Meet Brett Tollman, chief executive The Travel Corporation

We interviewed the impressive Brett Tollman, Chief Executive at The Travel Corporation and Founder of The TreadRight Foundation.

In terms of interest and commitment to responsible tourism, how would you rate Australians as compared to other nationalities?

Better than most. Certainly visiting this country – I’ve been coming here since 1994 on my honeymoon – Australians fare really well. Certainly their awareness, knowing our team, meeting a lot of media, I think Australians are more involved. I was just reading an article on Neil Perry and you’re all very connected to farm-to-table and I think you’ve had more interest and awareness around our planet and the issues facing it. Obviously prior governments have tried to do more, for better or worse, with carbon taxes and so forth. Australia and Canada, I always rank, as the two most aware citizens interested in and aware of and trying to make a difference in sustainability and responsible travel.

Interview with Brett Tollman from The Travel Corporation and the TreadRight Foundation
Brett Tollman, Craig and Marc Kielburger from Me to We.

Are you finding a more active interest in the Treadright Foundation and its work from a particular age group or demographic?

Certainly more Gen Z and Millenials. I think it’s incumbent on us to do a better job of storytelling and to get our stories out there. We have been fairly cautious or careful because we do this for the purpose of giving back and doing the right thing, not to use it as a platform for promoting and talking about what a great job we do – because I certainly don’t think we are doing anywhere near enough. But the last couple of years with the likes of our Sydney head of PR and communications, Vanessa Budah’s involvement, and her colleague Marie-Anne McCraig who is her equivalent in Canada, we are trying to do better storytelling. In some of our latest videos (SEE LINKS BELOW) we did around our SOS India activation, we did try and help rehabilitate elephants away from tourism or a social enterprise for women in Jordan. We’re still a little cautious of not trying to over-egg it or over-extend it and not be accused of greenwashing or doing it for a certain purpose.

What are some of Treadright’s most significant initiatives when it comes to the future of our oceans and conservation of marine life? For instance, I believe you are working closely with Celine Cousteau?

I would say our most important effort is around the elimination of single-use plastics. Obviously our oceans are dying and that’s from the large plastic island that’s out there, to marine life-consuming plastics, to learning when one does beach clean-ups about some of the issues. I just read an article about some people who are fishermen involved with the ocean and had an open wound and these incredible infections that they’ve had; or how young girls coming into the oceans can get advanced puberty issues and so forth at seven and eight years of age. With Australia and its reef challenges, our oceans are under terrible duress and none of us are doing enough. There’s salmon farming that is again putting terrible after-effects into the oceans and rivers, the by-products of mining etc. None of us are doing enough and we certainly need to do more.

Interview with Brett Tollman from The Travel Corporation and the TreadRight Foundation
Plastic pollution

I notice one of the Make Travel Matter pledges is: “When possible, I will offset my travels”. What are your thoughts on the current jet-and-flight shaming commentary taking place?

In one sense, it’s a big worry. If people say they’re not going to fly, it affects all of us, not just the industry, but people in general. I think it would be devastating to our planet, for so many reasons. People not being able to go to Africa and benefitting the local communities; and those people who wouldn’t have incomes from tourism and would be forced to then go into poaching for example, which is what many people do today.  That would decimate the wildlife in Africa. I don’t think it’s the solution. We collectively need to put pressure on airlines to bring new biofuels and new solutions to the fore.

We do provide carbon offsetting as options for our customers but I’m not a big believer in it because carbon offsetting just moves the problem from here to there, and you can pay money and that money is going to do this or that, but it really doesn’t reduce obviously the amount of carbon we are putting into the air or into the environment. Obviously, if it helps someone’s emotional view that my footprint is bad so either I offset or I don’t travel, I’d rather they obviously offset than not travel. But it is an interesting discussion that’s going on out there.

The bottom line is our industry needs to coalesce and do a lot more, a lot faster, before we become one of the poster-children of what’s bad about the planet is travel and tourism. There are a lot bigger polluters than us but we’re all accountable and responsible and obviously consumer behaviour will ultimately affect what happens and what people do. Anywhere you look in the world, we as a race are so destructive. If you ask the question about what percentage of people are aware of and interested in reducing their footprint and travelling more sustainably, I don’t think it’s more than five or ten per cent. We do not see that behaviour. It is typically more expensive, whether you’re staying in a property that’s been built out of recycled materials or trying to travel with alternatives to plastic. We’ve eliminated plastic water bottles on all our trips. I was just out at Uluru and we’ve moved to a water bottle made out of cardboard rather than plastic, but that costs 20 per cent more than a plastic water bottle and we’ve moved in that direction. But it’s just one example of having a lighter footprint. So far, until technology or other inventions obviously come to the fore that are most cost-effective, it is more expensive.

Can you tell us more about the ‘Me to We’ tour program – what sort of work can travellers get involved in?

That for me is the most sustainable and the most amazing way to have a holiday. As a family, as a young person, they have overland trips. I’ve taken my family so far to Kenya three years ago, India last year and next year I’m taking them to Ecuador as they celebrate their 25th birthday. What they do on the ground has been around for almost more than 25 years. It is truly sustainable in every sense. They have five pillars and when you see each of them in the works, on the ground, it really opens your heart and mind to how beneficial this is to the local populations.

When we’re brought up in the west where you having running water and a toilet in your home, we take all that for granted. You go to India and in places like Rajasthan which has one of the highest mortality rates, where there are more women in poverty. Throughout most schools in India, they have dual bathrooms with no doors on the bathrooms, so when girls start menstruating, it’s so embarrassing they stay home instead. Me to We builds separate bathrooms with doors on them – very simple, and girls stay in school. You go to Africa where women and girls have to carry water every day which can be two miles away. It’s polluted water but obviously they need water to feed their animals and gardens, and to drink. When Me to We comes in and they do water wells or water access very close by, women can then work and girls can go to school. So they are two very simple examples of what they do – sanitary conditions, safe food supply, education where they build schools and now they’re starting to build colleges, to clean water and medical supplies. The benefits you see in the community are amazing. You go visit a girls school and talk to 11th graders and they talk about the medicinal benefits of strawberry leaves that they are growing. Or how they all want to go away and be doctors and lawyers and come back to their own communities and benefit the local community. I’m the biggest advocate and disciple of the founders, brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, and what the Me to We organisation does as a charity – it is really being a change for good.

Interview with Brett Tollman from The Travel Corporation and the TreadRight Foundation
Me to We Volunteer program

They talk about not giving a hand out but a hand up. So five years after they build these schools, they hand them back to the communities. We visited the first school they built in Kenya 24 years ago. Today the school runs itself. They just implemented their own solar panel system, the flowers were beautiful, all the kids were in lovely uniforms and smiling and they were all in school. It’s just magnificent to see. There are companies out there that do voluntourism and obviously someone comes in, you paint a wall, you leave and then the next person comes in and paints the same wall. But here, you come in and you’re building a school that’s in some part or process, it might take two years but you know when that school is finished it goes from 100 kids to 600 kids. It’s phenomenal how much it benefits the community. You go to these social enterprise places and you see the women beading these bracelets that they make and then they’re sold at Nordstrom in the US for instance. You can track it using a QR code so you see where your $5 is going and who it benefits. Microsoft is a big supporter or theirs; their CEO has been on these trips and provided all this technology for them pro bono. You go and you meet some of these women and you learn how getting a paycheque every week has benefited these women. If one is concerned about the impact you have when travelling and how you want to make a difference, for me it’s the most authentic way. For us, rather than trying to operate our own voluntourism trips, we couldn’t do it end to end, so we’ve partnered with Me to We. There’s nothing in it for us but it allows those travellers who want to do an authentic trip to either buy a seven-day trip either through us or through our travel partners, or they can book direct; or do a pre- or post-trip on the back of an Adventure World trip to India; or a Trafalgar trip to Africa – or whatever it might be. The trips appear in our brochures and websites too. 

The brands within the Travel Corp portfolio all differ in terms of the demographic and style of travel they offer. How has your organisation worked to ensure that the Treadright Foundation ethos is applied and executed consistently across your family of brands and 10,000 staff globally?

It’s a journey we’ve been on for more than a decade. It’s just talking about it and addressing it every day. We have a number of communication tools internally. We run the Salesforce platform for CRM; we use Microsoft tools internally and that enables us to communicate with everyone globally. I do a monthly video update and I talk about one of our core beliefs and provide updates on TreadRight. It’s internal storytelling and it’s mandating it from the top. We’re eliminating single-use plastics from our offices and that’s a journey we’ve been on now for a couple of years. It doesn’t happen overnight. We’ve identified all the single-use plastics we had, eliminating them from our vending machines for instance. Whatever we order in for food deliveries, for example, we only want to work with companies that don’t use single-use plastics in their containers. It’s a long journey. We’ve eliminated rubbish bins at every work station so you’ve got to walk somewhere to drop off your rubbish – we all do that and you can see how much less you throw away.

With our internal teams, we provide two paid days of leave per year to volunteer in local communities and we do see about 75 per cent of our team volunteering every year. We’re trying to get that to 100 per cent so it’s about sharing continual updates each month.

We just rolled out our Make Travel Matter pledge which is really for every brand to uphold and represents what TreadRight is all about. It’s just saying that we as individuals as well as members of the TTC team uphold that we will not travel and be cruel to animals, we will not engage in an animal experience that’s inappropriate; we won’t use single-use plastics and if we do, we’ll make sure that we recycle them; we’ll respect the places and the homes we visit as if they were our own so that we’re not heavy-handed and we tread right, and we tread light.

The pledge was launched on World Tourism Day on 27 September and we take no credit for it but recognise Palau’s First Lady, Debbie Remengesau,  who introduced the Palau Pledge. We’ve emulated that and the idea is we wanted to get it bedded down within our own eco-system first and the idea is we’re going to imminently rolling it out to our travel agency partners and our travellers. Some of our brands such as Trafalgar, Uniworld and Contiki have already shared it with our travellers, explaining what it is and asking them to sign up for it.

I want us to walk the talk which is what we always want to do, so we need to sign up for it first. Within the next six to 12 months I’d like to see hundreds of thousands of people or millions of people who travel with us committing to it. Just like when you arrive on the island of Pilau, that pledge goes into your passport and they ask you to sign it before you leave immigration.

Interview with Brett Tollman from The Travel Corporation and the TreadRight Foundation

What do you see the future of travel looking like, say in 20 years’ time, when it comes to responsible tourism? What practices do you hope will most certainly be banned by then and what mindset do you hope more travellers will have?

That travel is a force for good. That the more we travel and the more we experience places, the less wars there will be. A better understanding of each other, acceptance and tolerance. That we travel more off the beaten path – not to say one avoids London, Venice or Sydney, but that when you’re going to a place, sure you might want to spend two days in Sydney but then get out to Uluru or go to Tasmania where their incredible beaches are empty.
Where travellers want to explore the world, see new places – we certainly are seeing those trends; that we do travel with a conscience; we do travel with a lighter and smaller footprint.

There’s a man by the name of Paul Polman, ex CEO of Unilever and over his past 10 years when at the company, he made a dramatic difference in their footprint. Unilever is one of the most admired companies around the world today; for a company that uses a lot of plastic and makes household goods but it’s really on the back of what Paul has done. Concurrently he was able to grow the profits of the company, one of the largest public companies in the world. So he has proven that you can make a difference and reduce your footprint and grow your profits. There are too many companies out there that say they’re putting their shareholders first and ‘we can’t do it’. There’s growing discussion about changing the dynamic that public companies should not necessarily put their shareholders first because that is not necessarily in the benefit of the planet. So we need to coalesce our industry.

Interview with Brett Tollman from The Travel Corporation and the TreadRight Foundation
The Travel Corporation

We had Paul talk to the World Travel and Tourism Council that we’re a member of, which represents about 200 of the largest and medium-sized players in the travel and tourism industry including Marriott, Hilton, Accor Hotels. We don’t have enough airlines there but Emirates and Qatar are there; as well as a lot of cruise lines and tour operators. I brought Paul in to talk to the group as he’s now started an organisation called Imagine Inc. with the name coming from the John Lennon song ‘Imagine’. Obviously those lyrics are all about imagining a world that is better than it is today and how we can do that. He’s looking to focus on fashion as an industry, how it can reduce its footprint; as well as travel and tourism. So he’s working with myself and a number of other industry leaders to say ‘You’re not doing enough and you need to be more courageous, brave and move faster because if you don’t, the world is going to react against you’.

We spoke in New York recently and Paul spoke in front of a number of our members who were there during Climate Week and he screamed at us and said we’re all not doing enough, we’re not moving fast enough. It’s an incredible industry but unless you take more of a leadership position, it’s really going to hurt you. I’m a total believer in that and I want to help us as an industry to move faster. We signed up that by 2050, all members of the World Travel and Tourism Council would be carbon neutral and I certainly don’t believe that’s fast enough.

So 20 years from now, many more travels being carbon neutral would be a start, but not just from offsetting.

The Pledge:

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