Welcome to “The Heart of Travel,” an interview series that goes behind the scenes of the hospitality business to shine a spotlight on accomplished pros who bring polish and passion to beloved destinations. Few people today have more wanderlust embedded in their DNA than Gavin Tollman, chairman of The Travel Corporation and CEO of Trafalgar, a leading provider of guided and independent vacations around the globe. His private family-owned company — which stretches back four generations to its founding in 1947 — now operates on all seven continents in more than 70 countries, orchestrating more than a thousand travel-related experiences. It has often been called the world’s largest travel company of which you’ve never heard, but try telling that to its more than 10,000 employees and 2-million customers every year — who readily sing each other’s praises, volleying accolades back and forth. South Africa-born and Geneva, Switzerland-based Tollman is particularly keen on the role of travel as a force for good. Here, our travel-savvy conversation.
What inspires your work mojo?
“If you work at something you love, you never truly work a day in your life. I have been fortunate to come from a family whose love and work is travel. It has given me the opportunity to appreciate adventure, learning and wonder.”
What is a favorite part of your job — and why?
“Every single week, I read the reviews that Trafalgar guests share at the end of their journeys with us. The company takes their feedback seriously. I have made a brand promise of unedited transparency. In real time, I know what they like most about our trips and what they would like changed; who are our exceptional travel directors escorting guests as well as local guide specialists; and which hotels, restaurants, sites and excursions exceedingly please. This timely honest response enables Trafalgar to immediately strengthen experiences for future guests.”
How does Trafalgar contribute to sustainable tourism?
“More travelers are now conscious about sustainability — helping residents in the communities that they visit. In other words: Travel today to sustain tomorrow. Where we lead journeys, Trafalgar is enthusiastic about giving back. For example, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, we have helped street kids with their education and brought travelers into schools where we have donated supplies. Our travelers can interact with teachers and students — and see a destination from a different perspective: our Insider Experiences. Our sustainability efforts are also about encouraging travelers to visit destinations beyond peak high seasons — so that residents can sustain economic stability year-round. And we have implemented JoinTrafalgar initiatives, generated via our not-for-profit TreadRight Foundation, which empowers the communities we visit to remain vibrant through conservation, support and leadership.”
Why is an insider experience, connecting with local residents, an important part of travel?
“Meaningful travel is not just about visiting a place. It is about better knowing the people who live there, getting below the surface of a destination for deeper insight. Not long ago, people-to-people experiences weren’t being talked about or implemented in any significant way by travel companies. But what a fun opportunity it is for travelers to ask questions and to hear about daily local life! Trafalgar started the Be My Guest program, building warm and strong relationships around the world, enabling our guests to enjoy meals and conversation with locals, dining with families in their homes and learning how to make regional recipes. Artists open their studios. Farmers show off their land and animals. Winemakers lead travelers through their cellars and vineyards. For example, in Sorrento, Italy, a Be My Guest chef welcomed Trafalgar guests into her house and showed them how to make spaghetti pomodoro with her garden-fresh tomatoes. She also served her homemade Limoncello [Italian lemon liqueur]. Afterward, many guests reported that the experience was the highlight of their entire Italy trip.”
Which destination has touched your heart more than any other?
“If there is one destination that changes you forever, it is Africa. Especially when you get into the Bush and observe the perfect balance of nature in a very raw way, you understand life with such a robustness and obviousness that you feel humbled. You realize how and what life is meant to be. I look at Africa as a place of great optimism. It teaches life lessons. In Africa, humans are not top of the food chain. It is the lion. That puts life in perspective. When you watch spectacular pink-and-orange African sunsets, you are also changed. Plus, I am a lover of music. Whenever I think of Africa, at the same moment I think of its music, which is inherent in everything African. And the African aesthetic itself is amazing! The vibrancy of colors. The energy of the people. My family members are my best friends and we often travel together. Three generations now work in our family business. Our best travel experiences and memories develop in the African wilderness. I feel completely alive there.“