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Gavin Tollman: The eco traveller

Trafalgar CEO Gavin Tollman speaks to Mint on growing up in apartheid South Africa, the problem of over-tourism and his love for snowboarding

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Growing up in his mother’s family home in Durban, a city with a considerable Indian population, Gavin Tollman learnt to appreciate Indian food and culture at a young age. He had many Indian friends and the chef at his grandfather’s house—an Indian gentleman named Dick—made the “most fantastic curry". The only problem was that young Tollman didn’t realize that there was more than one type of “Indian" in the world.

“I wanted to be a real Indian, so I put a teepee in my back garden and if you wanted to come in, you could only eat curry," says the 55-year-old global CEO of Trafalgar. The 70-year-old family-run travel company is headquartered in Geneva and specializes in guided tours and experiences. Tollman flashes an embarrassed grin as he recalls his childhood faux pas. “I still remember the day someone explained the difference to me, and how devastated I was to know that I hadn’t been an authentic Indian."

Tollman is in Mumbai for a networking event with some of Trafalgar’s top Indian travel agents, reflecting the country’s increasing importance in the company’s future plans. It’s a whirlwind 36-hour trip, but he’s taken time out to meet for a chat at Vetro, the Oberoi’s Italian fine-dining restaurant.

A tall, lanky man with a sharp gaze and an even sharper blue business suit, Tollman speaks in a calm and erudite manner, often pausing to gather his thoughts before he answers a question. He’s also an accomplished raconteur, peppering his conversation with anecdotes and stories from a life lived across three continents: Africa, Europe and the US.

The Tollman story, he tells me, begins in the tumultuous decades of the early 20th century, when a 13-year-old boy was put on a ship to escape pogroms in Lithuania. Solomon Tollman, Gavin’s grandfather, eventually made his way to Cape Town, where he set up a small business, but lost everything in the Great Depression. Undeterred, he moved to a small fishing village called Paternoster and used his meagre savings to set up the Paternoster hotel.

“That was the beginning of our family’s love for the hospitality industry," says Tollman. “My uncle Stanley often wonders if his father had any idea when he was buying that hotel that it would become the legacy of all of our future." Trafalgar is part of The Travel Corporation “family of brands", a tourism industry behemoth with over 20 sub-brands founded by Tollman’s uncle Stanley Tollman, its current chairman.

By the time he was born in 1963, The Travel Corporation was already the largest hotel company in South Africa and the Tollman family name was well known across the country. They had set up the Tollman Towers in Johannesburg, the first luxury five-star property in the country, and at the time “possibly the most famous property in Africa as a whole".

The young Gavin Tollman lived a charmed life, growing up in a tightly knit extended family, protected from the upheavals of apartheid South Africa by his race and privilege. It wasn’t until he was 12, travelling abroad for the first time to visit his father who had resettled in London, that he truly understood the evil of apartheid.

“We were staying at the InterContinental (London) on Park Lane, and we went down for breakfast," he remembers. “I will never forget this black couple sitting next to us...that was the first time I had sat down in a restaurant next to someone of colour. And it absolutely blew my mind, because all of a sudden I realized that what we had in South Africa was so fundamentally wrong to its core. And I knew very early on that it was a country that I could never live the rest of my life in."

Tollman left South Africa in 1982 to avoid mandatory military service, travelling across Europe before ending up in the US. He did his BSc in finance from the American University in Washington DC, followed by a brief stint at investment banking firm Drexel Burnham Lambert. Finding the world of finance not particularly fulfilling, he moved to the hospitality industry, becoming the executive vice-president of Buckhead Hotel Management in New York. “That was an interesting experience," he says. “When you’re working for third parties, financial discipline becomes an absolute imperative. I think that’s an outstanding foundation for how you run businesses in the future."

After a year in London as the president of family-owned Red Carnation Hotels, he was asked to take over the Trafalgar sales office in the US from his father, who was unwell and wanted to retire within the year. “Trafalgar has always been a singular asset that has been the driving force behind the growth and well-being of our family," he says. “So for me to be offered this opportunity was something I’d never even imagined."

Tollman joined Trafalgar USA in 1997, and over the next four years, the company “doubled in size", according to him. It was also one of the first companies in the travel industry to embrace the internet, setting up a website in 1997 and an online booking engine in 1999. “I remember (deputy chairman of Travel Corporation) Mike Ness wrote me an email, all in capital letters, saying ‘I hope you know you’ve just thrown away $25,000 (around 1.8 crore now). Nobody will ever—underlined, exclamation—book tours online,’" he says. “I enjoyed proving him wrong."

Tollman, who became the global CEO in 2010, recognized early on that as the demands and needs of travellers changed, traditional escorted tours were no longer enough. Trafalgar needed to be the customer’s local expert, helping them capture the true essence of each destination. In 2009, they launched a programme called Be My Guest, in which guests were invited to dine at a local home.

“Breaking bread with locals, to me, was always the greatest way of discovering the essence of a place," says Tollman, adding that the programme was an instant runaway success. “It’s kinda funny because ‘authentic’ has become the most ubiquitously over-used word in travel today. But Trafalgar is the one that said let’s try creating an authentic experience, a decade ago."

Tollman also pushed Trafalgar into becoming what he calls a “glass box" brand committed to transparency. In 2014, they tied up with UK-based reviews platform Feefo to create a customer review system that allowed only actual customers to post reviews, and barred the brand from editing or curating those reviews. These reviews and ratings are displayed alongside every tour package on their website. “We took a huge leap of faith, but I wanted to see how well we were actually doing," he says. “And in our business, if you’re getting real-time feedback on what you’re doing and how you’re performing, that’s really powerful. We can actually be changing stuff in real time."

In recent years, Tollman has devoted much of his attention to a new cause—sustainable tourism. Over-tourism, which is the excessive growth of visitors, leading to overcrowding and adverse consequences for locals, has become a growing problem, resulting in disruption of tourism economies, the pricing out of local residents and environmental damage. Barcelona, for example, saw an estimated 30 million overnight visitors in 2017, compared to a resident population of 1,625,137. Croatia is even more saturated with tourists, having hosted 57,587,000 tourists in 2016, a number that is almost 14 times the country’s population. These numbers, many argue, are unsustainable.

“I believe over-tourism is the single most important thing we have got to be conscious of in the travel industry," says Tollman. “If we want to make tourism a force for good, we have to make sure that everyone benefits. We need to take direct action, encourage people to go beyond just the highlights, and work towards ensuring that people travel and help sustain these communities all year around."

Tollman has ensured that Trafalgar’s itineraries reflect this model, taking guests to offbeat locations and working with local communities. The company has also taken steps to reduce or—where possible—eliminate the use of plastic on its tours.

When he’s not busy trying to change the travel industry, Tollman spends much of his free time exploring and discovering new music. He’s subscribed to “all the music services" and is an avid reader of Rolling Stone.

The Geneva resident is also a snowboarder, a sport he picked up in the mid-1990s. “It’s part of my rebellious streak, everyone thought it was the wrong thing to do, so I fell in love with it," he says. “A few years ago I started doing something called splitboarding. It’s basically a snowboard that splits in half, like skis. You hike up the mountain, put the board back together and come down the other side."

But travel remains his true love. He talks excitedly about the hasty little sightseeing trip around south Mumbai early that morning, marvelling at the island city’s chaotic mish-mash of architectural styles. He’s planning to come back soon with his wife for a more immersive, non-work trip.

“My belief is that the beauty of travel is the opportunity to really understand the different perspectives of the people you visit," he says, as we call for the bill. “That connection is what it’s all about."

Best travel experience

Without a doubt, the most life-changing experience that I think everyone should do is to travel to the bush of Africa.

Do you play an instrument?

I have very few regrets and this is one of them. But I have a son who plays in a band called Doors To Manual, I encouraged him to do what I didn’t.

Favourite sports team

From a very early age, it’s been the Chelsea football club. I still remember being four-five years old, with my blue kit on and my white socks, learning to play football.

Last book you read

Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s book about cyber-warfare ‘The President Is Missing’, which is an outstanding read.

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