Brett Tollman Travel Corp

This year, the Travel Corp., which operates a host of travel companies including Trafalgar, Luxury Gold, Insight Vacations, Red Carnation Hotels and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, celebrates its 100th anniversary. Senior editor Jeri Clausing talked with CEO Brett Tollman about the challenges and changes the industry has seen since his grandfather founded the company in South Africa.

Q: What is the Travel Corp. doing for its centennial? Are you offering any specials that advisors should know about?

A: This is very exciting in many ways. But one thing we don’t want to do is create a lot of distractions. The approach we took was to keep investing our money supporting the brands in the marketplace with our travel partners, then do some monthly stories and post them on our website. January was talking about our heritage and still being driven by service. February was my parents’ love story, built around Valentine’s Day. March is International Women’s Day, and April is about the history of the TreadRight Foundation for Earth Day.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges and changes the company has seen over the past 100 years.

A: In the last 70-plus years, we have seen incredible innovation. We have also seen incredible resilience, from the Gulf War to SARS and 9/11. … So we have seen how the industry has been both resilient and how it has adapted to so many things. I think it shows the capacity of our industry and the desire for consumers to travel and explore the world.

It’s been 40 years [in the industry] for me and for my mother and father, over 60 years. Obviously, it’s fascinating in some ways to see how much our industry and international travel has evolved over those years, really since the 1950s.

In 1950, 25 million people crossed international borders. Last year, it was 1.4 billion. That is expected to grow to 1.8 billion, according to projections from the [World Travel and Tourism Council] before the coronavirus outbreak. Those type of growth numbers, however, are creating a lot of backlash.

I think that is going to be one of the most daunting challenges to our industry and growth overall.

Q: What is the biggest challenge or threat the industry has had to weather during your years in travel?

A: The Gulf War was really tough; probably the most seminal moment in my career. The ’73 oil crisis was another big one. But in ’91,  Americans stopped traveling, even to Europe. We saw travel come to a standstill. My father was incredibly courageous. When other tour operators canceled and stopped operating, he said, “Let’s keep going. Some people will want to keep traveling. Hotel partners will remember us because we didn’t stop.” That really benefited us. It reinforced that old quote, “Never waste a crisis.”

The Iraq War wasn’t as bad. … It shows the resiliency of the industry, how it adapted.

Q: Coronavirus is the latest challenge. How do you think that might compare?

A: Certainly, in my 40 years, and in my father’s career, we have never seen a period where airlines are not flying to certain countries or where some people are being turned away because of their passport and concern they might be carrying a cold, basically. It shows the challenges we will face if and when a pandemic does occur. I think the coronavirus will stay in people’s memories for some time for different reasons: for being stuck on an ocean ship, flights being shut down. Hopefully this will send a powerful, galvanizing message to our governments to better prepare for a pandemic.

Q: How do you see the industry evolving in the years ahead?

A: I think the key for anyone — whether a travel agency, tour operator or cruise operator — is really understanding how consumer behavior is changing and what you need to do to adapt your business to consumer behavior, how to bring value to the relationship. If you are a travel advisor today, you’re not going to just say, “Here is the brochure, here are the holidays, go figure out what’s best for you.” Consumers are looking for more. If you are going to be a trusted travel advisor, you are providing real personalized advice.

Q: You’ve talked a lot about the cruise industry, its rapid growth and how it is challenging business like yours that sell mostly escorted tours. How do you stay relevant?

A: I think the lesson for today and looking at tomorrow is, if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you can’t expect to keep getting what you’ve always wanted. You’ve got to keep innovating.

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