The guiding light

Guided tours only for old people? Trafalgar sees the light that the product has to evolve, or the future of guided tours is dim. Its CEO tells Raini Hamdi how he’s guiding Trafalgar through change – and why travel consultants too must change

Gavin Tollman, CEO, Trafalgar

You’ve repositioned Trafalgar as ‘The Insider’. Why?
Two important shifts. One, other travel products were evolving. Hotels became destinations all in themselves; their objective is, when you check in, you don’t leave. Or cruise lines – I always found it quite ironic that people go on a ship to ice skate, climb walls, which are land-based activities. Guided holidays on the other hand remained much the same.

I was running Trafalgar in the US in the mid-90s, left and came back in 2009. As an outsider looking in, I started asking questions. I didn’t just want to see us have a product that succeeded, I wanted to develop a product that became an aspirational way to travel. It was never lost on me when I ran Trafalgar in the mid-90s in the US that when we said, ‘we run an escorted tour company’ and people said, ‘oh these are for old people – buses and a superficial way of travel’. Those were the stereotypes.

But there’s truth in those stereotypes.
Not necessarily. There were elements that were. The product was changing but the change was not communicated.

In 2009, we interviewed over 20,000 guests on what they remembered the most of their travel with us. Not one spoke about the hotel, size of the coach, the nuts and bolts. All they spoke about were the memories that were created. Yet, when you looked at our brochure, not just ours but our competitors, we were communicating exclusively on the nuts and bolts – great bed, this and that.

So we began experimenting, and one of the first Be My Guest experiences was a lemon grove in Sorrento, owned by two sisters. When guests gave their feedback, that was all they wanted to talk about: how the mama – a true Italian personality who loved everyone; unfortunately she passed away – cooked the pasta, gave each of them her limoncello, and on and on.

So we knew we were on to something and started creating different experiences over the next couple of years to bring a destination alive. What we stopped doing was rolling over itineraries.

So the gap lies in providing experiences?
That’s just one element. Another is, 100 per cent of agencies that adopted The Insider position – not just in Singapore but around the world – stopped talking about nuts and bolts and were selling packages based on experiences. And everyone’s business grew year over year.

So is the onus on wholesalers like yourself to ensure the survival of travel agencies by offering something different?
It’s a symbiotic relationship. I’ve been a vocal critic at times of the travel agency community because I don’t believe at times they take enough responsibility for their own success. Yes, we have created a unique programme, but what I would like to see, and encourage agencies do, is: try. Try to talk about the experiences. Don’t sell the nuts and bolts. The world is changing and they need to be changing with the times too.

What is it with travel consultants that they just sell the nuts-and-bolts?
Because that’s what they’ve always done. The Trafalgar sales team – and Nick’s a great example (Nick Lim, regional director, Trafalgar) – spends a lot of time getting consultants to think differently. (Last year) was the second year Trafalgar had its own team in Singapore and we doubled our business in a year.

By opening the office in Singapore (previously it was handled by a GSA, Holiday Tours), we took greater control of our own destiny and our own message to the market. Not that the previous partner did anything wrong. They are still a good partner of ours. But the difference is I now have greater and direct control, through Nick, on retraining, communication, distribution, creation of collateral and many other facets. It’s working.

Is it easy to retrain and change the mindset of agencies?
It’s a long journey. We are still at the foundation stages of building this, but it’s working and it will get bigger and far more robust. I don’t believe for a second that every agency would jump on board but I do believe there is the momentum, and more agencies will understand and be involved.

Are agencies the same everywhere?
I’ve never been asked that question before (pause). I think every country comes with a different set of challenges. Where we are successful is we develop the strategy globally and we let the local MD or GM execute what is right for their marketplace.

Asia is very responsive and I’m excited about the prospects Asia holds. Business has more than doubled –  Nick and team won the Trafalgar sales office of the year for 2012. I’m working hand in hand with Nick because I expect our business from Asia to grow a lot more, so what I’m beginning to do is ensure our travel directors begin to understand and appreciate the diversity, cultural differences and expectations of a whole new market.

Do you run departures just for Asians?
No, they all go into the same product.

’ve always believed successful guided tours come not through the power of smaller groups. It’s nothing to do with size. It’s having like-minded people travelling together. Group travel can be one of the most enjoyable ways of experiencing a destination. And a smart travel director can navigate through the group and create the friendships and the discoveries.

That’s why we make small changes such as having a welcome reception on the first day. It’s as though you’re having a party at your house, not a sit-down and an opportunity for the director to tell you where you’d be going, what you’d be doing. No longer. The travel director starts creating the bonds and friendships. It happens organically. We use social media to get guests to meet before they start the journey.

So with all the changes, are you getting younger people joining your tours?
Remarkably so. We’re still speaking to our core market – seniors or those who see guided tours as a safe way to travel, but we’re also appealing to the younger generation who are time-deprived and looking for experiences. We’re making the pie bigger while still keeping our core market.

Have prices increased due to higher costs of providing experiences?
It has not. Our value proposition has never been greater. You pay a little more but you get exponentially more.

So what’s next?
We’ve launched new components such as Hidden Treasures and Unique Insights, brought in and trained travel directors to think differently, hired a lady who was in charge of training at Virgin Airlines and created a one-week customised training called Professional Development Programme, which every travel director goes through. We make them see travel through the guest’s eyes. I want us to be a customer-centric organisation. We’ve also gone on a talent acquisition, and I do believe I have the best and the brightest people on board.

So what’s next is we’re working on The Insider, part two, to be launched in October this year for 2014. It’s like the iPad, iPhone – we just have to get better at it. I want to ensure we use the local knowledge, expertise and experience that we have to develop ‘bragging rights’ for customers, the goosebump moments they will brag about to their friends, so they want to come back with us.

What legacy would you like to leave the brand?
I would like to have changed the industry. I want it to become an aspirational way of travel.

Who’s your biggest competitor?
We’re leading the pack, but I’m like Phil Knight (Nike’s founder), who saw nothing but his competitors. If he saw Puma and Adidas on sportsmen at the Olympics, he couldn’t be successful. I have the same DNA. I see competitor coaches and never my own. If I see six Singaporeans in a competitor coach, I’d call Nick and say, what did we do wrong? (laughs)

Seriously, we’re out in the front and the responsibility is ours to remain there.

“Yes, we have created a unique programme, but what I’d like to encourage agencies to do is: try. Try to talk about the experiences. Don’t sell the nuts and bolts.” – Gavin Tollman

But you are the new generation hotel CEO. Surely you’d like to bring in new ideas?
I’m comfortable with the asset-light model and I’m also driving the growth of our new economy brand. We’ve talked about the economy brand for two years, but we’ve not really pushed it.

As well, our business can continue to evolve. For instance, we can expand our spa business and convention centre hotels, both here and outside Thailand.

How involved is your dad in CHR?
He’s the chairman, he does not run the day to day. We look to him for comments and guidance, but we are the ones who execute the ideas, make them happen.

What key lessons have you learned from Gerd Steeb and your dad?
My father is very, very detailed, always asks why, why, why, and he expects answers. He said beauty comes later, function comes first, and he has a clear vision of where he wants his hotels and the group to be. These are important learnings.

Gerd is very good when it comes to operation. So I have the best insights of both worlds, vision and execution.

Are you a visionary?
I have to be. But, the operation has to be able to cope and follow. There is no point if we, say, come up with something futuristic and the operation cannot follow. There has to be a balance.

But your dad had Gerd Steeb. Who do you have?
Gerd still acts as an advisor.

Are you an entrepreneur or hotelier?
(Laughs) I’m a mix of both.

What motivates you in this job?
I want to see the business grow, but it has to be profitable and sustainable growth.  I want Centara to be the number one chain in the region.

What are your biggest challenges?
The competition, the business environment and finding qualified people as we keep growing.

Is there a business leader who inspires you?
My dad. He’s a real entrepreneur, he wants to prove something – I find that very inspirational.

This article was first published in TTG Asia, January 25 – February 7 issue, on page 4. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.

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