Innovation – The Key to Our Past, Our Present, and Our Future
CEO of Trafalgar, Costsaver, and Brendan Vacations
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore! Dream! Discover!”
– Mark Twain
No business makes it through a century without constant innovation, and that is especially true in the world of travel. The drive to innovate must be endless, which is why I keep an old roll of film front and center on my desk. This serves as a constant reminder to me – while Kodak made the best film, they failed to innovate as times changed, and ten years after the invention of digital cameras they went bankrupt.
As part of the third generation of this family business, I have learned a great deal about innovation from my grandfather, my uncle, and my father, who have brought together TTC’s amazing family of brands. Another constant source of inspiration for me is the late Steve Jobs, whose attitude and vision is summed up in the quote in my office here in Geneva:
“Some people say give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse.’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
True innovation, I believe, takes listening, team work, and courage. My job is to listen to our guests, to my team, and to people I trust – both for what is said and what remains unsaid, for the challenge of an innovator is to give people what they want even even before they know it. When it comes to turning dreams into reality, teamwork is absolutely essential. I am incredibly fortunate to work with an extraordinary group of individuals, in all facets of our business, who never focus on can’t but rather on the why and the how it takes to get things done. As for courage, as everyone on my team knows, I believe we must dream big and take bold steps in order to push beyond existing boundaries and change the world.
You can see how all these elements came together in the story behind Be My Guest, one of Trafalgar’s signature programs. Back in 2009, travel meant ticking off the highlights of a destination, seeing the sights, and tasting the local foods. While Trafalgar was the market leader then, as it is now, and travelers were certainly enjoying their holidays, we knew we wanted to take it to a richer, deeper level. We began by asking the big question: Why do we travel? While there are many reasons, the most important seemed to be in order to grow, to learn, and to connect. And what better way to do this anywhere you go than through the eyes of a local? How could our travelers be invited into their houses, to break bread with them, hear their stories over a bottle of wine, and truly experience the world they live in as they see it?
Of course, many at first thought this was a crazy idea. After all, as an individual traveler you would hardly be inclined to knock on a random door and invite yourself in for a meal. But “crazy idea” is often a starting point for innovation, and when I mentioned this to my team one of our Travel Directors smiled and said “You know, I have a couple of aunts who live in Sorrento….”
And so, in May of 2009, we found ourselves climbing up winding cobblestone up a hill to the Espositos sisters’ lemon farm, where we were welcomed with open arms and a feast from their garden.
Though their English was minimal, they offered us the kind of hospitality that goes beyond language – along with homemade limoncello and pasta pomodoro from tomatoes they’d plucked from their garden that morning. We came away full and delighted – and all we could think as we left was how much our guests would love this.
This is how Be My Guest was born.
It was an instant hit, providing exactly the sort of authentic experiences travelers craved, whether they knew it or not. Sadly, the Esposito sisters have since passed on, but the spirit of hospitality they embodied thrives. The program has grown rapidly, as we’ve found hosts all over the world. There’s a tremendous variety, some incorporating music, wine, or olive oil tasting. It’s always something sensory – and we always finish it off with a meal, typically cooked onsite by the family. Be My Guest experiences are now included on every Trafalgar vacation. Depending on the destination, guests might marvel at Andalusian horse riders performing at a rural Portuguese stud farm or visit the Provence home of Poppy Salinger, whose late husband Pierre served as advisor to both John and Robert Kennedy. Travelers to Alberta, Canada, will visit and dine at the Guinn Family Ranch in the spectacular Kananaskis Valley, with pristine views of the Rockies, alpine meadows, and wildlife, while visitors to Alaska can learn first hand about dog sledding from musher David Monson. It would be hard to pick a favorite, as each Be My Guest experience is one of a kind, but a few that spring to mind are…
… foraging with Oonagh on Liscannor Bay on the Wild Irish Way in County Clare, Ireland.
She’ll lead guests through the place she knows so well to discover flowers and delicacies that will be transformed into an Irish feast.
…….in England’s Lake District, where you’ll travel to Hesket Newmarket to meet “Farmer John” as he’s known by locals, in the village where he’s lived his whole life. He’ll show you his farm and introduce you to his dogs – and then his wife, Christine, a brilliant hostess and cook, will welcome you for an amazing spread of cream tea, sandwiches and a jaw-dropping dessert spread.
…..on a farm outside of Dubrovnik, Croatia, where you’ll meet Anton Muhoberac and his family, including his son who will play accordion for you as you cook over an outdoor fire, eat figs, drink the local travarica and dance to traditional music.
…..and at Grove 41 in Paso Robles, California, where Karen will guide you through her olive groves and the oil making process – along with tasting – then tell you her story over an alfresco lunch with local wines.
While our travelers are enjoying these rich experiences, they are also doing good, supporting over 100 local families around the world – all of whom look forward to the return of our travelers as we recover from this pandemic.
For another great TTC innovation, there’s our Brendan Vacations, (which operate in Ireland, Scotland and Great Britain) Chauffer Driven vacations, where we merged our knowledge of touring the British Isles with escorted independent travel. By partnering with Pat Keogh’s chauffer car business, we are able to offer travelers fully customizable hand-crafted vacations bringing together a professional chauffeur and the finest of accommodations.
Another innovation for Trafalgar was in how we tell about what we do. We knew we offered the finest travel experiences available – and so did our guests. We wanted to let them tell the story in real time. We also wanted to make sure their reviews came through with 100% transparency, which is why in 2014 we were the first travel company to post reviews through Feefo.
Now, six years on, we have a 4.7/5 global rating, and have been awarded Feefo’s Platinum status – their highest ranking. The desire to showcase what we did also had a powerful unintended consequence of letting us see how our trips were performing in real time. Our operating teams monitor their Feefo reviews and adjust on the fly, allowing for continual improvement and instant innovation.
Looking back, I remember how much anxiety this caused before going live, as the founder of Feefo later told me. Having never taken on a travel company, he was wary of negative reviews – obviously, he had never traveled with us. “You can’t put this genie back in the bottle,” he had said.
We wouldn’t want to, and we are proud that we were the ones who brought that genie out first.
Of course, any guided holiday company is only as good as their Travel Directors. Ours have always been great, but the spirit of innovation is about constant, relentless improvement. Thus, working alongside our sister TTC companies Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, we hired the best in the business, a woman who had been head of training for Virgin Atlantic. Then we designed, from scratch, a rigorous, in-depth, multi-tiered experiential training program that would really place the travel directors into the guests’ shoes. The results have been fantastic, and one of the factors that has led to over 50% return rate of our guests.
In travel, personalization is everything, and our innovations in this area have been bolstered by the values of TTC. You can see this in our new phone system that supports all of us, Genesys. While I say “phone,” it is much more, as it will transform the ways all of TTC’s companies interact with travelers, including text, chat, and so on. Using data, we are able to connect our present and future guests with just the right sales consultants, so we are able to answer faster, deliver easy callbacks, and utilize natural voice responses instead of complicated and annoying click through systems. We know that in today’s world of instant contact, high touch points and personalization, this is the next step in us innovating into the future. And yes, we are available 24/7, 365, because that’s when our guests need us.
This drive to personalization has also led to My Travel Portal, which supports every guided vacation brand at TTC – for us, it is My Trafalgar, My Costsaver, and My Brendan Vacations. Available to guests as soon as they’ve booked, they can actively engage with their Travel Director, and tell them anything they may need to know – dietary requirements, physical limitations, birthdays, anniversaries they’re celebrating, things they like, as well offering a place to securely add passport and other contact details, all making for a seamless experience.
In addition to being helpful for the traveler, My Travel Portal lets your Travel Director begin to craft a personalized experience for guests, working behind the scenes, long before the journey begins. This includes special experiences you might like based on your interests, so we can surprise and delight you along the way, exceeding your expectations. I was once on a Trafalgar trip where the Travel Director surprised one of our American guests. He knew that the guest’s father had come from a small town in Italy, and the Travel Director not only surprised him with a visit to that town, but to the very house where his father had been born. Now that is special.
While there are innovations that surprise and delight, there are those born of necessity – especially now. These days, some of the most exciting innovations at TTC are in the realm of traveler wellbeing. Of course, the health and wellbeing of our travelers has always been our top priority, but right at the start of the pandemic, we quickly realized the magnitude of the affect this was about to have on our industry. We would have to bring it to another level. Our chairman, Mr. Stanley Tollman, who has just turned ninety, is sharp as a tack and always leads from the front, called myself and my cousin, Brett, CEO of TTC, back in May this year –
“Our Travel Directors need to focus on delivering exceptional travel experiences,” he said, “and our Drivers need to focus on the task at hand when we travel again. We need a third pair of hands on our trips to take care of all the wellbeing needs of the guests and reassure them.”
Thus, the concept of a Wellbeing Director was born. As you prepare for travel in 2021, Trafalgar, Insight Vacations, and Luxury Gold trips in all regions (apart from Australia, New Zealand and Japan) will have a Wellbeing Director. They will ensure spacing on coaches and keep supplies available and stocked, and call ahead to destinations and liaise with suppliers and hotels to ensure that our stringent protocols are followed, to name just a few of the tasks entrusted to them on the road, with you every step of the way to answer questions and address concerns. (Please watch our new video on this innovative, unique new on tour position, to understand more.)
Another amazing innovation at TTC involves hygiene at Red Carnation Hotels and all ships owned and operated by Uniworld. It’s called Premium Purity, and while we have come to it as a response to COVID-19, it is a fantastic and completely effective approach to cleaning that will serve us long after this pandemic is over. It is both 100% non-toxic and chemical free, removing viruses, bacteria, and microbes with no toxic residue, so it’s healthier for you, for our staff, and our planet.
This leads me to one more area of innovation, which is perhaps the most important, as it affects all of us and this magnificent planet on which we live. As TTC celebrates the success of our first century and the beginning of our second, we are acutely aware of how our travels impact the world. Travel can – and must – be a force for good. This belief shapes everything we do at TTC. It also drives TreadRight, the foundation we founded to ensure that travel has a positive impact on Planet, People, and Wildlife.
We invite you to visit their website to learn the amazing projects they do, many of which we visit and support on our itineraries. Also, if you have not yet taken the TreadRight Pledge to Make Travel Matter, we invite you to join us in doing so. (We also just launched a five year sustainability strategy last month, How We Tread Right, which establishes a detailed, trackable plan for us to be carbon neutral across our entire company before 2030.)
As we prepare to resume travel, we are aware that we are at a crucial time in our history. Many of the ways in which things have been done in the past are simply not sustainable, and must change. Again, it’s worth recalling what Steve Jobs said: “Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity – not a threat.”
As a member of the Tollman family, the head of these three brands, and part of the TTC family as a whole, I am grateful for that opportunity.