As part of Virtuoso’s ongoing commitment to sustainable travel, we’re profiling the experts, trendsetters, and industry leaders making a difference in sustainable tourism today. Here, a conversation with Brett Tollman, CEO of The Travel Corporation, a collection of more than 40 travel and hospitality brands (including Luxury Gold, Uniworld, and Red Carnation Hotel Collection), and founder and director of the company’s nonprofit TreadRight Foundation.
It’s a big year for The Travel Corporation: The family-owned company is celebrating its 100th anniversary. At the helm is CEO Brett Tollman, a leader who has made it his mission to promote travel as a force for good throughout his ten-year tenure, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Tollman also founded and serves as director of the company’s TreadRight Foundation, which has supported more than 55 sustainable tourism projects in 26 countries.
We recently caught up with Tollman to learn more about The Travel Corporation’s transformative travel experiences, the importance of local representation in the travel industry, and how he believes Covid-19 will cause a shift in travelers’ priorities.
Why are you so passionate about sustainability?
I was born in South Africa and raised around wildlife, so conservation and the protection of endangered species have always been important to me. I’ve been very engaged with recycling ever since I read about Paul Newman’s recycling efforts when I was 8 years old. And growing up, my parents taught me how important it is to respect others, treat people with dignity, and be very grateful for what we have.
Were there any special moments that reinforced your professional mission to safeguard our planet and its inhabitants?
Two years ago, I visited the Iraq-Al Amir women’s cooperative during an extraordinary trip to Jordan with a Tourism Cares delegation to highlight the power of travel in supporting local communities. We witnessed how these women were struggling and learned how to directly help safeguard their community, their culture, and their right to achieve economic empowerment. I was so inspired after spending time with these artisans that this cooperative is now one of TreadRight’s “People” projects, which are community-based tourism initiatives that economically empower its members.
TTC features a portfolio of over 40 brands. What are a couple of experiences you’d recommend for travelers looking to explore sustainable tourism for the first time?
Luxury Gold’s offerings are personally curated by our chairman, Stanley Tollman. During a 12-day tour of Italy, travelers can meet Marta Cucchia, who runs the Laboratoria Giuditta Brozetti weaving co-op in Perugia. The atelier’s textile products are produced by hand on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antique looms. The cooperative was founded by Marta’s great grandmother, Giuditta, to help local women during World Wars I and II, and this heritage has been passed on from mother to daughter.
Later this year, Red Carnation’s Xigera Safari Lodge will open in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. The environmentally-conscious property will promote sustainable conservation and empower local communities. The 12 suites will be 100 percent solar-powered, and the lodge will work closely with the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks to ensure the protection of the areas we traverse, which includes supporting a local leopard project. Travelers will be able to stay here while on a Botswana safari with one of our sister brands, African Travel.
Your family has advocated for sustainable travel for nearly a century – how must tourism change now in order to continue to be sustainable for future generations?
The responsibility lies with both the travel and tourism industry and the traveling public. Companies must embrace the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, take necessary steps to reduce their carbon footprint, and stop relying on single-use plastics. We must also ensure strong, healthy relationships that benefit local suppliers, and we must look at whether we’re sustainable across all levels of business.
Travelers need to expect and ask more of travel companies. They must be less wasteful and make more mindful choices while traveling, and choose companies that adhere to sustainability principles. We all need to realize that we need tourism, by definition, to mean “sustainability,” and that’s really at the heart of transforming our industry.
Given your vast involvement in sustainable tourism projects, what do the people and organizations that are effecting positive change have in common?
For tourism to truly benefit a community, members of that community must be involved in the decisions that affect them – this includes being at the table when issues of travel and tourism planning are being addressed. At The Travel Corporation, we rely on local suppliers and have many long-standing relationships with them. In Egypt, Italy, Greece, and across Africa, we’ve been working with the same family-run experts for generations. They know their communities, and we value that knowledge. This is where our strength lies – in our partners.
What sustainable travel experience is on your wish list?
The silver lining of being home in Los Angeles for the past two-and-a-half months has been spending more quality time with my wife, children, and dogs. Our next sustainable travel experience together will be road-tripping (which leaves a smaller carbon footprint), to one of the U.S. National Parks. Or perhaps we’ll embark on a cross-country road trip, which has always been on my wanderlist.
How has the Covid-19 crisis impacted sustainable travel, and how will it continue to do so?
Covid-19 has united the world globally with a strong sense that we’re all in this together, and we’ll come out of this hopefully better and stronger. We’re anticipating a greater awareness of people being more engaged citizens and conscious travelers. I think that people will be aligned and more inspired to protect the planet and its inhabitants. We’ll better appreciate the privilege of traveling and desire more meaningful travel experiences, to be shared with our friends and family. We’re social creatures at heart, so we’ll seek personal connections more than ever and want to interact with local cultures and people.
Most importantly, this crisis is a wake-up call: After seeing how our planet has reacted to the minimized pollution, travelers will hopefully realize how key their role is in protecting our planet. I hope we also wake up to the idea (if we haven’t already) that travel is more meaningful when shared with our friends and family, since we’ve been separated from them for some time. May we all be more enlightened, more tolerant, and patient, and may we tread lighter upon this beautiful, fragile planet we all call home.