Brett Tollman, chief executive of The Travel Corporation, believes consumers will emerge from the coronavirus crisis with a more appreciative approach to travel

The Travel Corporation should have been celebrating 100 years in business this year with a huge party for 600 staff and special guests at London’s Natural History Museum.

Instead, like everyone else in travel, the family-owned global business is charting its way through the biggest crisis the sector has ever seen.

The firm has shut down 95% of every business it operates around the world.

A few hotels remain open as “bastions of hospitality”, according to chief executive Brett Tollman.

MoreLatest coronavirus news and updates

Travel Weekly coronavirus resource centre

“A hotel is a place to get a meal, to be served and to be looked after, so that will remain as long as people want that and we can,” he says, while acknowledging that occupancy is down to as low as 10% in some properties.

Where properties have closed, staff have been providing meals for the elderly or volunteering in local hospitals.

And he adds: “We are doing everything we can not to lay off staff. But as time goes on, everyone is going to have to look at how this affects their balance sheets.”

Tollman has steered the business, which was founded in 1920 by his grandfather, through many difficult periods, but he says coronavirus is unquestionably the worst.

“The world wasn’t built for this kind of disaster. It totally non-discriminates. The world is shutting down. The World Travel & Tourism Council has estimated that 75 million jobs could be at risk from coronavirus,” he says.

“It’s the unknown crisis. You don’t know if you’re sick or if you’re going to get it. And this invisible fear is driving behaviour like never before. It is the most extreme disaster and no one knows when it is going to end, which is the hardest thing when you are trying to look after people.”

The Travel Corporation employs 10,000 people across a range of brands, which in the UK include Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, Trafalgar and Costsaver, Uniworld Luxury River Cruises, Contiki and Red Carnation Hotels.

Tollman says about a third of customers with forward bookings have cancelled and asked for a refund; about a third have postponed their holiday to a later date; and another third are waiting to see what happens before cancelling or postponing.

“We are trying to issue as many credit notes as possible. We still want people to travel – just later in the year or next year,” he says.

Strong balance sheet

“Travel businesses need cash to keep going. We have a very clean, strong balance sheet with no debt, so we think we can weather this storm, but it does depend on how long it goes on for – 12 or 18 months is a very different proposition to three months.

“But thanks to our father’s phenomenal statesman-like leadership, we have lived by one of his philosophies and that is to have no debt or third-party loans in our business. And in times like these, the stronger companies do survive and prosper. If you have debt, someone else owns your business.”

Tollman recognises, though, that some customers will be reluctant to take a credit note.

“Off the back of Thomas Cook failing last year, and with more failures inevitably to come, people are skittish,” he says. “Why should they leave their money with anybody? But we are working with our agents and trying to be as supportive as we can, because if the money gets refunded to the customer, then no one gets paid.”

Abta is currently advising members to delay giving refunds and to instead issue ‘refund credit notes’ both on bookings it protects and Atol-protected bookings up until July 31, but Tollman warns: “Abta doesn’t have the wherewithal to stand behind everyone. If half the industry fails, there is not enough money to back that up.”

Protecting staff

At The Travel Corporation, Tollman and his co-directors – parents Stanley and Bea, sisters Vicki and Toni and cousins Gavin and Michael – are trying to do everything they can to protect their teams.

“Marriot, Hyatt, InterContinental – they all got rid of their teams,” he says. “But we are trying to protect positions, so we are looking country by country and brand by brand and may consider a three-day working week for some, with a commitment that once this is over, we’ll look to make it up to them at some point.”

He says he received tearful cheers of gratitude when telling some staff of his possible plans, adding: “We have told them the family will do our utmost and our best by every one of them and we stand by that.”

Tollman adds: “Every business is faced with tough decisions right now. We have enough reserves to last the next year but we are optimistic that this will pass sooner rather than later. A vaccination will be found and it will give people peace of mind. But there will still be a terrible period of uncertainty before that: the darkness before the dawn.”

Crisis will change humanity

Tollman believes humanity will emerge from the crisis more grateful and appreciative than before, and that this will play into travel’s hands.

“As with all the lessons we have learnt from our parents, you can’t let one thing take over all your thinking and your actions,” he says.

“We have currently lost all these freedoms – things like buying toilet paper, steak, fresh vegetables and medicines, and you can’t call up your travel agent and say ‘I want to go to Tahiti’.”

“We usually take these things for granted, but people will now become more appreciative and will take a different approach to travel,” he predicts.

Tollman’s sister Vicki Tollman, a director for Red Carnation Hotels, points out that the recovery will not necessarily come in one wave.

“The societal fallout of this crisis will be fascinating,” she says. “The dependent, infirm and older people with health worries – what is their recovery phase?

“We assume Contiki’s younger customers will be more resilient than those more mature customers who travel with Uniworld, Trafalgar and Insight, for example.”

Keeping guests engaged

But until then, Tollman and his family are pressing on, doing everything they can to preserve the business that has lasted into a fourth generation.

Programmes for 2021 for Trafalgar, Costsaver, Insight Vacations, Luxury Gold and Uniworld are all on sale and the family are forging ahead with their plan to tell stories of their 100 years, to inspire customers for when the time is right to travel again.

“We are keeping all our past guests engaged by telling them stories through monthly centenary videos and sending them emails asking them to share photos of their past travels. This generates positive endorphins. People will remember those times and want to go again,” Tollman says.

The January video talks about how the company is driven by service, a principle first applied by Tollman’s grandfather, who said if you take care of two guests, they will tell people and those guests will become four, and if you take care of them, they will become eight and so on.

The second video, released on Valentine’s Day, talks about how his parents first met 66 years ago and how they built the core of the business together.

The March video featured the women in The Travel Corporation. Over 50% of the leadership and property teams are women, inspired by Tollman’s grandmother Evelyn and mother Bea.

And this month, the centenary video will feature the company’s Treadright Foundation and all that The Travel Corporation does to sustain the destinations and communities it takes its guests to.

And as if that were not enough, a new The Travel Corporation website has just gone live.

“This crisis is going to be over and people are going to return to the same lives they had before,” says Tollman. “So we have to keep engaging with our past and present guests, our travel agent partners, and our own teams.

“There will be scars and changes to society, but we have got to try and keep some semblance of reality and continuity in our lives. The show must go on.”