Without a doubt the most common question I am asked is, what is the next, new, great destination? Following hints of new countries and remote destinations opening up the world, the quest becomes like a treasure hunt. What new discoveries can be made? Where else can we go? What new ‘Insider’ experiences can we unlock for our guests? And then, where to after that?

This past month, however, I was reminded of how some of the greatest discoveries we can make are, in fact, rediscovered destinations. Taking in their beauty a second, third or fourth time can be as spectacular as the first.

On this occasion, the location was Zermatt, Switzerland. The occasion: Schweizer Ferientag/ Switzerland Vacation Day, the annual conference for almost 1’300 members of the Swiss Tourism industry who come together to share and learn. The presentation: Tour Operators today and tomorrow. Snowboarding Verbier

As per usual, I arrived armed with my invitation from my kind hosts, my ready-for-stage presentation, and admittedly, an innate sense of comfort being in a destination that is entirely familiar to me, in an area I frequently visit in the winters in my adopted homeland. However, the advantage of being in a known place, does risk becoming a blur.

Thankfully however, this blur quickly had the brakes applied when I awoke to see the sun rising reflecting off of the grandeur and splendour of the Matterhorn. There, towering over me, powerfully yet ever so peacefully, stood one of the great natural wonders of our world. In that moment my thoughts were frozen in genuine awe.

Matterhorn image

Poignantly, the sight of the Matterhorn reminded me of one of the great truths of the travel industry; Switzerland is one of the most beautiful, truly spectacular places on earth.

The beauty I experienced all around me was not limited to the landscapes. Equally, over the duration of the meeting, I was reminded of the authenticity of the people – the local artisans from chocolate to cheese, to less traditional wares. With their passion for their homeland, and an exceptional welcome to all – Swiss hospitality is both true and genuine.

Switzerland Tourism does an exceptional job of capturing and sharing with the world a true gift; destination Switzerland. They bring life to a word that can be so often overused in our tourism marketing world – ‘real’. Somehow this is simply in the essence of their nation, Switzerland Tourism makes ‘real’ an honest travel experience, one that was far deeper, richer and more embracing than I would have ever imagined.

Swiss Tourism event

Returning back to my home in Geneva, I found myself walking a step slower along Lake Geneva as the fresh mountain water acted as a perfect mirror for the sun’s rays. Not only could I feel myself breathing in the pure, clean air, I could also feel myself breathing in the incredible sense of blessing.

How remarkable and renewing it was, and continues to be, looking out over those waters and appreciating again and again all that surrounds me each day, wherever I am in the world.

May places newly discovered, and those comfortably familiar, continue to slow your steps and awaken your most grateful of senses.


The Emerald Isle

As one arrives into Ireland, you are immediately struck by endless green landscape, stretching as far as the eye can see, giving the Country the moniker ‘Emerald Isle’. This title is as well-known as its iconic symbols; four leaf clovers, leprechauns, poets, awe-inspiring dancers, and my personal favourite, Guinness. But Ireland is a destination rich for so many more, less acknowledged reasons.

I hadn’t been to the Emerald Isle for about a year, and I was so looking forward to my return at the end of April.

Irish Brendan picture

I made the trip with three objectives in mind: (i) To continue my pledge to find additional extraordinary Insider experiences for our Trafalgar guests (ii) Visit the continuing regal restoration of Ashford Castle – a true Irish castle with a history over eight centuries – which The Travel Corporation purchased in June of last year. (This acquisition is an expression of belief in the future of Ireland through its unique, enchanting offerings for travellers) And (iii) importantly, I wanted to see first-hand how the Irish people are recovering from the economic malaise that has plagued the country since the GFC began in 2008.

I must admit, as a world traveller, I found my trip to Ireland to be inspiring, humbling, and reaffirming. I was reminded of the importance that travel and tourism can play in building, and rebuilding, sustainable economies.

Gavin sheepdog Ireland April 2014

Gavin holding one of the farmer’s remarkable sheepdog

The people of Ireland are exceptional, gracious, warm and welcoming. From the ‘Garda’ at the airport in Knock who greeted us at immigration, to the pipers upon our arrival at Ashford, their genuine friendliness and hospitality make them enchanting. They have endured hard times of late, seeing their nation go from a period of unprecedented growth and confidence to economic devastation. Yet,
their natural strength and brightness of spirit shine through. Their hardships have inspired their passion and creativity. Whatever the circumstances, the Irish have an innately charming, authentic, stalwart and engaging spirit, which makes being in their company enriching, genuine and uplifting.  One immediately feels “at home” in Ireland.

As I looked for experiences for our guests to enjoy– from third generation Connemara sheep farmers whose remarkable dogs make this rugged landscape manageable, to Smokehouses that specialise in smoking wild smoked Irish salmon, or age-old story tellers like Mick and Eddie – all locals whose personal, lifelong knowledge of history and lifestyle make time stand still and memories to last a lifetime. It is these discoveries, uncovering these special opportunities to expose our guests to the real heart of our travel destinations that gives me an incredible sense of motivation and satisfaction.

Then there is Ashford Castle…


Ashford Castle in Co. Mayo, Ireland

Last year The Travel Corporation became the custodian of Ashford Castle, and over the winter began a loving, thoughtful multi-year project to restore this proud building to all of the grace and grandeur that it once was. It is remarkable to meet, and be able to directly support local artisans whose skills have created such a work of art as Ashford Castle. The love and care that they put into their craft injects an emotion into each and every piece. It is impossible not to feel it. I will never forget my time with gifted individuals such as Edward and David, who have rebuilt their businesses and put their greatest talents into each and every part of the castle, making Ashford a truly unique estate. And then there are the local community – in the adjacent town of Cong (where the Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara was filmed in 1952) who welcome and greet you at every street corner.

Ireland is a nation that rises above others. Anyone can find the statistics; an island of just under 4.6 million people, currently boasting a tourism sector attracting almost double its own population size. The tourism sector generates just over 9% of the country’s GDP and it creates jobs for over almost 1 in every 10 Irishmen/women. But, it’s truly what is behind the numbers that matters most.

As I write this, I know that Ireland is so much more than its history and its headlines. Like Irish poetry, when one looks closer, and deeper, the true richness is found. There is nothing ‘predictable’ about this small yet so diverse destination; rather it provides one with an enriching and rewarding experience.

Like any destination full of surprises and secrets, Ireland is best discovered by listening to the locals.  Their heart-warming sharing, the memory making, the spirit, the sentiment, the unparalleled personal connections are what make local experiences exceed all expectation – this is Ireland. This is what I will ensure we bring to life.

I am frequently asked where I would travel to next. For all the wonder that new destinations offer with their journeys of discovery, sometimes, just sometimes, the greatest adventure is one of rediscovery. Having been touched once more by Ireland, I have a new answer… Visiting Ireland.

THE MAGIC OF THE FIRST MOMENT: Discovering a Destination for the First Time

Gavin Tollman drinking Turkish Coffee – following which my fortune was read

Gavin Tollman drinking Turkish Coffee – following which my fortune was read

For those of us who work everyday to inspire people to discover the world around them, the greatest destinations can sometimes become a series of business plan strategies, marketing images, media exposure, and bookings targets. Our focus often shifts to the scorecard – to be filled by the number of guests taken to the destination, not the unforgettable sensation that our guests feel the first time they see an iconic place. I recently had an invaluable reminder of the sensation of first time travel, when a couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of experiencing Turkey for the first time (yes, this surprised me as well).

Gavin Tollman Departing the Blue Mosque, a visit that profoundly moved me

Departing the Blue Mosque, a visit that profoundly moved me

I arrived in Istanbul with a head ready for business meetings, but found myself awestruck, absolutely wonderstruck, by the excitement in my heart. Looking around me, the overwhelming wonder of all that I was seeing, hearing, sensing for the first time, had me no longer thinking about my travel business commitments in Turkey, but feeling this destination’s magic as a traveller. It was simply remarkable, and it was a ‘first moment’ experience I do not ever want to forget.

Gavin Tollman - A revealed masterwork inside Hagia Sophia

A revealed masterwork inside Hagia Sophia

As my few days in Turkey unfolded, and I visited some of the most unique places I have ever had the great fortune to see, it reminded me how our guests must feel. Similar to ourselves who work in the travel industry our clients arrive on their holiday, into a new place, ready to get down to business – exploring specific iconic sites, strolling the markets and savouring the regional delicacies, uncovering local haunts and meeting new friends as each day reveals an even greater understanding and emotional connection to the destination. The excitement of checking off highlights on their travel bucket lists suddenly is brought to a halt and they are simply awed by the magic of the first moment of being where they are, after dreaming of this place for so long. We have all seen it happen, and recently I felt this powerful sense of wonder again.

Gavin Tollman - Spice Market – a magnificent intermingling of smells, colours, tastes and sounds

Spice Market – a magnificent intermingling of smells, colours, tastes and sounds

Being there in Istanbul, immersed in the rich, deeply-rooted history of the city that has stood tall as the capital of three empires, admiring its majestic beauty, enjoying its delicious food – I found every single element of this truly captivating. But what was most penetrating for me, what I took with me that has been the most evocative, was its people – the voices, the smiles, the buzz, the pure beauty of the moment – these are the vital components that turn points on a map into places of magic. These are the ingredients that we need to ensure never ever fall by the wayside when we create those unforgettable holiday memories with Trafalgar.  After all, aren’t these ingredients why we all came into this great industry in the first place?



First impressions are critical, especially in travel and tourism, where meeting new people in new places is part of the joy of the journey of discovery. The immigration personnel and their processes need to be part of a destination’s welcoming committee.

Every day of the year, the Trafalgar team and I work tirelessly to promote travel and tourism. Our time, energy, money and focus are dedicated to enticing travellers to visit and discover new places. Despondently, there is one moment that can bring all of the excitement of travel to a painful halt: arrival into the Immigration Hall at an airport.

This painful reality was made vividly clear to me last Saturday evening when I arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport from New Zealand, followed by my cousin’s arrival at Heathrow from South Africa on Sunday morning. Both of us had to wait over two hours in line to go through immigration, which gave me plenty of time to mull this over. What I find baffling is that this exact moment of frustration is often a traveller’s first impression of a destination. The immigration hall is the first time that, once arriving into the country, contact is made with locals. This is where the promise of tourism marketing starts to be delivered… or not.

Knowing this, what should be a warm welcome often becomes a cold questioning of character. Staffing for arrivals cannot be that complicated. And these stern questions: Why are you here? Where are you staying? and When are you leaving? Is it possible to be any more unwelcoming?

Border control is of course an essential means of protecting citizens, and visitors. That is understood. The ‘why’ is not the issue – it’s the ‘how’.

If nations strive to make visitors feel welcome, training must be available to airport staff – immigration, customs, etc. – to fulfill their responsibilities, by looking at numbers and greeting travellers with a smile and a sense of pleasure. Even at London Heathrow airport, the world’s busiest international airport, it is possible. We saw and felt it during the 2012 Olympic Games. The airport experience was a smooth, swift, seamless and welcoming delight.

It can’t be that difficult to schedule teams around aircraft arrivals – after all, they always arrive announced, one knows how many travellers there are in every aircraft and they even know their citizenship.

First impressions are critical, especially in travel and tourism, where meeting new people in new places is part of the joy of the journey of discovery. The immigration personnel and their processes need to be part of a destination’s welcoming committee. This vital aspect of delivery of promise should always be a first priority of tourism authorities. There should be no second-guessing this global truism of travel.

As many unfortunate examples as there are in our travel world, there are examples of how to get it right, and keep it that way.

What have your experiences been? How would you improve the arrivals at airport immigration?

The 2012 Games an Emotional Trap?

Olympics in London 2012

Many of us are in the tourism industry are all too familiar with the effect of major events on destinations after the stadiums go dark – the inevitable post-event dip…

The London 2012 Olympic Games flame has been extinguished, and the flag officially handed over to the proud hosts in 2016, Rio de Janeiro. As widely acknowledged, the London Games were a great success – showcasing both the warmth and eccentricity of the host nation whilst never detracting from the main event – the competitive beauty of each of the sporting disciplines. The world became transfixed on numerous emotional comebacks, stirring victories, new world records, along with the return of familiar favourites and the introduction to fresh fame-achieving faces.

For Britain, the 2012 Olympic were the greatest Olympic Games in more than a century.  Truthfully it was their greatest-ever, with an impressive collection of both unforgettable moments combined with gold, silver and bronze medals.  The country stands proud.

And for the moment, the floodlights are shinning on the London Paralympics. However, for us in the business of tourism, it is time to ask the real question – what impact will the Games have on increasing tourism demand?

Before and during the games we witnessed the effect of the local authorities’ warnings around Games-related traffic congestion, hassles of traveller movements, and general anticipated chaos that an additional 600,000 extra overseas visitors would have on the City. Ironically, because of these warnings, and the Games events being for the most part outside of the city itself, London was a pleasure. For the few non Game attendees, getting around, sight-seeing and dining reservations were never easier.

But back to the central question – I am concerned that after all of the great mood and spirit generated by the Games, there is little effective action been taken to capitalize on the glow.

Many of us are in the tourism industry are all too familiar with the effect of major events on destinations after the stadiums go dark – the inevitable post-event dip. After the closing ceremony fireworks end, the hotels empty out and frequently the travel industry grind to a halt, for months. In this instance, the focus of travelers will, unless inspired, move beyond London. London could quickly become last season…

What does this mean? We need to be clear of the impact – good and bad – of major events. And must plan and promote accordingly. Now is the time to ensure that post-event interest and activity is re-ignited. Now is the time to ensure that we sell destination London and the United Kingdom.  The medal count and sold out event has become meaningless for travellers. We need to make sure there is still reason to love London.

Hosting major events is a huge high for the travel industry. It is however our job to make sure that we manage the risks of altitude sickness. London, take action, let’s ensure that you don’t fall into the same trap as others host destinations.


Travel Makes You Richer

“her passion for her country was both refreshing and knowledgeable and she added so much to the enjoyment of the holiday experience. It was a holiday that we could have ever imagined”

Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking more and more about what we gain from technology. Mobile phones. Tablets. Laptops. 24/7/365 connectivity. It is simply remarkable how technology has entered (as well as often invaded) all areas of our daily lives. Literally with one click we can reach almost anyone, find information on what we need, from almost anywhere, almost any time.

For those of us in the travel industry, technology continues to have a huge impact on not only how we do business, but also how travellers travel. Travel e-commerce is evolving at ever accelerating speeds. And with it, holiday decision-making is changing too and through technology we are finding a new world of travel. The concern is that both agents and suppliers are focusing on this channel, investing huge amounts to attract customers to their sites, with price as the primary differentiator.
What more could a traveller ask for?

What more, indeed.

What seems to be lost is why we travel in the first place. What about the ability to enjoy, stretch back, relax, and soak up all of the feeling of holiday rest, relaxation, and exploration dreamt of? What about the peace of mind that comes from knowing that all of the little things that take the big hassles out of getting from A to B and onto C are taken care of? What about the delight of discovering the little insights that only an insider – someone who knows and loves the destination – can share? And what about the moments of magic created for travellers that could never be known and planned by the traveller himself or herself.

And so importantly, what about the power of touch?

This is why guided holidays are so important as a travel choice. And so valued by travellers.

This morning, the first letter on my desk, following a whirl wind trip to Perth Australia, was once again a reiteration and reminder for me. It came from a very happy Australian guest who had recently traveled on one of our Trafalgar European trips. He is a self-professed experienced traveller. In addition to the complements that this client could not stop extending about the “quality of their journey, the attention to detail and the exceptional service”, he also could not stop complementing his travel director: “her passion for her country was both refreshing and knowledgeable and she added so much to the enjoyment of the holiday experience. It was a holiday that we could have ever imagined

Needless to say, client letters like these are an important reminder to us of the significance of what we do, directly, client by client. For all of the changes to our industry, the more technology out there, in fact the more we need touch. Travel is not about seeing the world has to photograph, it is about feeling all that the world has to share.

While clients may turn to the digital revolution to plan and book their trips, because they have instant access to supplier information and virtual price transparency. We cannot loose focus that the only variable that truly matters is the need to deliver an outstanding customer experience – the details, moments, and personal connections that turn a holiday into a lifelong memory.

The Forgotten Destination Icons

Royal Barge at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee River PageantWhen we think about travel and destinations, we often default to focusing on the icons, monuments, feats of engineering and natural wonders. We speak of their majesty, their history, their importance, their creation, and how they define aspects of each destination.

What we so often forget are the iconic personalities of a place – the people, past and present, who add a depth of richness and meaning to a place.

At no time, and nowhere, has there been a more powerful display of this than in London from 2nd to 5th June 2012. It was over these few days that the people of the United Kingdom and the world, came together, to celebrate Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 60 year reign.

Through English summer weather of  a cold pouring rain and winds blowing Union Jack flags into a dizzy show of the red, white and blue, an estimated million people lined the banks of the Thames to soak up not only the rain, but the spirit of her majesty. As the Queen and her family sailed down the Thames on the royal barge, decorated in Diamond Jubilee best, with a never-seen-before one thousand water craft following, she herself standing for a solid four hours despite the challenging weather, tens of millions around the world watched in warmer, drier environments, many with envy, thinking ‘how I wish I was there!’ And this was only the start of the events that took place in honour of the Queen.

One woman, 60 years at the throne, truly an icon. And while Big Ben stands tall, Westminster Abbey stands proud and Buckingham Palace stands royally, London’s icons simply became backdrops for the icon that was the crowning glory of not just the Commonwealth, but of the world – Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

For all of us in the travel and tourism industry, there is an important lesson here – one that we must literally and figuratively take to heart… we mustn’t forget the importance, influence and incredible impact of the iconic personalities of a destination.

The spirit of the Diamond Jubilee that took over not just London but all of the United Kingdom was not about a place; it was about the love and respect for a person. With this came an incremental hundreds of thousands of tourists to London in early June – shoulder period in tourism industry terms – as a random act of tourism impulse, or to see the city before the Olympians moved in. It was because of a Queen – a woman who has embraced for sixty years the duty that fell onto her elegant yet sturdy shoulders at a young age. Even the most cynical of royal family followers, could not deny it – She is special.

Through all of the celebrations, the pageantry and beauty of the city, ensured that destination Britain remained aspirational, and through the Queen a renewed ‘must see’ on “travel wish lists”. One iconic personality can be the difference between tourism industry stability and fragility. Iconic personalities are tourism assets, and must be celebrated with equal importance as buildings and history.

Destination London is able to see through the rain of the ongoing global economic crisis because of its love and appreciation of its most majestic of icons.

God save the Queen.

Destination USA – Leading By Example

Every once in a while – a rare occurrence as of late, but it does happen – a powerful leader exercises authority by acting with incredible humility, expressing genuine desire to learn more about an issue that is growing in importance. Such a period of learning has taken place, surprisingly, in a nation historically not known for humility – the United States of America. The issue: the value of the Tourism industry to American jobs, earnings and general wellbeing.

Trafalgar USA It all started with a flippant statement made by President Obama in 2009 at the beginning of the global economic crisis. His comment was targeted at Watt Street bankers hosting expensive conferences in Las Vegas while Main Street citizens were losing their jobs and pensions. That relatively simple comment opened up a complex process of presidential ‘re-education’, with leaders of American travel companies and associations descending on the White House, united by the US Travel Association, to set the record straight: travel, conferences and holidays create American jobs, fuel the American economy, and strengthen American competitiveness. Travel is exactly what America, and Americans need to get the economy moving again. With one of the most sought after, diverse, naturally, historically and culturally rich destinations of travellers worldwide, the United States of America has an asset that must be put to work.Since then, and to his credit, the President has taken concrete, confident steps to put travel and tourism at the centre of the American economy. Major national initiatives, from the relaunch of Brand USA (first time all states have come together with one voice), the passing of a bill regarding step-changing visa facilitation, creation of ESTA (tourist tax), increasing Consulates to issue more Visa’s in China and now the recently launched National Travel and Tourism Strategy, Significant, strategic, steps of substance which will transform the national tourism industry, quickly.As recently expressed in a White House bulletin,: “Last year, 62 million international tourists visited the United States and pumped a record $153 billion into local economies, helping to support the 7.6 million jobs in our travel and tourism industry. These numbers make tourism America’s number one service export.”

Clearly the President ‘gets it’, and is focused on getting the industry working harder, smarter, stronger, together.

I am in fact currently travelling in the Unites Sates, on Trafalgar’s Historic Highlights. I am writing from the Nation’s Capital this morning – having spent yesterday with my fellow travellers awed by the beauty of the city, poignancy of its monuments and rich history. Speaking of which we leave for Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic estate this morning.

The global tourism community needs to take notice of this important act of leadership. Through concrete steps, the USA has ensured that it will break through destiantional clutter and showcase itself. And in doing so, positioned itself as one of the world’s loudest champions of the travel and tourism sector.

And now destination competitors!

The Current & Anticipated Absurdity of UK Arrivals

London Olympics 2012In a matter of weeks, Great Britain is going to see an unprecedented wave of tourists lining up at immigration desks across the kingdom. Hundreds of thousands of tourists, each one excited to have their passport stamped so they can spend their time and money in London and the surroundings areas.

The first wave will come for the Diamond Jubilee, the second wave for the Olympic Games and Paralympics, and after that, the hoped for waves of tourism legacy.

Last month Heathrow already saw a 6% rise in capacity, pushing it beyond 70m passengers in a 12-month period for the first time in its history. Local Parliamentarians are warning that Heathrow may not be able to cope with the extra passengers. The consequence is that travellers will face endless lines, something I personally recently encountered, at border control.

Why? Because the UK has decided that the most important major events of 2012, if not the decade, do not warrant special treatment at Great Britain’s front door. A skeleton staff of immigration officials is adequate. The tourists can wait. Having personally been one of masses forced to wait almost two hours to get through immigration (a length of time longer than my actual flight’s flying time), the feeling of annoyance, is acute. I, like the hundreds waiting in line around me, could not help but think: “how are they going to do the Olympics?”

The immigration and tourism officials of one of the world’s foremost tourism destinations –a destination on top of wish lists of millions of travellers, and set to experience an economic impact of the Games alone is estimated at GBP 2 billion – needs to see just how unwelcoming they are looking, and acting.

How have they forgotten the fundamental of hospitality? This is not complicated – we learnt these lessons as children when taught about how to treat visitors to our homes: welcome your guests, make them feel at home, help them as much as you can, and do all you can to ensure they enjoy their visit. I hope they wake up before the damage is done and through their actions deterring tourists from returning.