When Kareem George, owner of Culture Traveler, LLC, wanted to try his hand at being an entrepreneur, a career in the travel industry seemed like the natural path for him to follow. “Travel and music have always been my life loves,” says George. “My parents had an agency focused on small group touring when I was a young boy — I remember annual group trips to the Caribbean. Following 10-plus years as an arts administrator and 20-plus years in the field of classical music, I wanted to explore a new path.”
Aside from his early Caribbean trips, and a few vacations at Walt Disney World, George had also toured with the New York Philharmonic through Europe for several weeks and had found it “exhilarating.”
It wasn’t easy breaking away from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2015, where he’d served as the managing director of community programs. But because of his passion for his new career, George found success once again. Pre-COVID-19, his agency was bringing in an annual $1.69 million and growing, with a focus on luxury FITs, ranging from African safaris to gastronomic tours of France and Spain to cultural immersions in Central and South America.
Culture Traveler, which has two additional independent advisors and is headquartered outside of Detroit in Franklin, Michigan, also specializes in luxury ocean and river cruises, yacht charters and villa rentals, as well as exclusive journeys by private jet.
To date, George has visited 65 countries. Pre-COVID, he was on the road or in the air at least three or four months of the year, sharpening his knowledge and expertise.
“Firsthand knowledge and experience are a minimum expectation of our clients,” he says.
He’s earned the right to be a part of the Signature Travel Network’s Expert Select Program for South Africa and Germany. Expert Select comprises those who are experts in their destination or special interest area because they have either lived in the destination or visit often.
“This ‘feet on the ground’ knowledge is essential in providing consumers with the most up-to-date information possible and options to personalize their trip. They provide exceptional customer service from the planning stages until travelers return home,” says Rachael Signer, director of business development for Signature. “Participation in Select is highly competitive and only the most knowledgeable advisors can participate.”
George is also an Abercrombie & Kent Africa Specialist. His love of Africa has provided some amazing experiences, but one truly stands out. George had a small group journey to Uganda and Kenya with A&K with a departure set for July 2019. In April, a kidnaping of a woman from the U.S. and her guide took place in Uganda and was widely publicized on the news. They were subsequently rescued five days later but during that time, George fielded calls from alarmed clients, listening and acknowledging their concerns as A&K kept him updated on the latest news of the situation. Some group members dropped out, but most stayed on.
Two months later, a month prior to departure, the Uganda government confirmed a case of Ebola. Some in the group were asking about cancellation options. “My heart sank, as I knew we were now within 100 percent cancelation penalty and that travel insurance would not cover ‘fear of travel’ if any decided to cancel,” says George.
He again spent hours in conversations with each of the travelers and even got A&K to jump on a conference call with them to review the itinerary in detail, outline the safety measures in place and to put into context just how far away the group would be from the Ebola incident. “Unfortunately, I lost a few more travelers, but they were very appreciative of how I handled the situation,” says George.
Not surprisingly, for those who did choose to travel, the trip exceeded their expectations. Highlights included “the basics,” seeing chimps, visiting with a gorilla family and witnessing the Great Migration, but on top of that, one of the couples decided to get married during the trip and George and A&K pulled it off, bringing in Ugandan dancers and a local officiant, they even provided native dress for the participants. “The ceremony turned out beautifully and the couple was extremely happy,” says George.
In another instance, four guests made a deep connection with their guide/ranger, a young Masai woman who had left her family at a young age to avoid the ritual of female circumcision.
“She opened up to them about her story and the challenges of now being back ‘home’ as an adult,” says George. “Her younger sister is now facing a similar challenge and she [the guide/ranger] is supporting her younger sister. Our clients, though not asked or solicited, volunteered to cover the costs of schooling for her sister and have maintained this relationship since returning home to the U.S.”
Bottom line? “We all left Kenya and Uganda with some of our most poignant memories and experiences of both wildlife and of human connection. It truly was a transforming and life changing journey,” says George.
On the Sydney Opera House terrace: George (second from right) rendezvous with several clients he designed trips for that holiday season.
Culture Traveler’s clients hail primarily from the greater Detroit metropolitan area; he’s also got several in Chicago, on the west coast and throughout the country. They vary from high-level sophisticated, experienced travelers to orchestra members and musicians.
“It’s a range but the focus is pretty much always luxury because even those who are not a CEO or the entrepreneur or the global philanthropist still have an idea of the level of experience they want,” says George. “They know that they want it to be special, they’ve saved or they’ve made the decisions as to what they can afford and what level they want to be at.”
These days, he says, they are disappointed with how long the COVID crisis has gone on yet seem patient to wait for things to clear up.
In the interim, several are signing up for Culture Traveler’s new Service Programs, which George developed after participating in Signature Travel Network’s series on charging fees and fee structure. He then spent time with Signature’s Nolan Burris to finesse the program, which truly changes how the agency interacts with its customers. The options vary, but for example, a retainer could allow a client to meet with George and talk about 2021 travel, including every vacation, every hotel, every flight. Another aspect of the program allows clients to gift friends with a consultation with George on, for example, a weekend getaway trip.
As George is rolling it out, clients are welcoming it. They see it as a way to support him during this downtime and to invest in the future of Culture Traveler, he says.
“It’s been a major pivot; it will bring in revenue when there’s really no immediate commission revenue at this time,” he says.
With most of his clients staying put for now, what’s keeping George optimistic for the coming months? He knows that travel is in “pause” mode but that some of his clients may roll over their unspent 2020 travel funds into 2021, in other words, doubling down on their spend. That could mean they’ll upgrade to private jet travel, spend an extra week in a destination or opt to bring their entire family on a trip.
Whatever they decide, George will likely learn about it in real time, since staying close to his clients is a natural for him. Pre-COVID, he hosted special events at his home in Franklin; he also connected with them socially through wine tastings hosted by a nationally acclaimed sommelier who lives in the area.
Some of the “at-home” events have been in collaboration with suppliers George has met through the Signature Travel Network and through his host agency, Oasis Travel Network, such as Regent Seven Seas (his rep is Nicole Castillo) and TCS World Travel.
“It’s really been a win-win because it’s great exposure for those brands but it also allows me to bring a level of connection to my clients. To be at my dining room table, just 14 of us, and there’s Shawn Johnson of A&K telling a story or John Wilson from Silversea, that’s really special. It really gives my clients more confidence in me, knowing that I’m looking after them,” he says.
An event at George’s home usually starts with a cocktail hour, followed by a presentation in his Great Room. He’ll partner with a local chef and theme the food to the topic of the evening, served either as a buffet or in a more formal seated environment.
“It’s really a time for people to visit and to talk to each [other],” says George. “One couple may have just gotten back from South Africa and this other couple may have always wanted to go, and they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, tell me about it.’”
During COVID, he’s been hosting events virtually through Zoom or by phone, with individuals and groups. He’s connected simply to check in and also hosted a virtual wine tasting in partnership with local wine producers. One gathering comprised a group whose Regent cruise in the fall has been postponed. “I created a Spanish wine tasting because the cruise would have been ending in Barcelona,” says George. They reconvened in person for an outdoor gathering a month or so ago in a responsible way with facial masks de rigueur.
Culture From the Start
But back to that love of culture, which contributed to this luxury travel advisor’s unique career track.
Kareem George grew up in a world of music in Queens, New York. His grandparents lived on the top floor of his multi-family home and his grandmother was a pianist.
“My first real introduction to music was going upstairs with my keyboard and having my grandma teach me piano and I really loved it and took to it,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. His mother also played piano and so classical music was a constant backdrop to his home. His studies continued through the band program at the Louis Armstrong Middle School, where he took up the flute. When his father bought him the Level One “Learning to Play the Flute” book, George spent a summer teaching himself how to play the instrument.
He successfully auditioned to get into the prestigious Bayside High School, which specializes in music studies, but his formal training truly began when he was accepted into the pre-college division of The Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. That led to his acceptance into the Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college division. After high school, George chose to attend Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, to earn degrees in his music and the liberal arts, as well. (The school was also intriguing to him because it specialized in Ethnomusicology, the study of the music from different cultures.) At Wesleyan, George was selected to do a year of study and thesis research in Oxford and got to play in the orchestra there, as well. During his college tenure he learned how to speak German fluently and set up his degree so he could potentially go into academia.
Wesleyan’s location made it easy for George to travel back to New York for lessons and to serve as a visiting teacher at the Harlem School of the Arts.
A Change in Plans
After a gap year spent in New York, he was off to earn his masters at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, which is part of Roosevelt University.
It was there, during his last semester, with just one recital left, that George developed a performance injury. Ultimately it was diagnosed as focal dystonia which is a neurological career-ending injury for most.
George was devastated but didn’t hesitate to pivot. He made the decision to go into arts administration instead. He wrote a letter to the then-CEO of the Chicago Symphony, asking for an internship at the CSO. He was accepted. He also won an orchestra management fellowship at the League of American Orchestras following a fiercely competitive application and interview process.
The fellowship experience was “transformative,” says George, as it put him into a rotation of unique jobs. Right out of the gate he served as the orchestra manager for the Chamber Orchestra at the Aspen Music Festival. Next stop? An apprenticeship with the CEO of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, working on strategic planning initiatives and development initiatives. Next, it was off to the Memphis Symphony to conduct a full communication assessment of the orchestra and to assist with a plan for fundraising. Finally, the rotation brought him home to the New York Philharmonic. His duty? To tour Europe with the organization for four weeks.
Music remains an integral part of Kareem George’s life. He is shown here at his home in Franklin, Michigan.
At the end of the fellowship, George yearned to return to Detroit, a city he’d grown to love. As fate would have it, there were no jobs open at the time, so he happily moved to California for a job with the Pacific Symphony in Orange County as their first audience development director. Three months later, a position opened up at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Throughout his tenure, George learned to love the Detroit area and spent many fulfilling years in several roles, most recently as the managing director of community programs for the DSO.
Along the way he’d had offers from other orchestras trying to recruit him away, but he wanted to stay put in the Detroit area, where he lived with his partner, Fritz; they have now been together for 11 years. But he had an idea, and it was gnawing at him.
“In 2011, I started thinking I wanted to at least explore an entrepreneurial path,” says George. Travel was on his shortlist, as was senior care. “Growing up I had a grandfather who developed Alzheimer’s towards the end of his life and I spent a lot of time with him. As part of my grad work, I created a concert series in a senior living center,” he recalls.
Ultimately, travel won out and he contacted an advisor with Tzell, Rick Abraham, whom he’d met in California. He told him he wanted to work in luxury travel, working with individuals and small groups.
“He said, ‘I think you have a great opportunity. You’re young, you’re well-traveled, you should give it a shot.’’ He sent George several resources to explore, including ASTA and CLIA and suggested he get some training and attend some travel conferences. George spent the next year brainstorming and dabbling by putting together trips for friends and families.
He loved it and let upper management at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra know of his plans to eventually leave to start a travel business. The transition was challenging as he was maintaining a full-time job, attending concerts he produced in the evening and launching a new company. In May of 2015, George said a gracious farewell to his colleagues at the DSO and moved over full time to Culture Traveler, LLC.
The first year was a hustle; he got clients from his health club and from people he played tennis with. Finally, after two years, relationships and colleagues from the orchestra world started to come to him for their travel needs.
“It was a long transition,” says George.
That transition was a long one because George didn’t know about host agencies yet and was fully going it alone. He had his “aha” moment at an ASTA trade show. As he walked around and spoke to suppliers, describing his clientele and his company, they kept asking him if he belonged to the Oasis Travel Network because he fit their advisor profile. Finally, George asked one of them to introduce him to Oasis president, Kelly Bergin. After one meeting, some emails and phone calls, George affiliated with network.
“Oasis literally was an oasis. Finding a host where all the contracts are negotiated already, where you can turn to leadership for help and work with an inspiring group of peers you can bounce ideas off of or model yourself after, that was great,” says George. “My business really started skyrocketing after that because I wasn’t reinventing the wheel.”
That Oasis is a member of the Signature Travel Network sealed the deal for George, since his mentor, Rick Abraham at Tzell, was also a Signature member. He loved that he now had a robust hotel program with amenities to offer to clients; he’d thought early on that he was supposed to call each hotel to negotiate his own deals. Attending the annual Signature sales meeting in Las Vegas where he learned about all the tools that are available for advisors to work with was another high point.
“Alex Sharpe and the network are so truly focused on serving the advisor,” says George. “I remember that first conference, from how do you structure your commissions when dealing with a net rate versus a commissionable rate, to one of Ignacio Maza’s presentations on destinations. Ignacio truly does inspire me and I have not missed one of his presentations.”
Having access to Oasis and Signature gives George the confidence he needs when clients ask a question about a destination he hasn’t been to, or when they inquire about what added-value amenities he can offer them at a hotel.
“You’ve got everything at your fingertips so it’s pretty perfect,” he says.
Connecting the Dots
Just a few years in, George is enjoying his role of entrepreneur and finding there’s a similarity in connecting with people through travel, just as he did with music.
“Music is a form of expression which has its own language. There are no words. People can relate to it instantly even if they’re not familiar. As a performer, I had that direct connection, which I really loved that let people respond and react,” he says. “As an administrator, I got to bring that to other people here in Detroit especially since I did community relations work. This power of connection was what I really got the most fulfillment from,” says George.
Being a travel advisor has also been a healing experience for him.
“It was devastating when I couldn’t play anymore and I felt I lost that power of connection. I found it again through arts administration and I loved that but my other love was always travel. I felt with travel I would get this power again of giving this connection to people to places that is intangible, like when you first see a sunset on the Okavango Delta or when you are on your first game drive and you see elephants and giraffes in the wild, when you go to an ethnic village and you see the people interacting with each other. I feel I’ve regained this power where I’m able to help people, whether it’s a super high-end client who has access to many things, or whether it’s students or working-class individuals for whom I can take away barriers so they can enjoy special experiences,” says George.
For 2020, George says, “This will be a year of resetting, launching our new Service Programs, and setting a plan for growth.”
Those barriers might include money, but it’s also the lack of time and the fear of the unknown. “It’s not knowing how to make it all happen, especially with these bucket list trips. If you want to go to the Great Barrier Reef or to see kangaroos or to go on a safari, it all seems so intangible,” says George.
He finds fulfillment when his clients return from a trip and share their experiences or send him a note and photos or a testimonial.
One story that clients brought back from South Africa stands out for him. A family wanted to spend one day of their safari visiting a local school, so their boys could meet kids their own age. They brought soccer balls with them to donate, so all the boys could play together. When the family got back into the car, the 12-year-old son spoke in wonder of how the other children lived in a completely different world from him and how fortunate he was to have all the opportunities he has. “He wasn’t judging them but just observing their differences. He was really moved by that experience,” says George.
To the Future
In recent weeks, George has been moved by how the travel industry has rallied together to help each other and to get clients back out on the road by making new travel experiences available, such as villa stays, private jet travel and domestic escapes to unique boutique hotels.
So what does 2020 look like for a young entrepreneur whose business is just seven years old?
“This will be a year of resetting, launching our new service programs, and setting a plan for growth,” says George. “I would like to see us continue to engage with our loyal clients and introduce them to experiences they have not come to us for in the past, such as domestic travel and villa stays. I also see this as a time for us to establish a solid base of private-jet clients.”
In five years, he wants Culture Traveler to still be a small company, in terms of personnel, but to have grown its revenues to the range of $10 million to $15 million annually.
And then there’s that optimism for 2021, as people feel more urgency to complete their bucket list of travel. “And although I feel the public will generally travel less, at least initially, I think their spend will be greater to ensure truly exceptional experiences and the highest standards of cleanliness and safety,” says George.
Culture Traveler, LLC
an affiliate of Oasis Travel Network
Headquarters: Franklin, Michigan
Top Executives: Kareem George, Principal
Team: One advisor, two assistants, one marketing and public relations associate, one air specialist, one business development consultant (All are independent.)
Annual volume of business (pre-COVID 19): $1.69 million
Affiliations: Signature Travel Network, Oasis Travel Network
Advisory Board Positions: Travel + Leisure Travel Advisory Board; Signature Travel Network Luxury Committee; Board of Directors, Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival; Governing Member, Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Member, Detroit Economic Club Young Leaders
Agency Website: www.culturetraveler.com