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"If you run a travel company, it's imperative that you look at things through a guest's eyes because if everything we do is through the lens of a camera, we are losing something. - Gavin Tollman

Gavin Tollman

13/07/2018 - 05:50

GAVIN TOLLMAN, CEO of travel company Trafalgar and - after more than two decades in the business - no stranger to the unexpected, recently experienced a first. He spent one-and-a-half hours in a holding pattern in the skies above Singapore when his flight was delayed by the departure of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un of North Korea, who was heading home after a sightseeing trip (interrupted by a summit meeting with US President Donald Trump). Mr Tollman was happy to have been an inadvertent bystander to the historic event, watching TV on his plane as the news unfolded. "Coming to Asia at the very moment this was happening and to be here on a truly auspicious occasion, it was like a suspense novel," he says.

The South Africa-born, Geneva-based Mr Tollman, 55, is more accustomed to trips where everything goes according to plan - especially when he's involved in the planning. Trafalgar is the flagship brand of The Travel Corporation (TTC), a family-run mega-business offering over one thousand travel-related experiences covering six continents and 70 countries and routinely referred to as the biggest travel company you've never heard of, with 10,000 employees worldwide serving about two million customers a year.

One of 30 brands in TTC's portfolio, Trafalgar specialises in inclusive, immersive escorted tours. It was acquired half a century ago by TTC founding chairman Stanley Tollman (Gavin's uncle), the driving force behind the global business whose father Solomon Tollman started the ball rolling in 1940 when he opened a modest hotel in the fishing village of Paternoster in South Africa's Western Cape. Trafalgar is one of a dozen TTC brands active in Asia, a region where the company has enjoyed strong growth in recent years. With sustainable tourism a common industry catchphrase, Mr Tollman is cognisant of the company's role in the travel community, ever ready to lead, innovate and ensure that your next travel experience will be a memorable one.

You've been coming to Singapore for the past 15 years. What has Trafalgar done to provide customers with more authentic travel experiences?

We've seen a huge transformation over the past 10 years. There is that love of discovery and a desire of Singaporeans to do more: they wanted quality, to get below the surface of a destination and to go on a journey of discovery. Trafalgar was able to plug into that. You're not going to take your holiday in Singapore, you leave the island to go somewhere else, to discover more about yourself. We understand the enormity of the benefit of tourism to local communities and we understand true sustainable tourism. It's a powerful connection you get when you travel, and people understand it. You do all the must-see sights but you can get off the beaten track as well with Be My Guest (where locals host a home-cooked meal for tourists) and visits to artisans practising near-forgotten crafts (such as a traditional tablecloth weaver in Perugia, Italy). We've moved from escorted tours to guided holidays to being an interesting way to discover the world. We create a real connection, it's complete decompression travel.

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How does Trafalgar stay ahead in the travel game?

I like to look at the hard issues. If we are the leaders, we've got to be the ones with the solutions. The biggest change has been the advent of total transparency. Four years ago, we looked to see how to integrate reviews into our business and we introduced Feefo, an online review platform built around e-commerce - you have to buy the product before you can review. Every single Tuesday (we call it Trafalgar Tuesday) I catch up with the reviews to see what guests are saying. I have also seen an enormous shift with guests being interested in making a difference. In 2018 we experimented with e-documentation - it's paperless and if you choose to go with e-documentation, we plant trees in Northern California and Tanzania. So far, 76 per cent of guests have chosen e-documents.

How do you adapt to the different cultural habits of travel groups?

What used to happen was that our guests from Singapore would come on one of our trips and they would speak of the importance of chilli sauce and rice - it became transformational, the understanding of cultural nuances. Singaporeans would never complain to a travel director in front of the group, we learned to talk to them individually, away from the group - that one-to-one connection has been vital to our success.

You live in Geneva, your cousin Brett (CEO of TTC) lives in Los Angeles and other members of the Tollman family help run the business from various parts of the world. Africa holds a special place in the family's collective heart. Last year, Trafalgar offered its initial South Africa tour and in 2019, will launch a Best of Africa series.

It is the land of my history and my roots. We've waited for this moment, and it is only after the recent 100 per cent acquisition of the continent's foremost operator that we knew we could bring Africa to Trafalgar guests. This continent is our home, the place we know best. It is critical for us to do justice to that legacy. Special destinations include Bushman's Kloof (a wilderness retreat in the Cederberg Mountains in the Western Cape), the place Stanley loves to go every year, and he's not alone: an Italian family has booked the private lodge there over New Year's Eve for the next 10 years.

Talk about how family is paramount to you and also your pet peeves, including long lines at immigration and why people focus on their mobile devices instead of their environment.

I don't know how they can get immigration counters so wrong! I grew up raised by a single mom and had two older sisters, I saw life through their eyes. What is wonderful for us, as we look to the next generation, is that continuity. There's no separation between family and business, and all of us share that same responsibility. We are focused on real fortitude and strength of family. We have specifically designed family experiences that are not about dumbing down for kids - it's about children learning a whole lot about the world. If you run a travel company, it's imperative that you look at things through a guest's eyes because if everything we do is through the lens of a camera, we are losing something. We look at it like a party, that's the way it should be: it's that fun, social, active engagement, seeing things for the first time. I will jump on 10 to 15 of our trips this year - I love the diversity of it. It's exciting that we spend an enormous amount of time to find joy when you travel, it's that desire to feel fulfilled. On one trip, a couple said to me: 'We don't know what you're doing, but we love it.' When you get that, it's affirmation.