An Interview With The Students Redefining The Travel Agency

What was your inspiration behind MilesAhead?

Rob: I have always loved and been interested in transportation, especially airlines. When I was 6 months old, I took my first flight from Westchester (HPN) to Minneapolis (MSP) to visit family. Then and still now, every time a plane takes off, chills run down my spine. As I got older, I began playing Microsoft Flight Simulator, flying virtual planes and routes around the world in my free time. Out of this came an interest in helping my parents purchase our flights to Minneapolis, learning what frequent flyer miles were, and a general understanding of how it all worked. I began helping family and friends turn their miles into free airfare, and quickly, I began getting daily phone calls with requests for help! One of my relatives suggested that I open a business; I thought they were crazy. Soon after, MilesAhead was born. Four years later, this passion project has become a global travel concierge leveraging our expertise, connections, and technology to optimize reward points, personalize trip experiences, and deliver VIP treatment to our clients.

What were some of the challenges or obstacles you faced when trying to start and grow the company?

Rob: The biggest challenge we’ve faced has been managing our time. You only have 24 hours in a day; balancing prelims, classes, and social life, and on top of that, being on call for clients is not easy. We work with our partners across the globe on a daily basis, and when you’re working with a hotel in Europe that is 6 to 7 hours ahead of us, we’re not going to hear back until the next morning. It motivates us to be disciplined, organized, and stay on top of everything.

Nelson: Another challenge is setting reasonable expectations and being able to say no.  If a client gives us a project and we have our hands full, it’s best to explain that and be transparent. People appreciate and understand honesty. And, sometimes, that even creates more trust between us and the client. We always strive to create strong relationships with our customers - what might begin as a quick weekend in Miami turns into us planning their family’s trip to Europe. It’s all about how we can make a positive impact in the lives of our clients.

How has your experience at Cornell helped you with MilesAhead? Have you used any of the resources for entrepreneurs on campus?

Rob: Going to school at Cornell, specifically the School of Hotel Administration, has been wonderful in growing MilesAhead. When I came to Cornell last fall, it was just me. Today, we have a team of nine, five of whom are Cornellians. We couldn’t be where we are today without our fantastic team, and I’m so proud of them. Recently, we were admitted into eLab, Cornell’s premier accelerator where student entrepreneurs come to launch or take their businesses to the next level. We are currently working on scaling MilesAhead with the support of eLab and Cornell.

Nelson: We love working in the eHub space in Collegetown. Whether it’s a team meeting, interview, or brainstorming session, we have found that being together in the same place helps our creativity and productivity. The company has developed strong partnerships with the broader Cornell community, and we love to help students, families, and alumni with their travel needs. It’s exciting to show people the benefits we can provide as a result of our global relationships. Our team has the most fun crafting over-the-top experiences.

Rob: Last year, one of our long-term clients was checking into a beautiful property over spring break, but the rooms for his family were not as advertised, and he wasn’t a happy camper. A senior executive at the hotel is an SHA alumnus, so at 5 PM on a Saturday, I cold-called the executive, explained the situation, and 30 minutes later, the general manager of the property met with our client and moved his rooms to a more suitable location. It amazed me. It was the Hotelie network, the Cornell network, aiding us in making the impossible happen.

How does being on campus and having a pulse of college students’ preferences impact MilesAhead? Does it help you decide what to focus on?  

Nelson: The past twelve months since I joined MilesAhead have been a fascinating learning experience. We have helped a lot of Cornell students with their travel needs and have been able to gain a better understanding of behaviors when it comes to home-sharing sites like Airbnb and HomeAway. It has been interesting to see how college students are increasingly looking for affordable luxury and want to take short getaways rather than longer trips. Dave Roberts, SVP of Customer Insights and Revenue Strategy at Marriott, spoke recently in the Hotel School and stressed how important execution and service quality are to the millennial demographic. We have been seeing very similar sentiments.

AJ: We have a good understanding of what people want to do for breaks and we can relate to parents who want to bring their kids on family vacations.  We can recommend clients to places such as Spain and Iceland because we’ve been to those amazing places.

Rob: We also connect with clients on an emotional level, as we work with many parents who have kids interested in applying to Cornell or the Hotel School. That is such a unique thing, and we’ve been able to draw great business (and give some campus tours, too!) because of that. The coolest thing about being on campus is learning what today’s young travelers look for, whether traveling with friends, family, or on their own.

What differentiates MilesAhead from other travel agencies?

Rob: One thing that separates us from larger travel agencies is our innovative approach and value proposition. We operate as a tightly-knit team, can be reached via many communication channels, and specialize in optimizing reward points for airfare. Outside the scope of your average travel agency, we consult with various companies, to most effectively accrue, use, and replenish reward points to save on their bottom line. When we aren’t redeeming points, we’re focusing on fostering strong relationships with our clients and suppliers, whether they’re tour guides, front desk agents, salespeople, or butlers. By investing in traveling to the destinations that we send our clients to, we are able to give them an insider’s look and ensure that their experience matches their expectations. When a client wants to go to Italy, we take those relationships we built to unlock experiences unavailable to the general traveling public. Our team is fueled by a genuine passion for creating memories and an amazing user experience.

Nelson: I wake up each morning to a new challenge and project. Whether it’s an excursion through remote Antarctica or a journey through South America, we become experts as we build more connections and relationships. Our youth is one of our best assets; we can relate to family trips in ways older agents cannot, and provide our clients with a fresh view on travel. It is thrilling when we visit our hotel partners and hear how they appreciate working with passionate and young advisors.

How did you lock in the partnership with Valerie Wilson?

Rob: A few years ago at Virtuoso Travel Week, I met the leadership team at Valerie Wilson Travel and we stayed in contact. Last winter, when we were changing agencies, our team began talks with them and it ended up working out very well. As one of the top travel agencies in America, VWT’s resources and buying power help us ensure the most competitive rates, develop strong relationships with suppliers, and deliver VIP treatment to our clients. We are very lucky and grateful to be associated with their company.

What do you think is the most important aspect of your business that has contributed to your success so far?

Rob: As an entrepreneur, I think that learning from your mistakes is paramount to success. Learning how to take criticism, self-reflect and improve for the future makes you a better person. As we’ve grown MilesAhead, the team and I have made many mistakes. No one is perfect. But we have thought, talked, and reflected on our mistakes to make sure they don’t happen again in the future. Most importantly, we have learned how to grow. Our thirst to learn, and also our willingness to ask for help has also been a positive. At the end of the day, you can’t do it alone, and our fantastic team at MilesAhead helps make it possible each and every day. I’m very proud of them.

What is your favorite and most notable experience that you’ve planned?

AJ: I’ve only been with MilesAhead for about two months, but this was a really proud moment for me. We have a couple that travels often between the US and South America. The clients were recently in Chicago for a business trip, and we had made a reservation for a beautiful room at the Peninsula with a special welcome amenity to be delivered upon arrival. Just two days before their arrival, the clients called us requesting that we cancel their hotel reservation and that they needed to fly home a day earlier. Within a half-hour, we cancelled their hotel reservation and confirmed new flights with better timing than the initial ones. The clients sent us an email a few days later thanking us and saying they never want to travel without us again.

Nelson: I travel frequently to Charleston, SC as it is my favorite US destination. I had the opportunity to plan a trip for a couple in May who were celebrating their anniversary. Setting up activities, finding hidden gems for the couple to visit, and hand-selecting the city’s best tour guides was fun, but hearing their emotional reaction to seeing a family picture waiting in their room was even more powerful. It reminded me why I chose the hospitality industry: to create experiences and memories that turn travel into moments that people cherish and remember.

Rob: Last September, we had a high profile client request a two-bedroom apartment during the UN Global Assembly in New York City, when most accommodations are sold out. He gave us two days notice and was working within a fairly tight budget. The same day, we came back to him with a nicer property than he expected with a discount off the published price and an early check-in for his arrival. We even had a dog bed waiting for his dog and a pack-in-play for his 6-month old son. It was a great challenge for us as we tapped into our network and negotiated with different properties and their management to find the perfect solution.

What sorts of expectations do you have for Miles Ahead’s growth opportunities and capabilities? Where do you see the company in 5-10 years?

Rob: We’re exploring multiple growth opportunities, several strategic partnerships and are expanding our core team. We’re working with the eLab to strategically design and plan how we will scale MilesAhead and take it from a service business to a technology-powered service business. We are fortunate to have over 300 clients at the moment, and I’d love to see us double that by the end of 2017. As for the longer-term future, my vision for MilesAhead is to become a leading brand in the hospitality industry with a fantastic company culture and a mission focused on positively impacting the lives of our customers.