MiNDFOOD Lifestyle Editor Donna Duggan caught up with Brett Tollman, Chief Executive of The Travel Corporation (TTC), to discuss the future of luxury travel, how the digital world will change the travelling experience and the challenges of running a travel company.
With an ever-fluctuating world market and economies in flux, how difficult is it to predict and strategize growth in the current travel market?
It’s not easy, because travel trends do keep changing and evolving, and people’s interest in new and different destinations do keep changing. Also, geo-political issues and impacts have unintended consequences as well, such as the Trump administration’s policies and statements about travel bans and changes to some immigration laws, have had a much broader impact on more people’s desire and intent to visit the US. Iceland was also very popular the past two years, and then hotels there put their rates up 50% which has dampened inbound demand.
Nevertheless, we do closely study and analyse trends, with industry-leading CRM tools, and also engage with our travellers on a regular basis, across all demographics. We appreciate how important it is to Walk the talk, so all our leaders often take trips, both to meet with our travellers and better understand their choices, desires and future travel destinations, but also to ensure we are delivering everything our brands promise to do. This information gives us good data and feedback on people’s changing interests and intents, and is part of the reason why one has seen TTC’s brands innovate so much over the past decade.
Trafalgar led the way to reinvent escorted tours, by recognising travellers’ interests in more immersive, local experiences, with Be My Guest unique dining experiences, private events, meeting locals and changing the nomenclature, to make guided holidays far more aspiration, contemporary and applicable today.
So has Uniworld, with its most luxurious experiences and ships, as well as its all new, very innovative, lifestyle-oriented U ships. And for those looking for a more independent, fun experience, Busabout’s customisable hop on, hop off itineraries. Adventure World has also evolved its offerings to meet the growing demand for more tailor-made soft adventure experiences, which we see as a fast growing, niche category in travel, hence why we bought the company from NRMA five years ago.
In addition, with TTC’s global footprint across brands, destinations, our buying power and travel trade relationships, we are able to be quite agile and responsive, moving quickly to respond to changing trends, and investing in experiences, destinations and marketing where appropriate and needed.
We also believe that our incredible travel and tourism industry, which is very compassionate, must support destinations recovering from one problem or another, such as France, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Southern Africa and even California (my home state) recovering from terrorism attacks, regional conflicts, war, disease or natural disasters. So sometimes, we can help influence behaviour as well by helping inspire and recommend people to travel to destinations – it is fantastic to see how Eastern Europe is prospering with tourism, post the civil war in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia in the nineties, and we are proud to being a part of that success story.
More recently, we are seeing how we can support Jordan and its goal of increasing tourism to support their economy and innovative, local social enterprises. I just went to Jordan with a tourism mission hosted by the Jordan Tourism Board and Tourism Cares to see what we can do to help increase tourism as well as do some social activity work. (One can read about this trip on my blog bretttollman.com)
Your company has never been afraid of opening up new destinations and travel experiences, what learnings do you have when the competition and other companies copy your travel experience?
When you’re an innovator and a leader, one accepts and embraces that others will emulate or copy what you do. We focus entirely on what we do, do it extremely well and do not worry about the competition. We recognise there will always be imitators, and there is nothing we can do nor say to influence their behaviour, so all the better to ignore them. We believe that as long as we deliver on our brand promises, do them extremely well, offer superb consistency of quality experiences and value, we will do fine. So for us the key is to expend all our energy doing things better than anyone else.
We also believe in transparency – user reviews drive most consumer behaviour today and so we embed these unfiltered, genuine user reviews (UGC) into all our websites, so people make up their own minds of who operates the best experiences and trips. 15 years ago we embedded TripAdvisor into all our hotel websites, and today our hotels are still rated no 1 or no 2 in almost all cities we are in. That is not a boast, that’s from very heard work and focusing entirely on ensuring every guest has a brilliant time.
The same is true for Trafalgar, Insight vacations, Luxury Gold, Uniwiorld, U by Uniworld, Costsaver and Contiki. Each of them have FEEFO built into their websites, to visitors can see what past travellers say about our service delivery and user feedback on each trip. We also do Net Presenter Score (NPS) ratings on all trips with our travellers too, and are so proud of our teams, who work so hard to ensure every brand’s NPS scores, in every country, are over 80.
Our Chairman has always taught us – “Don’t worry about the competition, focus on what you do well and do it better than anyone else by working so hard at delivering fantastic experiences, spend your money on the experience for the guest.”
How truly unique can a travel company be these days?
It’s hard for any company to be “truly unique” because you always have imitators and emulators coming behind you, quite quickly, but that’s what makes the difference between the brands and followers. It is also hard to do what we do sometimes. No other company has created Be My Guest experiences like Trafalgar started in 2009. Uniworld’s ships are truly unique and every other river cruise company (and they are good) take a different approach to design, service and cuisine – though they all like to call themselves luxurious.
We created Luxury Gold five years ago and as this brand has evolved, it has created a fairly unique niche for itself in the market. I travel all the time, and I very seldom stay in hotels that have such devoted, incredibly caring and devoted service as any Red Carnation Hotel. (That is certainly true in Sydney – One almost never sees a General Manager in any hotel lobby, meeting the guest and watching daily activities to ensure they meet guests’ expectations.)
With about 1.2 billion international travellers a year, there’s enough travellers out there for all competitors, it’s about the daily challenge to ensure one is getting one’s fair share in the market – we focus on innovating and being as good as we can be. It comes back to our core values and living them, every day. They start with putting the guest at the heart of everything we do and building a team that trust each other and work well together. Staff are like family to us – we have superb retention and we are all driven by service. Every day, every minute.
Working in a family company has its plus’s and I’m sure downsides, what is the greatest asset in having your family around you each day in business?
I don’t feel there are any downsides to being in our family business, I only see pluses. The greatest asset of being in a family run business is that you have people you can totally trust and depend on, that don’t have another agenda and are 100% loyal. Another fantastic asset is that we take a very long-term view to our brands and invest heavily in them, our team and in product and technology – while profit is very important to any company, (without profits you can’t grow or invest in your people and your assets) – without any debt, we are fortunate to not have to focus on monthly or quarterly profits, which any public company or company with heavy debts must do.
From all your different travel options across the group where have you travelled lately that you would recommend or look forward to? And why?
London is one of my favourite cities to visit and certainly staying in a Red Carnation Hotel will give you a superb experience and value – guests are genuinely welcomed as friends and have come to experience our award-winning boutique hotels as their ‘home away from home’ from the style, comfort, delicious food and attention to detail in service. I always want to return to Ashford Castle too, with its very warm, engaging people and it is such a stunning place to visit, with such history.
There are so many great places in Australia and New Zealand, we’re excited to launch Victoria’s Hidden Gems with Inspiring Journeys. It’s a small group journey that delves into the sophistication and natural beauty of Victoria, journeying past the cosmopolitan Melbournian arcades, sandstone peaks and the 12 Apostles that stand along your spectacular coastline.
Also, a partnership we are very proud to be a part and highly recommend is with ME to WE (metowe.com), travelling with purpose. I’ll be in India with my family this year to explore the dynamic and colourful culture there for the first time, whilst working as a volunteer alongside other families on a sustainable development project, helping empower communities to end the cycle of poverty.
I do have a bucket list each year and always try to tick off several of them, especially with my wife and three children. One of those experiences is with Luxury Gold’s Southern Grace to Memphis, the heartland of soul music in America. I’ve never been to the Elvis museum and with Luxury Gold, our Travelling Concierge takes guests to meet Elvis’ close friend for a private tour of Graceland before sitting down to a dinner on the grounds in Memphis.
What can we expect from the luxury end of the market in the coming years?
Luxury means different things to different people. It’s about personalisation, new destinations and high touch, warm, engaging service and experiences. We have current plans keep creating new and better personalisation and more customisation, and have recently introduced some fantastic new technology with a travel portal for a number of our brands, which allow us to engage with travellers before, during and after their trips, and ensure we know what personal choices and activities they want to do on their trips, and then ensure we deliver these for each of them.
Luxurious, unique experiences we are always working on creating and refining – such as new private access to famous landmarks – some of which are closed off to the public or private tours, for example, in the Sistine Chapel or Doge’s Palace before or after hours, without the crowds. We are also doing more in remote destinations that people typically couldn’t do on their own. Exclusive to Luxury Gold is The Chairman’s Collection, hand-picked by my father, Stanley Tollman, who founded The Travel Corporation – we include extra exclusive experiences on select departure dates, such as lunch with an Italian Count at his grand Tuscan villa; or a visit to the gardens of Alnwick Castle with The Duchess of Northumberland; or dinner with a French Count at Paris’s oldest restaurant; or one of my favourites, joining our friend Princess Anita von Hohenberg – a direct descendant of Maria Theresa and Archduke of Franz Ferdinand, for tea in her living room.
Seamless, hassle free, highly immersive, great value and luxurious – means many things to different people. Coming back to ME to WE – it is that purpose driven luxury travel, and we believe this will become a fast-growing segment of travel, where one wants a more meaningful holiday than just a cruise or beach holiday, and more people do want to give back and have a better understanding and appreciation of local communities, cultures and how we can assist.
If luxury becomes affordable what is real luxury to a travelling consumer?
I do not think luxury in general can become affordable, as luxuries are typically more expensive to acquire and attain, being they cost more to produce or deliver. Also, if what is defined today as luxurious becomes more accessible, then the definition of what is luxurious will likely shift. Luxury is different for everyone, and usually depends on one’s background, personal perspective of interests and desires, one’s social and economic situation and circumstances, what’s attainable, past experiences and how one defines luxury. There are always exceptions of course.
For example – the ‘’All-inclusive’’ category can often be a misnomer, because today that typically means ‘cheap’ in terms of what’s included, though many all-inclusive resorts in sun destinations promote themselves as “luxurious experiences”, like Sandals resorts throughout the Caribbean.
However, when you look at a Uniworld’s all-inclusive experiences and offerings, these are truly luxurious experiences. For example, our bars offer 19 different top brand whiskeys and bourbons, and 12 different vodkas, such as Grey Goose, Chopin and Kettle One. We also offer organic micro-breweries along the rivers, and one can enjoy superb, innovative farm-to-table cuisine, as well as local dishes and my mother’s legendary comfort food recipes too. We also serve our own award- winning Bouchard Finlayson vineyard’s wines onboard. With $1,000,000 in original curated artwork on each ship, the finest handmade beds from Savoie, a pillow menu, superb décor for each ship designed for the destination, and remarkable, immersive onshore experiences also included – when you look at the price charged per day, after early booking discounts are applied, it’s luxury that is relatively affordable and superb value.
Crystal ball the future, where you sit in the world and the unique travel experiences your company creates across the range of different travel brands, what will the concept of ‘holiday’ and having ‘time away’ mean?
It comes back to the individual and what a ‘holiday’ will mean for each of us in the future. It is different for all of us – in the future, anticipating that people’s workloads will continue to be intense (technology does not seem to make us more efficient and therefore we work less, we just seem to take on more and I still sense most of us are an will continue to be time poor, rather than taking more holidays.) So, for me, a holiday and time away will still be as important in the future as it is now, to recharge one’s batteries, refresh, relax, try some new destination and experience, etc.
With the amount of travel I do each year (220-250 days away from home), in the future, if this is still my travel schedule (and I certainly don’t intend to retire, but keep working like parents are in their late 80’s – they are healthy, strong, vital and energised by their work, which is so inspiring and reinforces that work can keep one focused, engaged and healthy), so for me a holiday is staying home and spending quality time with my family, our dogs and cooking new dishes I research all the time . That for me is “time away” from my business travel schedule.
Looking at general future travel trends, and what time away might mean, For others, traditionally ‘time away’ away enables one to break from routine and established habit, and get to experience something new and different. The fundamentals of what makes a good holiday I don’t think are likely to change; it’s typically about going somewhere new and different, experiencing local cultures, having a better understanding, learning and appreciating them, meeting people in different parts of the world and breaking down stereotypes or pre-conceived perceptions.
Yet look at the explosive growth of ocean cruising – more than a million Australians take an ocean cruise a year, and globally the numbers keep growing, and so do larger and larger ships. But for me, I could not think of taking a cruise with 5,000 + other people – that’s not a holiday for me. That’s traveling with a small city of other travellers. However, I fully respect that we all have a different definition of a holiday – relaxation, new experiences, value, etc differently.
We also see soft adventure, traveling either alone, as a family or in small groups, to remote and unique destinations, and seeing these place in different way, off the grid, as emerging as the mainstream become more and more “been there, done that”. Fun, youthful experiences like the new U by Uniworld offerings and new, slower, more immersive experiences we are also developing for Contiki, I also think have strong prospects for growth, as well as photo safaris to emerging countries in Africa, will grow in interest and demand.
What has been the impact of the digital age to the travel industry and what further impact will it have?
Technology is going to change travel dramatically in the years to come. I believe the digital revolution will continue to evolve travel and we will try to make the most of it where it benefits the experience, while ensuring technology doesn’t detract or take away from the personal experience. d I’m sure Google, the OTA’s and others will create tools, apps and new inventions we have not even thought of yet, some of them good and some of them not so good.
AI is going to bring amazing advancement, especially the anticipation of voice-prompted capabilities to make complicated bookings and itineraries, either over the phone, on the web and/or using the Alexa and Siri type-voice tools. Expedia and other OTA’s are investing a lot of money in such advancements.
You also see hotels bringing in technology such as robots and virtual reality – robots that stand there and answer questions for guests; and hotels are re-keying every door of their guest room, so one can check in and out without having to go to the front desk. Much of this innovation and implementation though is all about reducing costs and becoming more efficient, rather than about improving or enhancing service and experience.
Our brands do not believe in automation for these purposes, only making us more efficient so as to dedicate more “human” resources to even better service. Our new travel portal makes our Travel Directors more efficient on the road. Technology has enabled us to develop a quite innovative new MyTravel Portal for a number of our brands, which will enable us better serve the guest, using the best of technology without taking away from service.
We can also further personalise and customise a guest’s holiday, by understanding in advance their interests and objectives for their upcoming trip, and then ensuring we deliver these. We also make their travel more seamless, by collecting information on passports, dietary and sleeping arrangements, and then ensuring the hotels and dining experiences we offer on our trips are adapted to their needs and wants.
As I said earlier, I still believe that delivering great service and experiences, it requires highly motivated, trained, passionate and caring people – but technology can take some of the backend out. This new travel portal we’ve launched across the world with all our brands, has taken approximately 10-20-hours (depending on the length of the trip) of manual administration out of each trip, so that our Travel Directors can then put those hours back into more service and engagement with the travellers.
Some also anticipate that Virtual Reality may reduce the need or want to travel, for business and leisure – experience destinations in your home or attend a meeting or conference virtually. I don’t see that, certainly not for leisure, and networking face to face for business opportunities and meetings is always so much more beneficial and productive. Also, Augmented Reality is great if you’re travelling on your own and one can then hold your phone up and get some history about a painting, or building, etc. However, we prefer to use our Local Guides that engage with our guests and who delight them by introducing them to local cheeses and wines, hidden gems, local customs and people, which these tools cannot do for you. Also, in meeting these local characters and personalities, that is part of the essence that bring the destination and one’s holiday to life, and create memories of a lifetime, to always treasure and remember.
But other technologies will certainly change travel – It’s exciting to see where the company Boom may take air travel, as they work to launch a new supersonic plane, which Virgin and Japan Airlines are already talking about ordering some of these planes and making supersonic flight mainstream, enabling passengers to arrive in half the time for about the same fare as today’s business class. That will mean we can go further faster, or it brings other destinations closer, so we can perhaps take more shorter holidays in the future, a trend we are seeing now, including people booking very close in to their departure date. Inspiration and immediacy. Space travel will also happen at some point, with Virgin, Space X and others making this a reality one of these days.