[dropcap size=small]B[/dropcap]rett Tollman lives and breathes the travel business. He was just five when he followed his mother Beatrice around as she managed the family’s hotels in South Africa, not to mention spending over 35 years professionally in what is now The Travel Corporation (TTC) – the mammoth tourism and hospitality group she and her husband Stanley built up since the 1950s.

His nonagenarian father is still the active chairman of the group, even as his mother and sister remain equally active with its Red Carnation hotels and the design and F&B on its Uniworld River Cruises.

Mr Tollman, 58, has been chief executive since 2010, overseeing all 30-something brands including Trafalgar Tours, Insight Vacations, Contiki Holidays and Luxury Gold. His cousin, niece and nephew are also in the business which operates in over 70 countries with 10,000 employees serving some two million customers a year.

Not bad for an entity often described as ‘the biggest travel company you’ve never heard of’. But while his job is to ensure the group stays on the growth path, Mr Tollman is also well aware of the need to respect the environment it operates in, which led him to start the TreadRight Foundation in 2008. The money comes from a portion of each company’s profits, which is used to fund initiatives to help local communities, wildlife and environmental protection programmes.

Why did you start TreadRight?

We only have one planet and it’s our responsibility to protect it, and give back to the societies and communities where we travel. Five years ago, we signed a pledge for the ethical treatment of animals – no elephant rides, no swimming with sharks, dolphin-petting and so on. It’s also about benefiting local communities – we like to take our travellers off the beaten path to experience different cultures and destinations, and it helps to generate additional income for the people, and raise their self esteem which comes from having a job. It’s also about highlighting how we all have a role to play – you and me – not just when we travel but how we live at home.

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What are some of its achievements?

We’re coming up to 60 projects, including women’s empowerment and social enterprise projects. I was in Jordan last year to visit a local community of 150 spinsters that we help support with a grant to build up a gift shop. We bring our travellers to visit, and we pay for them to have a meal and learn about the local pottery and rug-making. They get to buy lovely trinkets from the shop, so this way we provide them with a source of income. Wesupport Wildlife SOS India, a group which is rejuvenating and assisting elephants that have come out of tourism.

We also initiated a project in South Africa to help protect the cape leopard, by providing farmers with Anatolian shepherd dogs from Turkey which are very good at chasing leopards away so they don’t prey on livestock, which is why farmers have had to kill them in the past.

For this reason, you’re very critical of over-tourism, and especially the ocean cruise industry. Why?

All the ocean cruise companies are public so they have a lot of money behind them. But they can’t fill their ships, yet they keep building new ones and they get bigger and bigger. Speaking of over-tourism, if you go to Venice and two 5,000-passenger cruise ships turn up on the same day, that’s 10,000 people descending on Venice at once.

That’s a real issue. And when they can’t fill their ships you see terrible price discounting. It’s good for consumers when you can get a luxury cruise for under US$1000, but I don’t understand it if cruise companies can’t fill their current ships, yet there’s US$100 billion in new cruise development underway. There are no regulations on ocean cruising (which is bad because) there’s already enough talk about how we’re damaging the environment because of planes, cruise ships and over-tourism. These companies have to be careful we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot.

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Has the growing interest in bespoke, individualised itineraries by boutique travel operators had an impact on TTC, which specialises in guided group tours?

No. There are a couple of billion people in the markets that we serve so there’s more than enough business for everyone. Some of these startups don’t have the expertise and history that we have. But group travel is really a misnomer and our challenge is for people to understand that a guided holiday with Trafalgar or Insight is very different from what it was 20 years ago. Our tours are 40 people at most for Trafalgar and on average 22 to 24 for Luxury Gold. We offer different experiences so you’re not with 40 people all the time. You could be in a group of 10 going out to your choice of restaurant, but you still have your own table of two or maybe another couple if you’ve made friends on the trip. From the feedback we get, people make friends for a lifetime when you’re travelling with other people, which is part of what makes a wonderful holiday – not just seeing the sights and sounds.

So how do you ensure that your brands stay in touch with changing tastes?

We take the Japanese approach of kaizen, or continuous improvement. We’ve seen massive growth in our Trafalgar and Cost Saver brands, and we see a lot of upside in Luxury Gold, especially in Asia. We understand how important digital technology is so we’ve invested in a lot of mobile tools for our travellers. For millennials, we’re about to roll out a very expensive telephone system globally that allows us to do webchat and texting because that’s how they want to communicate.

River cruises – on smaller ships rather than huge cruise liners – are a growth area for you with Uniworld. But how do you change the perception of cruises as an activity for ‘old people’?

It will take time, but the potential is phenomenal. River cruising is the best of both an ocean and land experience.

With just 150 to 200 people it’s a far more intimate experience – it’s like a luxury hotel on water. We just launched our newly renovated super ship Bon Voyage which has some incredible artwork on board including Picasso, and the interiors are designed by my mother and sister with finest fabrics from Paris. We aren’t building new ships as part of our environmental footprint.

We have other new ships we are building which will replace the ones we have in Egypt, Vietnam, Cambodia and Portugal.

(RELATED: Small scale luxury cruise liners are back in vogue)

TTC is, and always will be, a family-owned company. Why?

Being a family-owned and run business, we have no pressures from the financial market because we have no debt. We control our own destiny so we determine as a family what we want to do in terms of new projects.

I have two sisters and cousins in the business and my parents taught us to stay close because it’s so easy to have disagreements. We are a business first and family second because we have 10,000 families to support. Also, we’re all very busy – if we weren’t then maybe we would have time to pick on each other!

What’s the best piece of advice your father has ever given you?

Never worry about the competition. Just focus on your own business and do that really well. Serve two customers well. They’ll tell two other people and then you’ll have four customers and it will keep getting better.

Too many people worry about what the competition is doing, but you can’t control it and it distracts you from focusing 99 per cent of your efforts on your own business.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: Yen Meng Jiin/BT