Breaking Travel News interview: Brett Tollman, chief executive, The Travel Corporation

Breaking Travel News interview: Brett Tollman, chief executive, The Travel Corporation

With a portfolio of more than 30 brands spanning all seven continents, The Travel Corporation was last year described by Forbes as the biggest travel company you might not have heard of.

With 10,000 employees and around $2 billion in revenues, it is certainly a significant operation, encompassing everything from European river cruising and luxury hotels to escorted travel and tour guiding.

In Europe for the launch of SS Joie de Vivre, the latest vessel from its river cruise operator Uniworld, chief executive Brett Tollman spoke to Breaking Travel News about the company and its place in the hospitality sector.

He began be discussing the launch of the new ship.

“Let’s start with a bit of a backstory,” Tollman begins.

“On November 13th, 2015, my family and I were in Paris, on that terrible night, and the same day the chairman, my father Stanley Tollman, and I discussed and agreed that we were going to postpone the delivery of the ship.

“What we were hearing in the news, with borders be closed, and a possibility of more to come.

“Typically, this is how one reacts, with animal instincts; toward self-preservation.

“Then a week later calmer headed prevailed.

“We are a family that is totally dedicated to travel and tourism and all of its benefits, as well as a company that has been bringing millions of travellers to France for over 50 years.

“Therefore we felt we could not delay, we could not retreat, so we immediately reactivated the project.

“The SS Joie de Vivre is therefore very poignant for us, launching it now, and recognising that international, inbound travel to France is still recovering.”


The Travel Corporation-owned Uniworld has been at the forefront of the growth of river cruising in Europe

The SS Joie de Vivre certainly adds a new flourish to French tourism.

Aptly named, the new ship will reflect the French ‘joy of living’ philosophy and a profound appreciation for food, wine, art and music.

Everything from the ship’s décor and design to farm-to-table cuisine and superb local wines will be on full display for guests to enjoy.

Tollman continues: “France epitomises the joy of life, and that is why she ship is named as she is.

“She is designed around all things that represent the best of France; the style and the cultural history of the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the cultural momentum of its cuisine.”

From a macro perspective, the Travel Corporation is reaping the rewards for entering the river cruise market, which has seen exponential growth in recent years, following the acquisition of Uniworld in 2004.

Tollman reveals: “There have been some bumps along the way.

“Some of our competitors have put in too much capacity, but river cruising does offer the best of every aspect of travel.

“You are on a river, so it is smooth water, number one.

“Commerce along the rivers was how Europe evolved over the past several centuries before motorways, and vehicle transport.

“For this reason, so much of what is wonderful around France, the Rhine and Danube, is concentrated on the rivers as they pass through cities.

“Being able to get on board and be enveloped by this remarkable high-technology, luxury, quality service environment, and then be able to walk off the ship and be right in the centre of any city, it is a wonderful way to travel.”


The Travel Corporation operates a wealth of brands, including escorted tour company Trafalgar Travel

While the impact of terrorism is falling in France, Tollman argues, it has not completely dissipated.

“Occupancy has gone back to what it was pre-November 2015, with the SS Joie de Vivre at 90 per cent capacity, through a lot of hard work and promotional activity with our travel trade partners around the world, and the fleet is doing very well,” he explains.

“But when we opened the Catherine, for example, which is on the south of France itinerary, at the same time four years ago, we were sold out.

“I would therefore reinforce that it is incumbent on all of us to support France in its recovery.

“We do live in very uncertain times.”

Of course, there is a great deal more to The Travel Corporation that just river cruising.

Also under the TTC umbrella are escorted tour operators Trafalgar, Insight Vacations, and Contiki, as well as luxury hotel group Red Carnation and a host of others.

Asked how this diversified portfolio is faring in the UK as the country seeks to extract itself from the European Union following the Brexit vote, Tollman points to the advantages.

He explains: “As a result in the drop of the pound we have certainly seen a big influx in inbound tourism.

“Travellers are smart, savvy; they recognise where there is greater value than there was a year ago.

“So we have seen a big influx across Trafalgar, Insight Vacations, and Contiki, in terms of inbound travellers.

“We also have recipients, Red Carnation and Evan Evans Tours, as well as Shamrocker and Haggis Adventures, our brands in Scotland and Ireland, which are also all benefiting from that.

“Obviously there has been a negative impact on the spending of the British traveller.

“This has been seen in declining sales.

“But, like any other country, what happens is that people do not stop travelling, they travel for shorter periods, or downgrade their holiday to something a little more affordable.

“Everybody still wants a holiday, everybody wants to travel, and people will continue to do so.”


Red Carnation, including the exquisite Ashford Castle, is the luxury accommodation arm of The Travel Corporation

There have also been reports of late that The Travel Corporation could be expanding its hotel portfolio in the UK.

Here Tollman is refreshingly candid.

“We continue to look for an acquisition for Red Carnation in Edinburgh and in Dublin, both are UK markets we are very interested in growing into.

“We have missed out on five or six different acquisition opportunities that just did not make sense in the end in terms of sale price.

“At the same time, we have decided to add a new tact, looking at a possible joint venture, where we will invest in a property development with another owner and provide our management expertise as well.

“We believe our Hotel 41 brand has the potential to be expanded, so we are offering that to developers that are looking for a brand, as well a management partner.

“We are very excited about that and Jonathan Raggett, our managing director of Red Carnation, is taking that out there and looking closely at opportunities.”

A perhaps underappreciated secret of the success of The Travel Corporation has been its close relationship with travel agents.

While rivals obsess over converting direct online sales, the organisation maintains a more traditional network of agents.

Tollman continues: “We are very close to our agents: always have been, always will be.

“I put out a letter in the past guaranteeing that our company, for over 50 years, will never try to convert a travel agent booking into a direct booking, which obviously many companies in the industry have done.

“That commitment goes through and pervades everything we do.

“We believe our experiences are not that easy to transact on the internet and it is all the better to work with the travel professionals to help explain which of our experiences and destinations is best to buy.

“We do a lot of familiarisation trips with our best and most qualified agents, usually as a one off, so the agent gets to experience the true holiday.

“After two or three days on these trips, the group really starts to come together and that is an important part of a trip, something you miss if you travel alone.

“It is part of the secret sauce.”


Sustainability is key to the The Travel Corporation offering

One area Tollman, and The Travel Corporation, has been more vocal than most is sustainability, having signed on as a high-level sponsor for the UNWTO International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development this year.

Tollman explains: “I have the upmost respect and admiration for UNWTO secretary general Taleb Rifai, as anybody who does who knows him, a man who is remarkable in his passion.

“When he suggested we mark 2017 in this way, I thought it was incumbent upon us to get behind the project and share the message.

“We have taken his Sustainable Development Goals and are sharing those with our travellers as much as we can.

“Hopefully more people will become aware of what the goals are and that they resonate with people, whether that is through eliminating poverty, helping protect marine life, or protecting those people or animals that live on land.

“If you work for just 12 months you cannot fix these issues, but the more people who are involved, the more people who are aware, and the more people who try to make a difference, the better off we will be.

“We can all make an impact, no matter how small it might be, but everything adds up.”

But this is more than a short-term corporate branding exercise for Tollman.

Despite its size, The Travel Corporation remains a family affair, and he is one of nine family members active in the business.

Now in its fourth generation, the company maintains a philanthropic focus, giving back to the destinations where it works.

Tollman explains this has been a life-long interest of his, since his formative years in South Africa.

“This is something I have been extremely passionate about since I was five years old, when I read about what Paul Newman did with recycling,” he continues.

“I have always been very interested and concerned in these areas.

“Growing up in South Africa, I never believed in hunting.

“I have always been passionate about sustainability, respecting our planet, and each other, and doing what one can.

“There are many people like that in our industry; it is not unique to one or two people, or one or two companies.

“We all have a role to play.”

More Information

No matter what your taste, whether you are a family or a couple, a group or travelling solo—The Travel Corporation offers something for everyone.

Their multi award-winning portfolio ranges from luxury hotels and boutique river cruises, to independent holiday package companies and a variety of guided travel experiences.

Find out more on the official website.

Chris O’Toole