Cornell seniors MilesAhead in travel game

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From left, MilesAhead's Grace McBride, Rob Karp and Nelson Billington.

One of the biggest challenges for most college seniors is lining up a job after graduation, but once Cornell University's commencement weekend is over, at least three newly minted graduates won't have a problem with that. They already run a travel agency that did about $12 million in sales last year, and once they have their degrees, they plan to hit the ground running and expand the business.

MilesAhead was founded by Rob Karp, a senior at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration. The agency's CEO, he runs the operation alongside fellow School of Hotel Administration senior Nelson Billington, who is director of client operations, and Grace McBride, a senior at Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and MilesAhead's director of business strategy and marketing.

"We have a really exciting opportunity," Karp said. "The three of us, especially, have worked a lot during school, so it's not like it's our first job out of college. It's almost like we've been doing this for X amount of time to prepare to take it full-time. We view it as a great opportunity for us, so we can really devote [more time to it] and have one focus during the day."

Karp got his start in the travel industry when he was just 14 and a high school student in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. He found he had a talent for optimizing frequent flyer miles and credit card points, and he offered his services for a price.

"We saw a natural synergy to start helping people book their travel beyond just helping them with points," he said, "and that kind of grew over time as I came to Cornell and started to meet other classmates and hire people and build a team."

Over time, MilesAhead developed a higher-end clientele and started booking luxury travel, expanding from flights to hotels, cruises and tours. Karp hired Cornell students and brought in interns, as well.

From left, MilesAhead director of client operations Nelson Billington, CEO Rob Karp, senior luxury travel advisor AJ Arena and director of business management and marketing Grace McBride.
From left, MilesAhead director of client operations Nelson Billington, CEO Rob Karp, senior luxury travel advisor AJ Arena and director of business management and marketing Grace McBride.

"Now, as we're graduating and finishing up senior year, we've really morphed into a whole bespoke luxury travel concierge where the miles are still a focus, but it's not the primary focus," he said. "What we've been able to do is continue to build out, refine our business and grow it over time."

Today, MilesAhead has two distinct areas of its business. One is its vacation business, booking trips for everyone from families to high-profile individuals for whom the agency manages travel. The air concierge desk, meanwhile, advises customers on such issues as which airline is best for them based on routes, the product and the onboard experience, and it helps with tasks like finding discounted business-class fares.

The air concierge desk isn't just for consumers. MilesAhead also works with outside agents and tour operators who outsource their air.

"As we grow and we leave college, we're going to start to pursue a more bespoke corporate route," Karp said. "So we'll go into some hedge funds, go into private equity firms, small- to medium-sized enterprises that have international premium travel needs and don't have a travel agent or aren't happy with their current one."

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