Opportunity abounds in uncertain times, chief executive of touring holidays specialist tells Lee Hayhurst

In 2016, influential international business magazine Forbes described The Travel Corporation as “the biggest travel company you’ve never heard of”.

For Gavin Tollman, chief executive of the group’s Trafalgar brand and a senior member of its founding family, that was a perhaps surprisingly welcome description.

“We actually liked that,” he told a Travel Weekly executive dinner hosted in Mayfair’s Chesterfield hotel, the original property in TTC’s Red Carnation collection and now one of 17 globally.

“It’s not about The Travel Corporation,” he said. “It’s about the integrity of each and every one of our brands.”

TTC’s brands are many and wide-ranging, from the more traditional escorted touring operators like Trafalgar, AAT Kings and Insight Vacations, to its youth brands Contiki and Busabout.

It also operates river cruise line Uniworld, the Red Carnation hotel chain, and a host of regional brands such as Brendan Vacations in the US, New Horizons and Creative Holidays in Australia, and African Travel and Lion World Tours in Africa.

But Tollman said despite TTC’s global reach – it is present in seven continents and 70 countries, with 30 brands, 40-plus offices and 10,000 staff – the heritage of the business remains inextricably linked to the UK, where it is headquartered in Victoria, London.

“So much of our roots are here in the UK,” said Tollman, who told guests why he is hugely passionate about the travel industry.

“If you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. I have been blessed with that.”

In 2020, TTC will mark 100 years since its was founded in the small fishing village of Paternoster in South Africa’s Western Cape.

TTC’s first tour operator brand, Trafalgar, was born in 1947, taking its name from its neighbourhood when it was located opposite South Africa House overlooking Nelson’s Column in the London square of the same name.

“From those humble beginnings, TTC  has grown and prospered,” said Tollman. “It now has over 30 travel brands, all with the same core values. Number one is service, number two is value and three is giving our guests unbelievable experiences.”

Trends

Tollman identified four industry trends which he said TTC has been ahead of the curve in catering for.

The first is an increasing desire for “authenticity, for the local, for making things real”.

“A decade ago, we started BeMyGuest, which offers an opportunity for our customers to go into people’s homes, to break bread with them. If you eat the food with a local, you will understand more,” he said.

“As a tour operator, when you take someone into a destination, it’s about how you bring that richness of the place to life in a way that they could not simply get by jumping on a plane, hiring a car and discovering it on their own.

“It’s like when you go to a destination for the first time and you have a friend there, someone who tells you where to go, what to eat, all those kinds of experiences. That, in essence, is what we are trying to do.

“I believe we will see an acceleration of that trend. Look at travel today, look at the internet, at social media: everyone knows what they want to do but their ability to actually do it has become harder and harder. There is almost an overabundance of choice.”

Tollman pointed to Trafalgar’s value brand Costsaver, which he said pioneered the shift towards flexibility and customisation in independent travel while taking care of all essentials.

A second trend Tollman expects to accelerate is sustainability. He said five years ago not a single customer would talk to him about sustainability, but that today he is asked about it on every one of the 10 to 15 trips he joins each year to speak to guests.

“These are issues that never registered three years ago, but it’s only accelerating,” he said.

TTC’s TreadRight Foundation today funds conservation projects around the globe and its work with One Tree Planted under which a tree is planted for every guest that opts for e-documents has seen over 100 acres of woodland planted and saved an estimated 570 trees from logging.

Opportunities

The third trend Tollman picked out was emerging destinations, but not just far-flung exotic countries. As well as Japan and South America, he suggested keeping an eye on Italy.

Another destination to watch is South Africa. Trafalgar started offering tours of the country in the UK market for the first time only last year. Prior to that, South Africa had not been featured as it was felt there might be seen to be a conflict of interest with inbound operator Cullinan Holdings, now part of TTC and of which Tollman is chairman.

Tollman said Trafalgar’s UK sales of South Africa had shot out of the blocks, hitting its annual budget in its first week of sales.

“Travellers want to see and learn from new places,” he said. “They want to challenge themselves, to live a little bit out of their comfort zone.”

The final UK trend Tollman highlighted was the increase in late bookings. “There is no doubt one of the most significant shifts has been as a consequence of uncertainty,” he said.

“We can see with our technology how early people are researching, but they are researching, making decisions and then pushing the pause button. We are still trying to figure out what the catalyst is to say ‘now let’s book it’.”

Tollman cited last year’s Abta trends report that stated 86% of the UK population will travel.

“If we think about Brexit. What we should all recognise is that if we take that 86%, and take the late‑booking market, there’s going to be a huge opportunity.

“Anyone can be good at times of growth. It’s in times of uncertainty we challenge ourselves because there will be opportunities.”

60 seconds with Gavin

1. Will people pay more for sustainable holidays?
Travellers today want to ensure they are travelling with companies that are doing the right thing. Would they pay more? No. They believe it’s your responsibility to do the right thing.

2. What’s the biggest mistake you have made in business?
When we began BeMyGuest in 2009, we were the only ones talking about authentic experiences. Then in 2014, the entire industry became littered with everyone saying they were doing the same thing. So I decided to punch back rather than saying this is how we are going to evolve. It took two to three years to differentiate ourselves again.

3. What’s the best decision you have made in your career?
We have always been an early adopter of technology and I wanted total transparency, so the single most transformational thing in our business was probably using Feefo. Today everyone in operations looks at reviews from Feefo daily. We have ‘Feefo Fridays’ in Geneva.

4. And the second best?
It was probably a singular appointment. In 2010, we found this lady in charge of all flight attendant training for Virgin Atlantic. She has fundamentally transformed our travel directors. We no longer hire for knowledge, we hire for personality. Do you really want to go on holiday with your history teacher?

5. Art, music, snowboarding and Chelsea Football Club – which is your biggest passion?
Snowboarding.