Ken Fish is the founder and president of Absolute Travel, a luxury travel company that specializes in creating personalized travel experiences. If you’ve ever needed proof that following your passion is as good a plan as any for achieving success, Ken’s story is that proof. In 2013, after 25 years in the business, Absolute Travel won Travel & Leisure’s best tour operator award. When I asked how it felt to receive such an honor, Ken said, “Was it surprising? Yes. Did we feel like we had earned it? For sure. But to hear the applause as we went up…it was thrilling.”
What is the story behind your business? How did you get started?
I started my career on Wall Street. I went to John Hopkins University. A lot of the people I went to school with went on to become doctors, lawyers and academics, but I wanted to go into international finance. I got a job in the international banking department of Manufacturers Hanover Trust. I was there not even a year when I started to think about my life and where I wanted to be, and I realized in my heart that I wanted to travel. My dad’s idea of a vacation was packing up the station wagon.
Sort of Chevy Chase style.
It wasn’t comical, it was just painful. I always joked about his taking us to a rock quarry in New Hampshire, that that was his idea of taking a vacation. He always said, “You know, Kenneth, that story’s not true. That quarry was in Vermont.” The passion for travel is something many of us have inside of us. We just know. There is nobody who works for me—and we now have a staff of 26 people—who went to school or even planned on a career in travel. But we came in contact with each other because of that passion—that’s kind of what unites us all. I knew I had that in me, and I quit my job. I said, “I’ve got to do something else.” People thought I was crazy. I bought a plane ticket for the farthest away point I could think of, which was Australia.
I mean, that’s pretty far. You covered it.
It’s pretty far. And back then it took even longer to get there than it does now. I guess it was my version of going west.
Do you feel that part of your job is to assess your clients or potential clients and determine what you think they would want to do or see while they travel?
For sure. In terms of creating bespoke experiences for our clients, it’s a question of understanding who the client is and what they might like to do. Often they may have a specific request, and it’s our pleasure to fulfill any request they might have, but I feel it’s our job to craft something they may not have considered, or to make recommendations.
To know what they want before they even know what they want.
Right. Today, in luxury travel you obviously want to plan a logistically perfect trip, stay in the nicest accommodations and such, and people will go sightseeing and all of that. People when they go to India are going to see the Taj Mahal, and it’s going to be a beautiful experience for them, but it’s also about creating personalized experiences that are especially for them, that are surprises for them, that provide them access to something that is of interest. If it’s India then it might be a sitar lesson on the banks of the Ganges, or having a healer revisit their past lives.
That is so cool.
People can get into that or not, but these are the types of things we try to do. One of our strengths in how we developed our network—because we travel all over the world—is that we’ve developed contacts on the ground. We have these local partners who understand our philosophy and the needs of our clients, so we don’t need to organize everything on the ground. We provide oversight and we provide protocol for them. When my staff travels to these destinations, they get to follow their interests and their passions and create experiences that we can then offer to our clients. It’s about having great connections on the ground and then connections beyond that, knowing local artists, chefs, surf pros, whoever that might be who can offer a personalized experience for one of our clients.
Have you developed these personal relationships through your extensive travels, starting with, for example, the trip to Australia?
Well, I started my career in Australia. I worked for a company for five years.
How did that happen?
Well, I got on the plane, I went to Australia, and I met this guy from New York who was starting an Australian travel business based in New York. It was pretty perfect. We were three guys working out of a studio apartment, and by the end of the five years it was an enormously successful business. It was the 80s, and Australia was really booming—it was the Crocodile Dundee period. Most notably what happened was in 1983, the Royal Perth Yacht Club won the Americas Cup. It was a huge opportunity for us. We became the official travel company for the New York Yacht Club, for the Royal Perth Yacht Club and for Yachting Magazine. It allowed me to leave that company and kind of venture out on my own.
Where did you go next?
I went to Bali, I went to Thailand, I went to Singapore and Burma. I really discovered something there. In 1989 I started my own business specializing in travel to Thailand. What I could not anticipate was that within months of the onset of my company, Vietnam and Cambodia, which had no relationship with the United States, and which had been at war with the United States not too long before that, began issuing visas for Americans wanting to travel there. For two years we were selling travel to Vietnam and Cambodia when no US company was actually allowed to do that, and the reason we could do it was because we had started in Bangkok. It was totally circumstantial. We quickly became a company that was known for opening up new destinations.
And from there?
As we started to expand throughout southeast Asia and ultimately throughout all of Asia—we were known as Absolute Asia then—it was becoming clear that luxury travel was a developing part of the market. We recognized early on that it was more than just the accommodation level. It was about understanding the needs of luxury travelers, being able to work with luxury properties and have connections there to tailor the experiences. It was also about going beyond sightseeing, about developing the connections and being able to create the experiences. Right now “experiential travel” is a big phrase in the industry. We’ve been doing that from the beginning.
Not only is “experiential travel” a big phrase, there was a word you used before—“bespoke travel.” Bicycles are bespoke, everything is bespoke. How do you distinguish yourselves from all of that nonsense?
A lot of it is 25 years of experience. You always have to be standing ahead of the curve and create the experiences that become the trends in the industry. Several factors define us. The first is the network of connections that we’ve created. Something that’s also very important is Absolute Awareness, our awareness program, which is still very much developing. It has become a very significant part of our model, one that has led to a lot of institutional connections. Fundamentally, though, it starts with my staff, with the people who work for me, who share the passion for travel that I have. You cannot do any better for yourself than to work with people who are sincere and passionate about travel. I allow my staff to follow their passions, and that has led us into so many incredible places where the company is right now. That’s a key strength.
Give me an example.
Two years ago, two women in my office wanted to know if I would pay for them to go to a wildlife film festival here in TriBeCa. I said yes, sure. And they met people there that led to us being invited to be a member of the Clinton Global Initiative.
Okay. Could anything be cooler? That’s so great.
It’s amazing, because the connections that are developing now are things that we kind of envisioned but that are taking off way faster than I could have pictured. We’ve been named Exclusive Luxury Partner with The Explorers Club. There’s our arrangement with Clinton Global, which has opportunities that I can’t even imagine now. You have this room filled with hundreds of like-minded people. You find a challenge in the world, and you make a commitment to do something about it, and they help you get it done. But it’s do good and do well, so it’s not inconsistent with a profit-making model. And it’s something that happened all organically, because I let my staff lead by following their passions.
What would you say is the guiding principle for your company?
Number one for me has always been to create the best possible product for our clients. In order to do that, I need to hire the people that can get that done. To keep those people I need to create an environment that is going to be satisfying and provide them with a career. There’s a lot of longevity here, and there’s a reason for that—people enjoy what they’re doing. So what guides me? Wanting to do right.