//Interview: Gavin Tollman, Trafalgar

Interview: Gavin Tollman, Trafalgar

Anthony Pearce hears how Trafalgar is harnessing the transformative power of travel

“You have to make sure you’re drinking the local wine, buying the local produce, sustaining the local artisans,” says Gavin Tollman, the CEO of Trafalgar and Costsaver. “To me, breaking bread with locals is the best way to get an insight into the places we visit. It’s the very essence of travel – seeing life through a local’s eyes.”

Tollman has long spoken of the transformative power of travel and the collective responsibility we have as an industry. “From a personal standpoint, the most important thing about travel is making it matter. It’s not just about going to a place – if you can economically help sustain small communities, ensure that you maintain long-term viability and do it in a respectful, environmentally conscious way, you can help grow small businesses,” he says. “That’s when people can see the power of tourism, when travel is helping make a difference.”

Tollman is the nephew of Stanley Tollman, the founder and current chairman of The Travel Corporation, which comprises 29 brands, employs more than 10,000 staff and serves 1.9 million guests annually. Although some of its brands, such as Contiki and Busabout, are better known to the Australian market, the likes of Uniworld have a growing presence in the UK (then there’s Red Carnation Hotels, which has six properties in London and two in Dorset). 

But it’s Trafalgar that is described as the “cornerstone” of The Travel Corporation: the operator promises that, through its tours, guests can “explore globally and sustain locally”. Its philosophy can perhaps be summed up by its best-known programme, Be My Guest, which celebrates a decade of operation this year.

The concept is simple: local food cooked by locals. Tollman says that “back in 2009, this was a conversation no one was having. In 2008, we ran six series going to the Esposito sisters’ home in Sorrento, overlooking Capri in the distance. It was the same itinerary we had run for many years; we just included a different lunch. Every single trip that went there, when you read your guests’ comments, they said the lunch was the highlight.

“You sat down with the sisters and they cooked you the most sublime spaghetti pomodoro, nothing complicated, but we immediately knew we were on to something. In 2019, on every single trip, wherever you go, you will have a Be My Guest experience. In those early years, it required knocking on doors, knowing friends of friends. Today, often people come to us.”

Aside from Be My Guest is Join Trafalgar, the operator’s sustainability programme, which Tollman says is divided into three parts. “First is dissemination, making sure we don’t bring everyone to one place at one time of year, you’re not just coming for the two or three months of the year,” he says. “Second is dispersal, which is filtering guests out to other parts of the country; and third is direct action, which translates into conscious thought. I believe firmly that as people within the travel industry we have a direct responsibility to ensure that future generations can continue to travel.”

Tollman tells the story of Marta, one of Trafalgar’s local experts, who lives in the town of Perugia in Umbria, Italy, and is the last weaver of Renaissance looms. “The fabric is extraordinary. It’s art.” Tollman says Marta was days away from giving it up as she could no longer make a living from it. “Her grandmother had moved the loom to a church up on the hill, and she was ready to shut it down, but we said: ‘can we bring our guests here?’” Since then, on tours, Trafalgar guests watch her perform her craft and have the opportunity to buy from her. “Now, she runs a completely sustainable business, she’s had an article in The New York Times about her. And best of all, she now has a 12-year-old niece who has taken it up. Just think about how wonderful that is – that you, through travel, can make that difference.”