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Staff Journalist/Luxury Lifestyle Expert | JustLuxe

Interview With Ashish Sanghrajka, President of Big Five Tours & Expeditions

Jul. 28th, 2011 | Comments 3 | Make a Comment   
Photo Courtesy of Big Five Tours & Expeditions
Ashish Sanghrajka, almost from birth, had his DNA linked to the tourism and travel industry through his father Mahen Sanghrajka, who founded Big Five Tours & Expeditions. Initially Big Five began as a safari operator in East Africa 36 years ago, but in 1985, the Sanghrajka family and the company relocated to the United States. Since then, Big Five has opened other offices internationally, garnering multiple awards from Travel & Leisure, Virtuoso, and National Geographic Adventure and National Geographic Traveler, to name a few.

Ashish joined the family business in 2002, first as Director of the Asia product, and then as Vice President of Sales and Partner Relations, before ascending to his current post as President in 2008. In that amount of time, he has seen many changes in the industry, as Big Five has become synonymous with highly customized, boutique, eco-sensitive luxury travel experiences, those that Ashsish defines as transformatory, emotional gifts that will last in the traveler's awareness always.

I recently interviewed Ashish and asked him about the evolving and redefined meaning of luxury, and how Big Five is reflecting these cultural shifts.

JustLuxe: How do you see the idea and the reality of luxury evolving, and how has Big Five maintained its identity during this change?

Ashish Sanghrajka: Well, we know that the luxury travelers have returned, and as usual, they have demanded more of the same three things they always have: authenticity, transparency, and value. All these aspects of travel connect somehow to the emotional connection travelers are searching out when they travel. They know and we know their time is not free, so they choose us be use they know we can provide truly unique experiences within the high-end travel context.

JL: Do you believe then that a Big Five travel experience is unique in that it combines with the emotional as well as educational aspects of travel?

AS: Yes, we do. Our trips are indeed unique, and are not commodities. Right now, luxury is defined by many things: time well-spent, seamless travel experiences shared with family, the creation of great memories that can be relived throughout a lifetime — those connections are emotional. In many cases, people who call us initially have a slight idea of what they want on their trip. If they can write down three sentences, we can propose ten pages of exceptional experiences.

JL: So, say I want to go to Belize to see some Mayan ruins. What kind of high-end travel experience could you provide?

AS: Belize is an interesting choice, as we have recently been asked by the government to help them redefine much of their travel identity. As you may know, Belize has fascinating, and not often traveled to, Mayan ruins. So we have created travel experiences that include traveling to the ruins of Xunantunich, accessed by a short crossing of the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry, that leads to the temples. The entire site is about 1,400 years old, and is located on a natural limestone ridge where you can see into Guatemala. Later that day, the travelers receive spa treatments, or have a session with a genuine Mayan Shaman. Then, the next day you could go into the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, also known as the ATM tour.

You must cross three rivers, or you can tube or you can kayak, but you will eventually get to this cave, in the heart of the Belizean rainforest. This cave was a sacred place to the Maya of Belize, who first began to use the entrance during the early classic period. In later years the Maya traveled deeper into the cave to conduct their ceremonies. The ATM cave system consists of a series of chambers, ending in a large Cathedral cave where sacrificial ceremonies once took place. Then, after this you can go snorkeling and diving, as the Barrier Reef is the longest unbroken reef in the world, stretching 200 miles and spanning the entire length of the country.

JL: From just this description, it seems Big Five is narrowing, rather than expanding, the interest niche of high-end travelers. Can you discuss this?

AS: Yes, if what you mean is that our tours are not for everybody, that's correct. Those who travel these days are barraged with thousands of travel options, usually created for many people at a time. But we believe, as tour operators, if you are everything to everyone, you will be nothing to no one. We like to keep our groups small, focused, educated and excited about where they are going. We also seem to attract those with a true eco-sensitive mindset, yet those who also want the best in luxury services also.

JL: How can you do both? How can you expand a more global, eco-sensitive awareness, provide luxury amenities and service while traveling in, for example, Africa, a complex country to say the least.

AS: I was born in Kenya, and I know the issues of Africa and those who travel there. We want our travelers to sense the mystery and the cachet of not only seeing the animals, but getting to the Maasai, and learning some of what they know, as stewards of the African bush. So, many of our travelers become bush experiencers by staying in African conservancy camps, called Porini camps, run by Maasai who in turn know the African bush better than anyone. The camp within the conservancy is small and set up on the lines of the traditional safari camp, and all the Porini camps are run on environmentally sound principles, and designed to have minimum impact, with no permanent structures, using solar power for electricity and heating water with special eco-friendly sustainable charcoal briquettes.

The local Maasai work in conjunction with Porini and the local community benefits directly through education, medical clinics, and fees paid to the community trust. I am convinced that these small private conservancies offer one of the best solutions to help save Africa's wild places and the animals that inhabit them for the future generations. They offer safaris that are, by virtue of the small number of visitors at any one time, more personal and satisfying.

The camps are usually adjacent to or near a national park, which helps increase the buffer zone between the animals and the human community. What makes them even more valuable is that they work hand-in-hand with local communities, offering them real opportunities for better lives — through education, medical clinics, employment and fees paid to a community trust — while helping them to preserve the cultural integrity of tribes such as the Maasai and Samburu.


These experiences define authenticity and at the end of the day, true travel value, with eco-sensitivity, all with our trademarked White Glove Service. We believe we are helping create a new global awareness of connectedness, where no man (or woman) is an island. The history of the Maasai, the Mayan, and other civilizations is our history. In travel, the emotional, the educational and the historic experience become one: it all works together.

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3 Comments on this Article

Deborah Kilcollins commented on December 20, 2013

-continued- We find it interesting, however, to note that you consistently direct readers to use another tour operator, one of our competitors, but always the same one by name. It is also worth stating that the company you mentioned, indeed, any other luxury tour operator of merit, would not have provided you with a nearly month-long trip plus upgrades and other services for the amount you paid to Big Five. We daily work with guests who demand a high level of service, which we gladly provide; however, your conduct throughout - during the tour planning, on tour and upon your return, has been entirely unacceptable. I only hope that other companies learn from our experience so that they may avoid the unnecessary problems you leave behind. Our 40-year track record stands on its own, and the high number of repeat guests we enjoy is testament to the work we do. Mahen Sanghrajka CEO

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worldtraveler commented on October 24, 2013

Perhaps Big Five knows Africa, but they certainly don't know Asia. I just returned from a high-end private tour to China and India with Big Five and it was a disaster to say the least. Our guides were very inexperienced and spoke very poor English. We had a list of must-dos and must-sees and our guides made no attempt to make these items happen. Big Five did a very poor job of communicating our wishes and clearly hired the cheapest guides possible while charging us thousands of dollars a day for their services. Would recommend using A&K or another operator in Asia.

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Deborah Kilcollins commented on December 20, 2013

As CEO of Big Five Tours & Expeditions, I feel compelled to reply to your recent comments about Big Five. We have been in business for 40 years, initially as a ground operator in Kenya, and, later, as a tour operator in the US. We have enjoyed a stellar reputation during those four decades, proudly serving our guests from all over the world. The manner in which you are posting your comments leads us to the conclusion that you are on a personal vendetta. As far as you remarks about your recent journey, we would like to state the facts correctly. In the planning stages, you emailed us specifically asking to visit areas in Northern India and China that are far off the beaten track. We submitted a proposal for you on the July 31, 2013, outlining every service in detail. We also adapted your request to have your journey flow better. We offered recommendations to improve your program while making you aware of our concerns regarding the hotel levels in those remote areas. You opted to add those remote areas back into your itinerary that we previously suggested you remove. It should be noted that these are the exact areas in India where you were not satisfied with the hotels. We continually revised the program sending you detailed proposals, which you accepted in writing. Furthermore, while you were in India, we heard about your concerns about the hotels, and we upgraded you at several properties to higher category rooms, at our own expense - you did not pay anything extra for these upgrades. All in an effort to satisfy your demands as we pride ourselves in working tirelessly to serve our guests in the best possible way. You make claims that we used "cheap, inexperienced guides" for the China portion of your trip. We work from a pool of the best available guides, who enjoy favorable reviews because they understand how important our guests are to us. For your trip, we used the same trusted guides for other guests around the same time, who were extremely happy. The vast majority of the guides we use are those with whom we have long-time working relationships, and that we have used personally. That being said, it must be noted that the guide you had issues with was, again, the result of the remoteness of a rural area you chose to travel, where international tourism is not yet the norm. Even so, we replaced that guide. We have a screen shot of the text reply from you to our in-country manager that shows that you were satisfied with that change. In fact, the evaluation form you filled out for Shangri-La, you listed everything good (4) to excellent (5), with the majority being 5, including that guide. In addition, to the above, your father, who traveled with you on this tour, completed a written passenger tour evaluation form, in which he states that the guides were "excellent, very friendly, knowledgeable" and he rated the drivers "Excellent, experienced, friendly." Every person in our team was doing their utmost to satisfy your demands including delivering extra services to you that you had not paid for and which you clearly did not appreciate. I was personally involved in this effort, but it became clear to us that it would be impossible to satisfy you. For example, we have you on a recorded line being verbally abusive to members of our team. We, like other organizations, will not tolerate that sort of abusive behavior directed to any member of our team, especially when they are trying to help you. We tried to assist you repeatedly through our country managers, who speak for us; however, we have not been able to satisfy your demands even though we have provided you with all services you paid for plus extras such as the hotel upgrades noted above. We see that you seem to be posting your unsubstantiated claims around the internet under various identities; two we know of so far are A.S. and Worldtraveler, which is, of course, your right. We find it interesting, however, to note that you consistently direct readers