The travel bug bit Mark Nolting early.
He’d been working for about a year after graduating from Florida State University with a business degree when he first noticed the symptoms.
“I woke up one morning and it was like: ‘If you don’t go, you’ll always regret it. And if you don’t go now, you’ll never go,’” said Nolting, 63.
He’s been going ever since. The initial urge to travel turned into a three-year tour of the world that eventually led to Africa. Back in the U.S., Nolting got an idea that writing a book on Africa would be a good way to establish credibility and launch a travel company.
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Nine days later, he was in Egypt. He spent the next two years doing research for Africa’s Top Wildlife Countries (now in its eighth edition), forming relationships with guides, safari camps and lodges before settling in Fort Lauderdale, where he formed The Africa Adventure Company in 1986.
The tour operator organizes more than 1,000 safaris a year to popular destinations such as Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania and South Africa. Clients pay an average of more than $10,000 a person, which includes airfare, guides, lodging and food, and the company handles all the arrangements. The company earns a commission from the business it books, but the travelers themselves don’t pay for the service.
Online travel planning has made customers more likely to educate themselves on travel to Africa, but vice president of operations Bill Rivard said the details of a safari vacation — booking air transportation to remote places, finding ways to and from camps, choosing guides — mean operators like Africa Adventure Company are still in need.
At the request of clients, Nolting said the company has also branched out to plan trips to Australia and New Zealand, but Africa remains the overwhelming focus of the business.
While the privately held company does not release financial details, Nolting said business has picked up significantly in the last couple of years after some recession-era softness. Gross sales jumped 20 percent in 2013 compared to the year before, and this year they are up 25 percent over 2013.
Nolting attributes that increase to a healthier stock market and pent-up demand, as well as “the biological effect” — travelers (especially Baby Boomers) realizing that they aren’t getting younger and taking active vacations while they can enjoy them fully. The company is also seeing multi-generational travel increase, as some longtime clients are traveling with children or grandchildren; Nolting’s own sons, 18 and 21, have been visiting Africa since they were “in diapers.”
Africa Adventure Company is still based in Fort Lauderdale, though it recently moved to larger digs to accommodate a staff that has grown to 26 people in that office and one each in Jacksonville and Naples. One of those in Fort Lauderdale is Alison Nolting, the senior vice president and director of tours and marketing, who was running a safari camp in her native Zimbabwe when Mark visited during his research.
“We had like a three-year long-distance relationship,” Mark Nolting said, during which his messages reached Alison via radios that could be heard by multiple camps. “It was not very quiet.”
When Alison Nolting joined the company in 1991, her husband said she helped take the business to a new level because of her expertise and connections.
“We’re very sensitive to sending the right people to the right safari camps and lodges,” said Mark Nolting, who said he has visited Africa “hundreds” of times. “It’s best for the client, but it’s also better for the people on the ground. We understand how difficult it is to run an operation in Africa.”
Keith Vincent, CEO of Botswana-based Wilderness Safaris, has known Nolting since the 1980s, when both companies were getting started. Because the tour company with about 68 camps doesn’t deal directly with the public, operators such as Nolting’s are “absolutely critical”
Africa Adventure Company has been one of the top five providers of business to the tour company over the last nearly 30 years, Vincent said. He said the company reliably matches guests to the experience they’re seeking and prepares travelers well for their trip — thanks in large part to staffers’ frequent visits and intimate knowledge of what they’re selling.
“We find very seldomly out of Africa Adventure Company do we ever have to worry about the customer not knowing what to expect,” he said.
Alison Nolting said that’s by design: The company has invested in making sure its consultants are well versed in the product they’re selling so they can guide people to the right areas, camps, lodges, experiences and even guides.
“One of our goals is to have someone in Africa every month,” she said.
Mark Nolting said that dedication to staying up-to-date on the destinations helps the company stand apart from its competition, as does its longstanding relationships with guides, camps and others on the ground. Instead of organizing large tours, Africa Adventure Company has long worked to tailor itineraries specifically for guests’ interests.
“People want that, and we actually began our business that way,” he said. “That’s one way that we’ve been able to stay ahead of the curve, because we’ve always been ahead of the curve.”
Over the years, Africa Adventure Company has earned plaudits from publications such as Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure, which has helped drive business. Well-known travel books such as Fodor’s and Frommer’s also mention the company. In addition to his thick guide to wildlife countries on the continent, Nolting’s other publications include the African Safari Journal & Field Guide and a safari planning map.
The company just launched a new, more user-friendly website that incorporates more from its blog. And moving forward, Nolting said the next project will be creating and launching interactive apps that are likely to launch in 2016.
While tech innovations are a priority, most business — about 70 percent — comes to the company the old-fashioned way: from repeat guests or referrals.
Fort Lauderdale resident Dan Arnold, a pediatric dentist, found out about the company from a family who came to his practice and raved about a trip they had take to Africa that was organized by Nolting’s company.
Arnold, who turns 71 on Tuesday, had always wanted to go.
“I thought it was a little strange that a well respected and a really good Africa company would be in Fort Lauderdale,” he said. But he went to see Nolting and explained what he was looking for.
“And now here it is about 13 years later and I’m still going to him,” said Arnold, who will take his 10th African trip next year.
Despite his many experiences, Arnold said he wouldn’t want to take on the intricacies of planning such a trip.
“The Africa Adventure Company is so good about making sure all the t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted and everything works perfectly,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to do it.”
That level of trust is important especially when new concerns arise, including the recent Ebola outbreak in some West African countries.
Nolting said the scare has prompted some questions, but he assures clients that the disease is contained in West Africa and the countries they are visiting are thousands of miles away from danger.
“Part of our responsibility is to educate the clients beyond what the media is reporting,” Rivard said. “They’re throwing out Africa, which is a continent. Part of our job is to educate them, give them the information they need, let them make the ultimate decision.”
Nolting said he explains that the equivalent would be if Ebola broke out in South America and Europeans were afraid to travel to the United States.
“I’ve mentioned that to a couple people and they kind of pause,” he said. He also tells them: “If you don’t feel comfortable traveling now, you can travel later.”
People also ask general questions about safety, and Nolting tells them that they will be fine as long as they follow the instructions of their guides and camp managers.
In its 28 years, the company has experience a single highly publicized negative incident involving a trip, when an 11-year-old was killed by wildlife in a camp in 2000. Nolting called the death a “tragedy.” An arbitrator ruled that neither Africa Adventure Company nor the contractor on the ground were at fault.
The most common emergency is an occasional medical evacuation if someone has broken a bone or become dehydrated, Nolting said.
Only once has he made the decision to change customers’ plans because of external forces: in the early 90s, when violence was starting to escalate in Rwanda. He called three different parties and told them: “It’s not looking good; we’re not sending you to Rwanda,” he said. They were initially not pleased, but soon called and thanked him for making the decision.
Nolting said one of the benefits of using a company like his — especially in contrast to going the do-it-yourself route — is that if something goes wrong, “we’re the security blanket” to help.
“We are the glue that puts everything together so that it does make sense, it flows well, if a flight’s canceled or something, they’ve got somebody to help them,” he said.
The Africa Adventure Company
Founder: Mark Nolting
Headquarters: 2601 E. Oakland Park Blvd., Suite 600, Fort Lauderdale
Volume: More than 1,000 trips organized every year
Finances: Total sales increased 20 percent year-over-year in 2013 and another 25 percent this year
More information: http://www.africa-adventure.com/