“Travelers will sacrifice other things before they will give up their vacations; people see travel as a given, not a luxury” with Gavin Tollman and Candice Georgiadis

The transformation occurring in travelers today is fascinating to me. Travelers will sacrifice other things before they will give up their vacations; people see travel as a given, not a luxury. However, there are still elements keeping people from traveling or from choosing guided vacations — we are careful to stay on top of all of these consumer trends. We recently conducted a study to learn more about what might be keeping people from traveling. A staggering 89% of respondents said travel is enjoyable but stressful and difficult to plan, and 37% felt they didn’t see any ‘real culture’ on their last trip. We offer experiences to combat these negativities surrounding travel, and we will further leverage technology and guest feedback to continue to disrupt the status quo and minimize these numbers.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Gavin Tollman. Gavin is the CEO of global guided vacation company Trafalgar and Chariman of The Travel Corporation, the world’s largest privately-owned travel company. He has over 20 years of experience as an executive in the tourism and hospitality business, serving as U.S. President of Trafalgar prior to becoming global CEO. Under Tollman’s leadership, Trafalgar has expanded its trips beyond Europe to include the Americas, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and, most recently, Africa and Antarctica, now offering itineraries in all seven continents that capture the local influence in each place. Having led the company to success over the past 20 years, Gavin keeps a keen eye on the evolving landscape and innovates products to coincide with the ever-changing travel climate, with an emphasis on supporting local communities. Tollman can speak to budding trends in the travel industry, including changing travel patterns to combat overtourism and the newest iterations of experiential and local travel. He can also serve as an authority on the future of the guided travel space, in terms of demographics, destinations, perceptions and the evolution of the guided vacation.

Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I am a third-generation Tollman in the travel industry. Despite a short stint in banking, I changed paths to join my family at The Travel Corporation, but believe me, the choice was not made for me. It was my decision to work in the travel industry. I am an intrepid traveler, and I jumped at the opportunity to sell travel. This is not a job or a career for me — I love what I do.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In 2009, in my last year as Director of Global Sales for Trafalgar before becoming CEO of the brand, we identified a need to create experiences where our guests could truly connect with the destinations they were visiting. No one in the world was talking about authenticity and travel at the time, and we looked at that and said yes, this is something we want to and need to do. We began working with the Esposito sisters in Sorrento, Italy, who welcomed our guests into their home over a homecooked meal and limoncello. Breaking bread was the simplest and purest local experience we could offer, and this experience was the beginning of our Be My Guest program, now in its 10th year. We’ve expanded the program to offer exclusive local experiences on nearly all of our vacations, where guests can connect with locals and taste the products of those destinations direct from the source, uncovering a piece of history and meeting the characters who bring these places to life. Authentic experiences like these have turned into a global phenomenon and the base of what our guests look for in travel today, and Trafalgar was at the very beginning of it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve pretty much worked in every department within the Trafalgar brand. As my first job during the summer in the mid-80s, I used to transfer guests between the airport and various hotels. One day, a group of guests arrived early in the morning from Australia. I was listening to people but not checking what they were telling me, and I ended up dropping a whole group of people off at the wrong hotel. It taught me that I’ve lived by a virtue of trust, but to always verify and double check behind the scenes — a lesson that still applies to my work today.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Trafalgar stands out because of our passion for what we do. We have an enormous responsibility to fulfill guests’ travel dreams and we take that seriously, and that passion permeates our entire business. It is not something we take lightly. Part of the DNA of our brand is putting our guests first. We seek out transparent reviews and implement that feedback. Customers will always tell you what they really believe and so when I look back at every one of my interactions with a customer, those conversations have informed many of our initiatives whether its our commitment to sustainable travel or offering authentic, exclusive experiences.

Four years ago, I was in Venice for one day to see a 20+ group of guests visiting on our Gladiators, Gondolas and Gold family experience trip. When I met the guests one of them came up to me and put his arm around me and said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” He told me he was from New Jersey, of Italian descent and traveling with his mom who had grown up in Italy, as well as his two kids and wife to connect back to his Italian roots. The man told me that earlier in the trip the Travel Director, Marco, had realized the town the guest’s mother grew up in was just outside Florence, and that the group would be driving past there. Marco had the driver pull of to the side of the road and he explained to the group what it is like to grow up in a small rural area of Italy. A house nearby saw the coach parked outside and came over to ask what was going on, and the man’s mother told the locals she grew up in the same town. The local family then invited the entire group into their home, organically creating this unique experience. The man thanked me because Trafalgar allowed him to deeply connect with and experience his cultural roots, and more proud moments like these have happened on our other trips as well.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?

Life/work balance is very important. It is very easy to let work take over your life and hard to find time for things you love, but you have to work to build those things into your schedule. I’ve discovered yoga and would recommend that to others, but whether it’s yoga or something else you have to plan for it, don’t wait for it to happen. I also think it’s important for people in the travel industry to realize we are fulfilling travel dreams, but its not a life or death situation (most of the time). We need to cherish what we do and have fun doing it. Finally, surround yourself with people who you want to work with and enjoy spending time with.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Without a doubt it’s our Chairman Stanley Tollman. He is my constant source of inspiration as well as a mentor and guide. He inspires me because he is a man who is well into his 80s and wakes up every day driven by service and looking after our clients. Whether he is trying out a new menu at Ashford Castle (a property under Red Carnation Hotels which is owned by The Travel Corporation) to see what our guests will like or looking at Costaver’s (a Trafalgar sister company) rebranding, he listens to problems and lives for solutions. He is the wisest business person in the world and is willing to share his expertise and advice with others.

Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?

We bring an authenticity to our guests that is not replicated anywhere else in the industry, connecting our guests with people, places and experiences in a robust way that they cannot do on their own. We created an entire way of travel driven around understanding people as individuals and not numbers, in reference to our guests, our destination partners and our travel agent partners. We were also the first in the packaged vacation space, and the first in the travel space to encourage honest reviews and use that feedback to improve our product. Reviews have been transformational for our product delivery, which has caused everyone in the industry to raise their game. We implemented this internally through Feefo Friday, when everyone joins together to read reviews, assess problems and address any issues.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?

One of our greatest challenges as a legacy brand is fundamentally transforming the industry. Trafalgar has been offering guided vacations for over 70 years, so our constant “pain point” is continuing to evolve and continuing to bring our guests the best experiences available to them in today’s market.

How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

The transformation occurring in travelers today is fascinating to me. Travelers will sacrifice other things before they will give up their vacations; people see travel as a given, not a luxury. However, there are still elements keeping people from traveling or from choosing guided vacations — we are careful to stay on top of all of these consumer trends. We recently conducted a study to learn more about what might be keeping people from traveling. A staggering 89% of respondents said travel is enjoyable but stressful and difficult to plan, and 37% felt they didn’t see any ‘real culture’ on their last trip. We offer experiences to combat these negativities surrounding travel, and we will further leverage technology and guest feedback to continue to disrupt the status quo and minimize these numbers.

Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to travel?

1. Incorporating sustainable practices into offerings and letting consumers be a part of that

2. Personalizing experiences for guests

3. Showing they appreciate their guests

4. Interacting with guests on a personal level, with respect, instead of just as a large brand

5. Making sure guests return home enriched by their travel experience

As a travel insider, how would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?

When I travel, I love to push myself outside of my comfort zone, whether it be with food, meeting new people, etc. I like to do things I cannot do at home, so I can return home having learned from my experiences. I also like to travel immersively, respecting the communities I visit while making sure to provide a positive contribution whether that’s through supporting local businesses or befriending local people and swapping stories of our experiences.

Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Integrated into our very own brand DNA is the importance of making a difference through travel. There is nothing that fills me with greater pride than hearing stories from our local partners, like Marta Cucchia, a skilled artisan in Perugia, Italy and the fourth generation of women in her family to run the Laboratoria Giuditta Brozzetti workshop, keeping the ancient art of handweaving alive, and how her business would not have existed had it not been for Trafalgar. It is the 10-year anniversary of our Be My Guest program and we have heard stories like Marta’s from our partners over all the years we have ran this program. We do it with the belief that we are spreading goodness through it. In an environment where travel can be seen as negative, we need to, as an industry, be seen as a force for good, and Trafalgar is leading that charge through actions, not just words.

Thank you for all of these great insights!


“Travelers will sacrifice other things before they will give up their vacations; people see… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.