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September 5, 2012updated Feb 25, 2013

Brett Tollman

By Chris Boyle

Brett Tollman

President & Chief Executive
The Travel Corporation

While the name, The Travel Corporation, might not give away too much, if you flip over Chief Executive Brett Tollman’s business card you find a full house of colorful logos representing both well know and lesser known brands, running the gamut from its award-winning Red Carnation Hotel Collection to its youth vacation specialist Contiki Holidays. Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan caught up with the globe-trotting Tollman at the company’s London office, a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. Between stops in Botswana, Vienna, Singapore and China before returning to his Los Angeles home base, Tollman discussed why his mother can beat any other hotelier in service, the importance of travel and tourism and a wide range of issues.

ET: Can you give us an overview of The Travel Corporation?

Brett Tollman: The Travel Corporation has been in business for nine decades and is on to its fourth generation – my older sister’s two children are now in the business. We are a group of 25 companies, either bought or started by my father, and we take care of over one million guests per year. We operate in 60 countries on five continents. These include 14 hotels under The Red Carnation Hotel Collection, Uniworld which offers luxury river cruises and Inspiring Journeys’ soft adventure experiences in Australia and New Zealand, also on the high end. In the mid-market, Trafalgar’s guided holidays is the largest player in that niche, and Insight Vacations is a premium escorted tour specialist while Contiki caters to the youth traveler. All are wholly owned businesses. We’re also the largest investor in Wilderness Safaris, which is the original environmentally conscious safari operator, which has over seven million hectares under concession agreements with governments and local communities across Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, the Congo, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.

ET: What is the structure?

Brett Tollman: Each business is run separately under a decentralized structure. For the hotels, my mother as Founder & President runs the collection with Jonathan Raggett, the MD. She is fully engaged, speaking to and dealing with every GM, every day. Every repeat guest is a VIP. We review what was requested by them on their previous stay as well as capture information about their likes and wants during their stays, so we can anticipate and cater to each individual on their next stay. She also has a very keen, active focus on taking care of all of our team members. There’s the saying – “happy staff makes happy customers makes happy owners” – we fully embrace and practice this management ethos every day. We have 4,000 team members across the entire group, and we actively strive to take care of them, including a major commitment to continual training and improvement programs.

ET: Do you have a company philosophy?

Brett Tollman: As a privately-owned, family run company we take a long-term view of providing outstanding, consistent experiences each and every time. We work hard to impress guests every time. Even in challenging times there are plenty of travelers, and we think a company will stand out from its competitors by being known for providing outstanding consistent service and value. Though we never rest on our laurels, we are proud of the recognition we receive for actively practicing this philosophy with the trade and consumer press awards we win, including Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Cruise Critic and The London Times recently rating us one of the top 100 employers in the UK, as well as comments from social media sites like Trip Advisor. If you look at Trip Advisor there are some 1,500 four and five star rated hotels in London and ours are almost always ranked #1 or #2. During this continued economic downturn, we’ve continued to focus on ensuring and improving our service delivery across every brand, and we are seeing the fruits of those efforts. Sustainable travel is also very important to us, and it was good to see our property Bushman’s Kloof in South Africa recently honored by Virtuoso, and we continue to invest in our non-profit which funds sustainable projects – TreadRight Foundation.

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ET: What’s the secret to good service?

Brett Tollman: Good employers provide great training. Training is the mainstay ensuring both consistency and opportunities for staff to grown. Just about every General Manager has grown through the ranks. At Uniworld, Guy Young, its President, has worked with us for over 25 years. Our Vice President of Marketing there started as a Marketing Assistant. We have several sommeliers in our hotels who started as dishwashers, and having been supported and trained by us, today are master sommeliers and have won industry acclaim.

ET: What differentiates Red Carnation from other luxury hotels?

Brett Tollman: Incredibly warm, genuine service. Go to Trip Advisor and read the comments. I’ll put my mother up against anybody in the business. She has a husband of 57 years, four children, eight grandchildren two dogs, 14 hotels and 1,100 staff she loves and looks after. The hotels are her passion and focus – I don’t know anyone who works as hard as she does – 18 hours a day, seven days a week. She coddles every guest and every employee. For example, each year she buys holiday gifts for each of the 1,100 staff and each gift is catalogued so she knows what she gave them in prior years. Believe it or not, the process actually starts every January and is a good example of the dedication and interest she takes in all of her hotel team.

She reads all guest comment and each comment is addressed. She with my sister Toni personally decorate every room, and they are all is different. Each room has original antique or contemporary art and furniture. There is a phenomenal capital investment program with remarkable style and attention to detail, coupled with contemporary technology as well. We don’t look at the bottom line when we make decisions for the hotels. Each of our hotels is a jewel. They are typically decorated with traditional European style and elegance, done with great flair in combining antiques and originals. Our same team decorates all of the Uniworld ships as well, which are regarded as the best, most luxurious in the industry.

ET: Do you have a loyalty program?

Brett Tollman: Our service is our loyalty program – we don’t believe in traditional loyalty programs. Those loyalty programs are expensive to operate and don’t really differentiate one company from another. However, we believe that if you provide great service, people will come back. It’s knowing all the small details, such as their favorite drinks and taking care of what they need and want. As a family run business, this commitment overrides short term profit goals. We’ll always do whatever it takes.

ET: What about dining?

Brett Tollman: We take a different approach to many hotels today. Our view is international travelers appreciate comfort food. My mother has been working in the kitchens of hotels since she was 19 and my father was in the front of house. She’s now onto the third edition of her book “A Life in Food”. If you look at the hotels menus, half is her comfort food and the other half is left to each chef’s creativity and personal style. We always see the comfort food selling very well. Nobody can resist her incredible chicken soup, period. And her crayfish and lobster cocktail and cheesecake are famous with our guests. In our hotels, our restaurants are operated for our hotel guests, so one will find a table for guests. I know that in some hotels that is not the case.

ET: How about some of the other businesses?

Brett Tollman: We bought Uniworld in 2004. There are some great competitors in the river cruise niche but we have taken a more elegant European approach. We have all of our own staff on the boats. We recently received a letter from a gentleman who wrote a book on how to complain. In his letter to us he said, “This is the first time I’ve written a letter that I have nothing to complain about.” We published it in the 2013 European brochure. In touring, “escorted travel” in the past has had a bit of a stodgy a image of “If It’s Tuesday it must be Belgium.” We now using the term “Guided Holiday”. With Trafalgar’s new “At Leisure” series for example, there are no departures before 9:00am, one spends an average of three nights in each city, you travel with an intimate group, we go to unique places with incredible culinary and other experiences. In the Napa Valley for example, we visit Ravenswood winery where you can bottle your own wine, and we visit a lemon grove in Sorrento, where the family cooks a meal just for Trafalgar’s guests, served in the garden overlooking the Bay of Naples! We have just expanded into Japan with Trafalgar for 2013 as well – We want to do our part in their recovery post the earthquake and tsunami last year. We are also expanding into China, South America and India now as more of our customers continue to look for new and different experiences and destinations.
ET: You were a founding member of the World Travel & Tourism Council. Can you tell us a bit about why the organization is so important?

Brett Tollman: Travel and tourism employs around 263 million people globally, and accounts for nine percent of total GDP, on par with the auto sector and just behind banking & finance. We have a very disparate, disjointed voice (in the travel industry) unlike other industries. WTTC speaks with one voice to government from the private sector. We have around 110 members today, and I service as Vice Chairman in charge of membership. We also have industry and regional members now. With such a fragmented industry, it is important to speak with a collective voice. The WTTC membership runs from entrepreneurs to large global players. We are all very passionate about travel and tourism. We need a strong, vibrant industry. If government puts up barriers by say taxing tourists – the “what’s another $10 to a visiting tourist” attitude – inbound tourism goes down exponentially, guaranteed. Here in the UK, it is estimated the government has increased tourist taxes by $2 billion annually, but it is projected that they are going to lose $3.5 billion in tourism revenue as people go elsewhere. If you look at just South Africa, a country with strong ties to the UK, with the APD taxes and the cost of visas having increased and now being more difficult to obtain, arrivals have gone down by about one third over the past couple of years. In Sweden a couple of years ago, there was a similar situation, but their government quickly saw the negative, larger impact and dropped their tourist taxes.

ET: And you’ve been active in recovery tourism?

Brett Tollman: Yes. We are still operating into Egypt and are rooting for it to come back soon – the Egyptians are a wonderful people and it is an incredible destination, as you well know. As you pointed out in your column (March/April Elite Traveler), if you go now it’s the only time there are no waits at the museums and attractions. Greece is also a great destination right now. I was there twice recently, and while the media may show disturbing images of riots, these are very sporadic, only in very isolated places and are not targeted at all to tourists. However, images like these and those in Tahrir Square have obviously frightened people away. As mentioned, we are promoting Japan. I recently toured Sendai with (Taj Hotels CEO) Raymond Bickson and (CBS News award winning Travel Editor) Peter Greenberg. We stood at a playground that was just above where the waters came last year when the tsunami came ashore. You could see the tremendous rebuilding but you could still see the devastating damage wrought. We also visited the school where 300 kids were stranded on the roof for 72 hours, all but one of the children had survived. (The one child who perished had been picked up by his parents right after the earthquake.)

ET: What about sustainability?

Brett Tollman: Sustainability is a great concern for all of us in the industry, whether it’s the footfall controls now in place in the Galapagos, the rising sea levels in small islands around the planet, or how to preserve the Coliseum or the Eiffel Tower for future generations. We need to help also protect the cultures that people want to experience and learn about. Everyone of us have a part to play and a responsibility in this. I don’t believe in carbon offsets, this just “moves the buck”, it does not reduce carbon, which is essential. Instead, there are practical things we can all do from bringing reusable water bottles along rather than buying plastic water bottles when we travel, to turning off the lights and air conditioning in hotel rooms where we stay on holiday or on business. Many people don’t do it because they’re not paying directly for it and either don’t think about it or are aware perhaps. Any savings we achieve from those guests who participate in reusing linens, etc we donate to local charities like the Starlight Foundation and Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London, and The Amy Biehl Foundation in South Africa. Sustainability is also about being ready for future growth. Examples include the projection of 100,000,000 Chinese traveling long haul within the next several years, and Boeing recently announced that airlines are going to need 185,000 new pilots in the next 10 years due to the projected growth in Asia alone. And who is going to work in all the new hotels being built there too?

ET: How about growth for your companies?

Brett Tollman: We believe there will significant growth in the East. We have an expanded office in Tokyo where we expect continued recovery, and we are bringing some of our brands to China to be a part of the outbound growth that is expected there, where we have expanded our offices as well. We are also had a presence in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Taiwan and Manila for years and have recently opened offices in Jakarta and Sao Paolo as well. Countries enjoying inbound growth include Australia, where we’ve been in business for 40 years, and if you look at that country, arrivals of Americans have been flat at around 300,000 for a number of years and all of a sudden arrival from Asia, largely driven by China are over one million.

ET: Any expansion plans for Red Carnation?

Brett Tollman: We opened a second hotel in Guernsey recently, a four star contemporary hotel in “The Duke of Richmond”. We’re trying to do something in Perth. It has a strong economic base and strong occupancy annually, and currently there are no good hotels there. So we are looking at old government buildings that we could possibly convert. We are also interested in Sydney, and are looking at Beijing as well, as this city anticipates major growth in the future. However, our expansion plans are typically opportunity-based.

ET: Any closing thoughts?

Brett Tollman: In a world of seven billion people we appreciate everyone is different. We try to ensure we understand and treat each customer differently as everyone has diverse expectations.

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