How Local Travel Agents Stay Relevant in the Era of Online Everything

Ryan and Malaka Hilton say travel agents offer plenty of advantages.

By Cooper Levey-Baker October 6, 2017 Published in the September-October 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Image: Shutterstock

Trip Advisor. Kayak. Orbitz. Momondo. Travelocity. Expedia. Hotwire. Airbnb. With so many resources a click away, what advantages does a travel agent still offer?

Plenty, contend Ryan and Malaka Hilton, the husband-and-wife team who own Sarasota’s Admiral Travel. In the 20 years since the couple founded Admiral, they’ve developed close ties with hotel managers, airline officials and tour guides in every corner of the globe. Those connections make for one-of-a-kind experiences and upgrades you can’t book online. And problems can be solved with a single phone call. Not satisfied with the view from the room that your hotel in Zimbabwe just gave you? Give Admiral a ring and the company’s on-call staff will get the manager on the horn.

Ryan and Malaka are two of 200 travel agents working between North Port and Bradenton, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their company has thrived as the overall travel agent industry has been jolted by online competition. In 1997, the year Admiral was founded, America was home to 117,000 travel agents. By 2012, that number had dropped by almost half, to less than 65,000, but the industry has, perhaps counterintuitively, begun to tick back up. There were almost 69,000 travel agents working in America in 2016.

Admiral’s trips aren’t cheap (a seven-day trip averages somewhere between $4,500 and $5,500), but the firm concentrates on providing value to its clients. Their customers don’t mind spending large amounts on memorable adventures. Having someone who’s ready to iron out snafus—assisting with everything from lost passports to ill tour guides—is a major benefit of working with a travel agent.

The relationship between the agent and the client is paramount. Roughly 80 percent of Admiral’s clients are repeat customers, people who had a blast on an Admiral trip to Africa and are now asking about one of the company’s trips to Cuba. About half of the company’s clients live in Sarasota or are snowbirds; another 40 percent come from California and New York; and the last 10 percent or so live abroad in countries such as Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and England. Many come to Admiral with general ideas for possible trips—a safari, a visit to the pyramids, a trip to Japan—and then work with the Admiral staff to map out an exact itinerary.

“The great thing about Admiral is they really get to know you,” says Sarasota’s Dick Rivera, who worked for years in the corporate restaurant world and now co-owns downtown’s Brick’s Smoked Meats. Rivera and his wife, Leslie, go on Admiral-assisted trips two to three times a year and have been using the company for more than a decade. “They ask for feedback early on. ‘How’d you like this hotel?’ ‘How was this guide?’ They know what we like,” says Rivera.

They also respond with a “sense of urgency,” he says. “If anything is going wrong, we can call or send an email and they will jump on it immediately.”

Since Admiral prizes ongoing business and word-of-mouth connections, online marketing and search engine optimization aren’t priorities. They’re not trying to compete with Expedia and they aren’t trying to reach customers Googling for information. Admiral asks for a non-refundable $500 deposit before even meeting with a new client so the staff can be assured that clients are committed to a trip and not just hunting for information to book a tour on their own. “We are very protective of our intellectual property,” Malaka says.

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An Admiral-organized African safari

Image: Ryan Hilton

Admiral also focuses on providing experiences their clients can’t get elsewhere. “Today, travelers are adventurers,” Ryan says. The company is seeing an uptick in clients interested in active trips that include long hiking excursions, walking tours that allow them to blend in, behind-the-scenes experiences, tours that provide opportunities for great photography, trips that showcase authentic local food and culture and escorted tours to exotic locales clients wouldn’t venture to solo. Even pricey trips might not be as luxurious as they used to be; travelers today often enjoy taking public transportation or using Uber more than hiring a car and a driver, says Ryan.

Admiral’s business isn’t slowing down. The company has several trips booked for 2018 and has even received requests for 2019. Admiral made roughly 5,000 reservations for guests last year, for groups ranging in size from two to 48, and the company generated $14 million in revenue.

“It’s a great example of how a service business can survive in this era of technology,” says Rivera. It’s easy to book a trip online; it’s harder to get the details right. “If you only have so much time and so much of a budget, you don’t want to be making a mistake,” he says.

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