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Travel Guide | The Escape Artist


Tami Hiraoka of Fresi Travels

Let's face it. Planning the perfect trip is hard. It takes time. The research alone is a full-time job. And if you're going to a new destination, it can be intimidating to make sure all of your travel companions' needs are met. By the time you actually get to the trip, you're over it.

Enter Tami Hiraoka, a luxury travel connoisseur and escape artist. She puts the FUN in travel and delivers white-glove travel experiences for her clients around the globe through her company, Fresi Travels. Even the most far-flung locals feel at home when you're in her capable hands.

Tami's travels usually end up with her back at our shop with textiles from around the globe which she entrusts to us to make into garments that she then wears as she hops across the globe. I often joke that my clothes have seen more of the world than I have! But I can't imagine a better guide and fashion ambassador than Tami!

Tami Hiraoka of Fresi Travels

D: How did you go from oil and gas to what you do now?

T: I have always loved to travel since I was little. My mom worked in the airline industry, and that's how I started traveling. My family, especially my mom, always encouraged me to go to new places.

I used to love to organize trips. I was organizing trips for friends in the oil and gas industry, so my boyfriend, who is my business partner, and I started taking groups of people to different destinations, and we organized everything. Of course, we were not a travel agency, so I did all the research. I found all the hotels, and I would go directly to them and make a reservation. I would find a tour and put it together, but it wasn't a travel agency.

That's how we started, and a lot of people started talking about us because we did a full-length itinerary, like, in PDF and it looked very professional, but it wasn't!

Tami Hiraoka of Fresi Travels in Antartica

D: You were professional in your other job so I'm sure you applied the same thinking to these projects?

T: Yeah, we had pictures, descriptions, times, check-in, check-out, everything!

We started getting calls from people we didn't know asking things like, "Can you put an itinerary together for my family and me?" I would think, "What? Who gave you MY number?" They would mention someone who traveled with me and my boyfriend to a certain destination. Because of how well everything was organized, they assumed that we must do this professionally.

So I would tell them that we are not a travel agency and that I could give them some tips or recommendations but that we couldn't organize the whole trip.

Passport, sunglasses, map

My boyfriend and I started talking. Maybe we should just start a travel agency to make some money or get some discounts for the extra work they would have to do for these trips? We were not making money. We were probably losing money because we would often pay for things and end up not charging our friends.

That's how it all started; we wanted to somehow get more information about travel, we wanted some discounts, and maybe make some money for the work we were already doing. Then in 2017, we started looking into how to open a travel agency. We didn't know how to open one in the U.S., so we found a way through a host agency, which is still our host agency, and we started doing trips through our travel agency. We started getting some requests from our friends and family, but we were still working full-time in oil and gas so we couldn't get a lot of clients, but at that point, I was 100% sure I wanted to do this for the rest of my life instead of being in oil and gas.

Things happen for a reason. My company in the oil and gas industry was selling its biggest U.S. asset, so they were going to lay off a lot of people and they were going to give packages. I got the package to leave, and that was the turning point where I said I would never go back to Corporate America. I will continue my journey, but that happened in August 2019, just before the pandemic.

D: How did you end up continuing to run the business and figure that out during the pandemic?

T: During the pandemic, I had a severance package that helped me a lot over the next two years.

But what we did during that year and a half during the pandemic was revamp our website and get more training in the travel industry (they were offering a lot of training for travel advisors).

Of course, everything was online and not going to the actual destinations. Then I started networking within the Houston small businesses community. That's what we focused on during the pandemic, revamping our business, getting more professional training, and networking.

Tami Hiraoka in Laos

D: A lot of people think it's so easy if you're an AmEx Platinum member to book travel through that or sites like Expedia.

Why are people still using travel agencies versus just doing it themselves and what makes you such a valuable resource?

T: One of the main reasons is that you have a person that is going to respond to you. People want a human connection, not just a call center that will respond to you in a robotic manner.

AmEx provides really good VIP amenities in hotels which we also provide to our clients. However, the AmEx customer service representative will just do a booking. They will not ask you, "What are you looking for? What are your preferences? Are you celebrating something special? Are you looking for a particular kind of ambiance in a hotel?"

With Expedia and other online services, you are booking a hotel, but you are not booking it directly with the hotel, so if there are any issues, there is little you can do.

I was traveling to the Maldives, and I met this couple that were desperate because they booked through Expedia, and for some reason, the reservation wasn't showing up on the hotel's side. The hotel couldn't do anything but say, "Contact Expedia." They tried for hours to contact them.


D: From the Maldives?!

T: Exactly. Luckily, since it was the pandemic, the hotel had availabilities, and they were able to book another room and then figure out how to deal with the other reservation.

Things like that, we would take care of if there are any issues. But normally, that doesn't happen because we book directly with the hotel, operator, or partner within the country."

I had a client who is an interior designer and was looking for hotel rooms in Spain, so I looked for hotels that were very focused on design that she could appreciate. There were five-star hotels that were beautiful but based on her preferences, they weren't the PERFECT fit for her. We normally think about these things when providing for the client.

Spanish port city

We will personalize your stay in a hotel, and if you're celebrating something, we'll go the extra mile to contact the hotel for events like your birthday or anniversary. We want to make sure that the celebration is somehow highlighted in your trip, with a card, a small gift, or something. We want to make sure that you have an unforgettable experience. AmEx doesn't do that and Expedia of course won't do that at all.

D: Do you find yourself encouraging clients to go outside their comfort zone?

T: Some of my clients are more open and ask for a destination based on the time of the year they want to travel. That is when I normally recommend destinations different than the usual suspects like Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Europe.

Spanish Town

D: How long does the planning process typically take? If someone is thinking of taking a trip with you what's an ideal amount of time?

T: I prefer 6 months in advance because we have more time. I want to do the research from my side and find good availability for their trip. Especially if they are going to a high-season destination. It also gives us time to review the itinerary with them several times so that if there is something they want to add or they want to change, we can do that in advance.

If you contact me a month before your trip, we might not have a lot of time to get what you expect because it might already be completely booked. Some hotels might already be booked in advance, or some experiences might fill up in advance.

For example, right now, Japan is exploding. If you are planning a Japan trip for June, even 2 months ahead of time, there are experiences that are completely booked. That's the reason that we normally prefer that they come to us in advance, especially for high seasons.

Tami Hiraoka of Fresi Travels at Dracula's Castle


D: With all of the places you've traveled, what are 3 must-go destinations?

T: Eliminating the usual suspects... A safari in Africa would be number one.

Japan has a lot to offer, and then Southeast Asia.

There are many unique countries in Southeast Asia that you can do: Thailand, Cambodia, (I love Cambodia. I have been there about 5 times) Vietnam, and then, of course, Indonesia and Bali.

Thailand, Cambodia, and Japan

D: What is one of the most transformative experiences that you have done yourself or that a client has experienced?

T: Going on a safari. It is a totally different kind of feeling when you see the animals so happy in their own natural environment. They look more beautiful than in a zoo, so you get this feeling of, "Wow, I need to protect this for the future generations because if we don't, they might miss a lot."

You can see how the local people normally live in tribes. How they can live together with the environment and the wild animals. In harmony.

Tami Hiraoka of Fresi Travels in Armenia

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