Envisioning Japanese-language Insight Vacations departures, Chinese chartering his Uniworld cruises, Red Carnation hotels in Asia - Brett Tollman is taking a 40-year-old family-owned business centred on the Western market on a trip to Asia
President & chief executive
The Travel Corporation, US
When was that moment when you said, okay, we’re going to seriously expand in Asia (TTG Asia e-Daily, April 20, 2012)?
About two years ago. My father, who started the company, has always been a great visionary and ever since Jim O’Neill (chairman, Goldman Sachs Asset Management) coined the term BRIC, we have appreciated the growth coming out of these markets.
I took over as CEO two years ago and the timing kind of matched the after-effects of the global financial crisis and the coming together of a whole bunch of issues, trends and opportunities: a huge loss of capital in the US and Europe that we don’t believe is going to come back soon, coupled with a shift from Western-focused control and domination of the global economy to one that’s more East-focused today.
We do live in a globally connected market where no region is in the centre. We want to be a global player so I’ve made a personal commitment as CEO to help drive this. My father and cousin Gavin, who runs Trafalgar, came to Asia last September, having worked on this plan the prior year, and we went to Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo.
What strengths will work for you on this Asian journey?
We’re very good listeners and learners. It’s important we’re not perceived the wrong way: We approach this market with great humility as Westerners coming in. We have to look, listen and learn what the market wants and we need to adapt. It’s not about being Asian-centric; it’s about being customer centric.
We’re in a niche business. Collectively, while we move quite a few people globally, our brands (individually) don’t move that many people, so we have the opportunity to understand what our niche is looking for and therefore customise our product.
What are your observations so far on customising the product for Asians?
There are so many issues, starting with local guides, getting hotels to work with us so they have breakfasts, TV programmes, collateral materials in those languages, understanding what each of the Asian markets looks for, adapting to their travel duration, which is seven to eight days, as opposed to, say, three to four weeks for Australians.
Visas are a real issue: getting 40 individuals ready to go on a scheduled set of dates then having half cancel because they can’t get a visa is a great financial exposure to the agency who’s booked them and to us.
Booking conditions are a big issue as well. Traditionally in Europe, we take a deposit at the time of booking, not refundable after seven days so we lock in our inventory, which is always very precious, then you have to pay in full before you travel. I understand that we probably have to adjust our deposit policies in some cases, but we are certainly going to hold the line on paying full before travel.
It’s not in reflection to any culture or any country but, as a business principle, if we are going to provide an outstanding set of services to someone, they have to pay us in advance, we’re not going to chase them and collect payment afterwards. That’s a core business philosophy and that’s why we’ve grown and we’re financially strong today.
I imagine getting consumer recognition for a brand like Trafalgar, which is difficult to pronounce in some markets, is also an issue?
Absolutely, but I’m hoping that by providing the marketing support and investment to our partners, and providing the training support to their frontline agents, it can be communicated to their customers.
You have 22 brands. Do you see a consolidation?
No, we’ve always been decentralised. Our founder, my father, has always believed you must keep the brands separate because if you homogenise them, you lose brand integrity, service and customers who are loyal to the clearly defined brands.
It’s fantastic leading a company that has great brands and great executives managing each one.
What about launching an Asian brand?
We have a history of doing start-ups, and if it is appropriate and we see growth out of these markets, we’d love to. At the moment, we’ll see if the Chinese will embrace our brands if we make them more Asian.
I know what we think we’re going to do today is probably very different from what we end up doing in a year and two from now – it’s a first step in a very long journey.
You took over as CEO two years ago – what would you like to be remembered for?
I’m passionate about sustainable tourism. I want to make sure we are giving back in all aspects: help protect the places and cultures we take tourists to on a yearly basis, develop a culture of great employees who together feel proud of the business, develop great brands that are driven by service, and to be known as a company of integrity with regards to the partners and suppliers we work with.
There’s incredible transparency in the world we live in today. As Google once said, if you lie, you die, so you’ve got to say what you mean and mean what you say.
So the legacy remains though the world has changed?
Yes, my father’s shoes are big ones to fill. I hope I can live up to his expectations and what he’s done in the last 40 years.
What’s it like growing up in a family in travel and tourism, and did you want to be in business?
I have always wanted it, ever since I was three or four years old and my parents built a hotel group in South Africa. I have always been passionate about serving people, about giving the opportunity to people to experience cultures, see new things. I’m a third-generation hotelier so that’s in my blood more than anything.
People in this business work 20 hours a day, six to seven days a week, because they love it.
Do you put in those hours?
No, but some days it seems like it. I also know I have to balance it because I have a fantastic wife and three children, and I’m away from them a lot.
When on holiday, do you travel with your brands only?
Absolutely, though we don’t have our hotels in some places but we certainly will use one of our local guides. In June we’re gong on one of our Trafalgar family experiences and last August, we cruised on one of our ships in the south of France. I love our brands and I live our brands, so we do it when we can.
Do you get special treatment?
It’d be silly to say I don’t, but I always want to experience the product through the eyes of our customers and that’s not always possible. I always ask to stay in our smallest rooms, or our oldest, when I’m staying in one of our hotels because I want to see the quality, cleanliness and experience the size, facilities, etc.
Also, when you travel on a product such as Trafalgar or Insight, 80 per cent of what we deliver is not ours, it’s just our service, so you get to experience as a customer would – the coaches, the dining, excursions and so forth, which is so valuable on top of the mystery shopping we do through third parties.
Who inspires you?
My parents, our customers, my peers. My mum runs Red Carnation (Hotel Collection). Every year, she handpicks 4,000 Christmas gifts that she gives to every one of our employees and each year she keeps track of what she did the year before.
People inspire me all the time. We can be open to learning every day.
This article was first published in TTG Asia, May 4 issue, on page 7. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.