Big Interview: Brett Tollman, chief executive of The Travel Corporation

Big Interview: Brett Tollman, chief executive of The Travel Corporation

The chief executive of The Travel Corporation talks to Amie Keelie about tourism as a force for good and running a global travel business with members of his family

Hailing from a travel dynasty and overseeing a private company with 30 brands, Brett Tollman believes tourism can, and should, be a force for good.

Calm and considered, Tollman becomes most animated when he talks about sustainability and the work of The Travel Corporation’s (TTC) not-for-profit organisation, The TreadRight Foundation.

Set up in 2008, the foundation provides grants to projects, from wildlife preservation to reviving traditional artisanal practices.

“We think everyone has a responsibility and role to play, and one hopes and encourages that, without preaching,” he says.

“We believe we should give back some of our profits as a caring company, rather than asking travellers to donate.”

This year TTC has taken its sustainability efforts one step further, announcing its ‘diamond sponsorship’ of the UN International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

It has also partnered with social enterprise ME to WE and offers volunteering experiences on itineraries across seven of its brands including Trafalgar, Contiki, Insight Vacations and Uniworld.

“I believe you need to do well in business to do good in the world,” Tollman says. “We believe tourism is a force for good. The more people understand other people and cultures, the less war and disagreements there will be.”

Fortunately TTC is “doing well” despite the geopolitical climate. In the UK in 2016, Contiki sales were up 30% year on year and Insight Vacations and Uniworld both up 5%. Trafalgar remained flat.

But Tollman is hopeful for a better year in 2017. “The UK typically books later than other markets,” he says. “We are cautiously optimistic, irrespective of Brexit, terrorism and the migrant issues we’re all facing.

“Contiki is doing great under the leadership of Donna Jeavons so we expect double-digit growth again and even more growth from the other brands, in light of them not seeing as strong a growth in 2016.”

Tollman expects “great things” from Trafalgar after appointing new UK sales and business development director Ruth Hilton in August last year, while Uniworld’s newest ship, Joie de Vivre, due to launch in March, is expected to drive more sales.

TTC’s UK inbound business has seen an “uptick” as sterling has softened, with more travellers in Europe booking stays at its Red Carnation Hotels properties.

Expansion

Tollman says the company is always looking out for more acquisitions, especially hotels. Last year, Red Carnation Hotels acquired Ashford Castle in Ireland, investing €70 million in the property and four-star wedding venue The Lodge next door.

“Edinburgh and Dublin are of great interest to us and we’re staying focused on the British market,” Tollman says.

TTC acquired the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection in 2004 and unveiled its new U by Uniworld youth brand in December.

“We always like being innovative,” Tollman says. “We are deeply immersed in youth travel with Contiki and great travel trade contacts, so I think there’s a gap in the market within river cruising to talk to young travellers.”

Trade focus

While few consumers, and perhaps even agents, have heard of The Travel Corporation, its brands are well known in the trade.

“People buy Trafalgar or Uniworld, not the Travel Corp, so there’s no need to promote it,” Tollman says.

“History has proved that if you amalgamate too many brands you kill them, that’s why we don’t believe in Tui’s approach. That’s not to say Tui is wrong but First Choice is an amazing brand. Thomson Holidays is an amazing brand. We believe in keeping every brand separate and strong.”

Agents in the UK and globally account for 95% of all sales for Trafalgar, Insight Vacations and Uniworld.

Tollman says: “It’s not easy for a consumer to understand those brands online. That’s why we have always believed hugely in our travel agency partners. The best way to get our USPs and experience across to the consumer is by using a travel professional.”

In March the business will upgrade its agent training by introducing the TTC Agent Academy to house the four key brands’ new online training modules. Tollman says other areas of investment are product and delivery.

“With Uniworld, we own and operate everything, whereas our competitors use third parties.

“When you have a high cost of operation you can’t spend the kind of money our competitors do on consumer advertising.

“We would rather put money into the end delivery and invest in the travel trade on brochures, training and sales people.”

Technology

With the likes of Airbnb Trips and Google Flights tapping further into the travel sector, traditional tour operators must up their game. Tollman hasn’t seen an impact yet, but says it keeps him up at night.

“You can’t keep doing what you’re doing and expect the same results,” he says. “We need to constantly look at enhancing experiences and at how we operate and better utilise technology.”

Tollman says TTC is in talks with Amadeus about how it can improve its online air booking capabilities for agents. It also plans to roll out a downloadable tool this summer for Trafalgar, Insight and Contiki, featuring e-documents and trip information.

Family

TTC is still very much a family business. It was set up in 1952 by Tollman’s father and current chairman, Stanley Tollman, winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award at Travel Weekly’s Globe Travel Awards in 2013.

It operates in 60 countries and employs around 10,000 people, among them nine members of the Tollman family.

Tollman speaks particularly fondly of his mother, Beatrice, president of Red Carnation Hotels. “She still studies guest feedback and talks to general managers every day,” Tollman says.

“Working in a family business is amazing. If we all stay together nobody can break us or break up the business. It works very well.”


10 seconds with Brett

1. What is your favourite holiday destination?
Home. Travelling 250 days a year on business, nothing gives me more pleasure than returning home to my wife, three children and four dogs.

2. What is at the top of your travel bucket list?
India and Patagonia.

3. What was the last book you read?
Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.

4. What is your favourite film?
Guardians of the Galaxy.

5. Do you have a favourite sports team?
Chelsea FC and New York City Giants.

6. Who has been your biggest inspiration in business?
My parents.

7. If you weren’t a travel executive what would you be?
A chef.

8. What advice would you give someone entering the travel industry?
Qualify yourself first for having the right traits and mindset for this amazing industry. Have a passion for travel and people, and dedicate yourself to hard work.

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