to communicate in return. For example, for family groups traveling with younger children, booking hotels with a pool is imperative.
Having a good rapport with clients is the answer to creating “wow” trips.
“When clients communicate and open up, you can be creative in every element of what you do, it’s always like that in terms of scouting out new experiences, finding local chefs and artists and celebrities, and being able to prepare them and create experience for their minds,” says Fish.
It starts with having people on the ground that you train and you can trust and empower to be proactive.
Fish knows about family travel; he and his wife have been traveling with their daughter and son since they were one and three when they took a 28-hour trip to Australia, stopping first in Tokyo to meet with their family. It only got easier from there, Fish says. “Some people are afraid to travel with kids and I say, just do it, they will get used to it.”
Fish says his specialty is counseling stressed-out honeymooners who may be arguing to such a degree that the trip is in jeopardy. “I’d like to be sure there’s a first anniversary,” he laughs. In one case, a couple was headed off for an extensive honeymoon to southern Africa, and one of the newlyweds had a passport set to expire despite having been warned to check it.
“You just want to make the problem go away for them so we scheduled an appointment at the passport office and rescheduled the flights; we let everybody know on the ground that they were going to be a day late and then did something special for them when they arrived. Then it’s all forgotten, hopefully to the point where they don’t even tell that part of the story when they come home from the trip.”
How such crises are dealt with all comes down to the people you hire and how you treat them, says Fish, adding that the prototype for how Absolute Travel evolved was to “have passionate people and allow them to develop their own interests.” Such a practice has led to the company’s growth, with a diverse team in place with a variety of passions for a variety of regions. This led to the development of his Cape Town office after staff member Daniela Bonanno, who was born in Italy and worked in the Manhattan office for 19 years, fell in love with the destination after her first visit there.
|In Seoul, South Korea, Fish accompanies a group of travel students.|
The company also affiliates itself with organizations and causes that team members are personally connected with and makes clients aware of those causes in a subtle manner via its Absolute Awareness program.
“Protecting the cultures of the places the company visits while helping sustain the lives of those in the destination is extremely important to us,” says Fish.
Thirty years after Fish took his first journey to Australia, his lust for the world, and for the industry, has yet to slow down. The plan going forward is for Absolute Travel to expand its horizons still further.
“We’re always traveling and challenging ourselves to find the newest and most rewarding travel destinations and experiences for our clients,” he says. The next new frontier is Colombia. “It’s new, so there’s cachet to going now, it has a great relative proximity to the United States, great food, and has a perfect combination of city, beach, and nature,” he says.
As it expands, Fish's goal for Absolute Travel is “to be recognized worldwide as the leader in luxury travel.” And there’s no doubt he’ll enjoy himself as his journey continues.
“I have the privilege to travel to wonderful places in the world. We know these great people, and we have tremendous experiences and we still get work done. I really can’t think of another business where you can say these same things,” he says.