Back to Morocco: How a Princeton, Google & HBS Alum Started a Luxury Travel Company Rooted in Authenticity

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Fora Author Fora

The Modern Travel Agency


  • Morocco

  • Marrakech

two young men stand next to each other in a desert on a sunny day

Ghassan (left) & Hicham (right) in the palm groves of Skoura, Morocco

Within the first couple weeks at Harvard Business School, Hicham Mhammedi Alaoui received a message on Facebook. It was from Ghassan Rachid, a fellow Moroccan student. The two met up and immediately hit it off; enjoying Moroccan tea together became a regular ritual. 

A few months into the semester, a few friends asked Hicham and Ghassan to plan a trip to Morocco for them.

“Not knowing any better, we just kind of started putting stuff together,” Hicham said. “We found that what we got back [from the on-the-ground travel companies] was not what we wanted to offer in terms of the quality of the experience we wanted to put together.”

Hicham and Ghassan knew they could do better and go beyond “Morocco 101” while also offering far more value — financially and culturally. The pair knew their audience (MBA students) very well. And they knew they could offer something uniquely tailored to their interests: networking with local start-ups and business people, conversing with local politicians, getting a deeper understanding of Morocco’s economic landscape.

During the planning process, they couldn’t make sense of the trip pricing. So they deconstructed the components of the trip and negotiated rates themselves, discovering they could secure far better deals. In the process, they were planting the seeds for what would eventually become Experience Morocco, a luxury tour provider that curates hyper-personalized, authentic and bespoke trips to Morocco.

“People had a great time,” Hicham said of his friends who embarked on the trip. He and Ghassan “came back from that experience thinking, 'Instead of jumping into a corporate job, let's try this out. Let's do this together,'” he added. “That was the first of Experience Morocco.”

These trips go beyond top-10 lists for Morocco: they immerse guests into the country’s vibrant local culture and offer experiences that would otherwise be unavailable to the general tourist.

The path to Experience Morocco

a group of young business school students stand amidst a sandy desert

Hicham & Ghassan's first clients, their business school friends, in the Sahara

Hicham was born in Paris, and moved to Morocco, where his family is from, when he was five. His parents opted to enroll him and his sister in a private American school. Hicham’s father’s first job was at IBM, so he had a natural affinity for the United States.

“That was the beginning of my love story with the United States and American culture,” Hicham said. “I grew up in Morocco in what was essentially a little tranche of America in Casablanca.”

During the summer after eighth grade, Hicham and his family visited New York City and Disney World — Hicham’s first experience in the U.S. He remembers venturing into Staples and being struck by the No. 2 pencils and lined paper. (“Imagine if there were four little lines between the two lines that you already know,” he said of Moroccan standard paper.)

Hicham ended up attending Princeton, and graduated with a B.A. from the university’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs. This was in 2008, a particularly difficult year for fresh graduates. He embarked on a “forensic search for a job,” he said, and eventually landed at Google.

He recounted the job-search process: “150 first-round interviews, about 12 second-round interviews, one job offer, which was Google.”

He started an exploratory rotational program offered by Google at the time, spending eight to nine months with various teams to learn the ropes, experiment and see what he liked. Toward the end of the program, Hicham was relocated to Southeast Asia. 

“I kind of frantically started looking for a job opportunity in that part of the world, found one in Singapore, made the move and that was that,” he said.

Planting the seeds

a man holds colorful tiles

Some of the activities offered by Experience Morocco

In Singapore, Hicham worked as Google’s Head of Enterprise in Geospatial Marketing in the Asia Pacific. He was excelling at his role and making good money, but something didn’t feel quite right.

“When I grew up, there was never a doubt in my mind that I would move back to Morocco,” he said. “I had this conviction that if I was fortunate enough to get opportunities to develop skills and learn things abroad, my path was not one that would lead me to stay abroad forever.”

As his career was progressing, he felt the dream of moving back slowly slipping away. Business school, he reasoned, would somehow provide a way to move back and make it work, although he didn’t exactly know what that path looked like.

“I just figured it's going to be impossible. I could not see a path from Singapore to Morocco directly,” he said. “I figured business school will give me more learning about things that I don't know, skills that I didn’t currently have at the time, and it'll give me a two-year window to just think about how I can make the move back to Morocco.”

He applied to Harvard, got accepted, made the move and met his future co-founder, Ghassan. They dreamed about the basic framework for Experience Morocco early on, but an additional venture convinced Hicham to really dive in.

In November of his first year at Harvard, Hicham and a few friends had an idea: What if, instead of a traditional MBA internship, they got out into the world and put their business skills to the test? 

The following summer, the crew spent eight weeks on the road. For one week at a time, they visited entrepreneurs in underserved parts of the country, helping them grow their businesses. Sometimes the students’ advice proved useful, and sometimes the business owners didn’t need their help. Hicham described the experience as eye-opening. 

Many of the successful entrepreneurs he encountered didn’t have an MBA. And yet they still made it work. Hicham’s Morocco travel business started to look more and more possible.

“Since I have all these tools that a lot of business owners do not have, let's try,” he recalled thinking at the time. “I came back from that trip with even more certainty about the worthiness of trying to start a business.”

The birth of a business

a woman molds wet clay on a spinning wheel

Some of the experiences offered by Experience Morocco

Experience Morocco was born (quite literally, we might add, out of a dorm room — Ghassan’s, to be exact). Hicham and Ghassan first targeted MBA students. The first year of business was very successful. The next two years saw rapid decline: “We have to find another viable channel for this business,” Hicham remembered thinking, “or it's game up, game over.”

“If you're truthful, there are definitely windows of time in the life of a business where things weren't looking so good, where you didn't really know how you were going to get out of the hole,” he said. “It's doing a disservice to aspiring entrepreneurs, and even to people who just want to understand your story, to only tell the good side of the story.”

Hicham and Ghassan knew they had to pivot. They ventured into the luxury travel market, building relationships and learning whom the gatekeepers were. Around this time, they met Henley Vazquez, who would go on to co-found Fora. The seeds were planted; a relationship bloomed.

From good to great to exceptional

a colorful patio with brightly colored pillows

Some of the experiences offered by Experience Morocco

“Out of a hundred universes, there's one where I end up back in Morocco and 99 others where I end up in a corporate job somewhere,” Hicham said. “I just got really lucky.”

Lucky perhaps, but Hicham undoubtedly created his own luck, the result of years of hard work and perseverance. Experience Morocco is no ordinary business. It reflects the values, passion and expertise of its co-founders, as well as its suite of dedicated employees. The company excels at mastering the micro and macro. No detail is too small, or too large.

Hicham said that, in the travel industry, the basics are often overlooked. Elements that seem so simple — punctuality, clean vehicles, fulfilling one’s promises — are in fact rarely all executed.

“I'm gonna start with basic table stakes that you'd be surprised how often are lacking in trips,” he said. “And I'm not just talking about Morocco — all over the world.”

That’s the foundation. Then, it’s about crafting stellar, out-of-the-ordinary experiences (which is really where Experience Morocco shines). 

Private tours, guided tastings, artistic workshops, active adventures, immersive workshops: such local experiences “really add a different dimension to your trip,” Hicham said.

In Casablanca and Marrakech, for instance, Experience Morocco guests have the chance to meet with the curator of a local modern art gallery. They receive a private welcome and briefing, and end the visit with celebratory tea or Champagne. 

“The gallery doesn't take travelers from anywhere else. They're an art gallery. They're not a museum,” Hicham said. “That's an example of something that we have curated specifically because we want to offer an insight into contemporary Moroccan art for our guests.”

Nailing the basics, and adding in that signature magic touch, makes Experience Morocco’s trips unique.

“If you add all these elements together, that's where you get to trips that go from good to great to exceptional,” Hicham said.

Experience Morocco’s trips are always exceptional. And indeed, there’s no better time to go. In September of 2023, an earthquake rocked the country. But Morocco, Hicham stressed, is not known for its earthquakes. The September one was a relatively rare event. (Read more about common misconceptions about travel to Morocco.) Infrastructure-wise, Morocco was built back up within two weeks. The best way to support the country and help it recover, financially and emotionally, is to visit. 

One of the things that makes Morocco so special is its unique mix of cultures: African, European, Amazigh, Middle Eastern.

“By definition, what it means to have the essence of Morocco is to be drawing from multiple cultures,” Hicham said. “I love that about Morocco. You can't say that from many places.”

Regardless of when you travel to Morocco, expect an immersive dynamism, a country brimming with scents and sounds and sensations that captivate. Experience Morocco will craft the perfect itinerary tailored uniquely to you. But, Hicham said, they always make sure to allow for those magical moments that happen in between.

“Oftentimes,” he went on, “the richest part of the trip is going to be an interaction that was not planned, but that spontaneous moment.”

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