Acquired in 1991 by Norman Pieters and his wife Kathy, the family-owned business of Karell Travel Group is named after the original two owners who were close friends with the Pieters. After Norman took over the company, he promised that he would never change the name and would use the original logo in all advertising materials. That same level of commitment and honesty continues 21 years later, as Karell is known for its high level of individual attention and orchestrating completely customized trips.
A year after Norman acquired the business, hard financial times hit when Hurricane Andrew swept through the Gulf Coast, leaving wreckage and a grim economic future for businesses that were in its path, including the Miami-based Karell Travel Group. A reinvention was in order, so Norman altered his business to specialize in one area: African travel. This was a novel idea at the time, but it worked, and today the company flourishes. Norman has been named for the fifth-consecutive year to Travel + Leisure magazine's A-List of the world's best travel agents, only two of which go to those in the business of safaris.
Norman, at 61, has no plans to fully retire any time soon. It would "just be too boring," he says. Having traveled to 15 different African countries, he is well-versed on matching a customer's dreams with their ideal African country, sharing personal anecdotes and experiences along the way. Taking such a liking to what he does, Norman compares picking his favorite African country to naming his favorite child...impossible, he says. And he shows the same deep commitment to his employees. Aside from hiring his son Craig, he cannot remember the last time he went through the hiring process, as his employees tend to stick around for a while.
Here is a Q&A with the father-son duo on what it takes to succeed in this business, their personal travel favorites, and the trying times.
What are the biggest obstacles you've overcome to get to where you are now?
Norman: Pointing to a specific event I would have to say Hurricane Andrew. We had to take out an SBA loan just to survive. In terms of business obstacles, specializing in one destination (Africa) before it was the thing to do and overcoming peoples' preconceived notions and objections to it.
What tactics do you think have been responsible for your success?
Norman: From day one I always strived to deliver the best service at below "rack" rates by operating on a model of referrals, thus eliminating the huge overhead of advertising. One of the reasons we travel so much is to be up-to-date on everything we sell. We pride ourselves on the long-standing partnerships we have made in the various countries, as well as the continuity of our team, starting with Hugo Molina, the office manager, who has been with me from day one!
Why should someone choose Karell over another travel agency?
Craig: The destinations we work with can get quite complex in a hurry, so attention to detail is imperative. Each year, at least two to three members of our staff visit Africa to make sure we see the properties and experience things firsthand so we can place our clients there with 100 percent confidence. We're very aware of the fact that the trips we organize are often a client's trip-of-a-lifetime, and as such it is paramount that we provide the highest level of service possible, both in the planning process and while traveling. When our clients begin their trip, we receive regular updates from all of our suppliers to make sure things are going smoothly, and in the event that something does come up, a member of our staff is available via a toll free number, 24/7.
How do you work with clients who want a completely specialized trip?
Craig: We prefer to work on a close, personal level with our clients. Before we recommend any itinerary, it's important to get to know who we're working with and understand what makes them tick. To that end, we usually begin with a one-on-one phone consultation to get a feel for likes and dislikes, special interests, etc. There are thousands of combinations we can use for an itinerary, and our goal is to create the one that most completely fits the client's personal taste and budget.
What is your personal dream itinerary?
Craig: This is a really tough question, but if I had to choose, I would say a combination of Cape Town and the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Cape Town is simply one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and after many visits over the years, I still yearn to go back. A safari in the Okavango is definitely one of the most unique experiences in Africa, if only for the fact that the ecosystem functions as an oasis in the otherwise harsh environment, drawing in an incredible array of wildlife.
What country would you like to see Karell expand to next?
Craig: One that springs to mind is the Democratic Republic of Congo; in fact there may be some exciting things happening there in the near future with regards to gorilla experiences.
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