The Tollmans: Family Matters

Pictured: At Ashford Castle: The mother-son duo of Beatrice and Brett Tollman with the castle’s Irish Wolfhounds, Cronin and Garvin.

It’s a breezy warm summer’s day and we’re visiting with Beatrice and Brett Tollman at their family farm in Connecticut. The South African-born mother and son are a strong force in the travel community; Mrs. Tollman, or Bea as she is widely known, is the founder and president of Red Carnation Hotels, which has 17 four- and five-star boutique properties in the UK, Ireland, South Africa, Switzerland and the U.S. Brett is the chief executive of The Travel Corporation, whose powerhouse portfolio includes Red Carnation, as well as Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Insight Vacations and its new Luxury Gold offshoot; Trafalgar; Contiki; African Travel and Brendan Vacations, to name just a few. Indeed, with all of the entities included, the portfolio serves 2 million guests a year.

The dynamic is instantly apparent upon sitting down with the two Tollmans for this story; there’s a quiet synergy between them — each occasionally completing the other’s sentences or adding to the other’s thought when trying to paint an image of how things work at their very far-reaching businesses.

How do things work? Any insight provided always comes down to a common denominator. Things work at Red Carnation, and throughout The Travel Corporation, because of the people who work there. Some of the people are related. Stanley Tollman, Beatrice’s husband, and Brett’s father, is the founder and chairman of The Travel Corporation. Brett’s older sister, Toni Tollman, is the director of design and projects for Red Carnation and Uniworld. His younger sister, Vicki Tollman, is the director of the family’s highly acclaimed Bouchard Finlayson Winery in South Africa and director of Red Carnation Hotels. His cousin, Gavin Tollman, is CEO of Trafalgar. Another cousin, Michael Tollman, is CEO of Cullinan Holdings, which includes several tourism, travel and leisure brands in South Africa, including Thompsons, Pentravel and Hylton Ross.

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There are so many elements to The Travel Corporation, but today our conversation in Connecticut is focusing on Red Carnation, a bit of Uniworld and an enterprise with a family bond that’s incredibly tight.

The unit is one that Bea Tollman is adamant about keeping strong.

“Our family motto is, ‘In pursuit of excellence,’ which means you should be good at what you do, or to try and do the best you can to make it as perfect as possible,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “We all have that and we’re very lucky because we all work together and we all participate in everything that we can together.” At the core of that pursuit, particularly at Red Carnation, she says is a keen focus on simply giving the guest what they want.

“Your guests teach you your business,” she says, noting that their simple feedback can explain how well a property’s staff is working and how the hotel is running overall. Vital hints can be found out about how the guests responded to food in a restaurant, what people like and if a new dish has been a hit or a miss.

Based in London, Tollman makes it a point to inspect all of the hotels in the portfolio as often as possible; and when she goes, it’s for a very intensive visit. No matter where she is in the world, her daily routine can be much the same ­— receiving reports every single day from every hotel in the portfolio, sometimes up to 150 pages, faxed by her personal assistant, who receives updates via e-mail from all of Red Carnation’s hotel managers. Tollman delves in to the notes on who is arriving, which room they’ve been assigned and how often they’ve stayed before. Management also cites what’s been done to ensure each stay is personal to that guest. Tollman also scours the guest comments and takes the time to respond, even to write a hand-written letter if she feels that would be appropriate.

“Once you’ve reached a standard, you can’t slip. You actually have to work harder,” she says.

The information delivered by hotel managers digs deep. For example, a report from The Oyster Box in Durban, South Africa provided observations on revenue; bookings and a general overview with notes on the weather; how many guests were in house; the number of arrival rooms and departure rooms; and the average room rate. The split between local / South African guests and international visitors was also indicated, as well as the names of the guests and how long they were staying. Food and beverage notes included how many covers were handled across all of the outlets, from the Ocean Terrace to the Palm Court, to room service to the Grill Room.

 

Notes also cite preferences guests have shown throughout the day, from what was chosen for breakfast to which cocktails were ordered in the evening. Fun Fact: While today such information is recorded on iPads and stored in an electronic CRM system, Tollman has index cards dating back to 1974 with details on past stays and preferences.

Tollman also receives the latest reports from TripAdvisor, where the competition is keen for top rankings, particularly in a city like London, which is known for its five-star hotels. The Milestone, 41, The Egerton House, The Chesterfield and The Montague are often among the hotels favored by consumers and Tollman encourages them to engage in a friendly competition for the lead.

When we visited TripAdvisor recently, The Montague had top billing in London with comments such as: “Returning to The Montague was like returning home — the staff was so friendly and helpful that you felt welcome from the moment you arrived. Nothing seemed to be too much trouble. The food was excellent and the hotel was conveniently placed to visit local attractions.”

 

Hotel 41 was close on its heels, with comments such as, “It’s not just the comfortable beds, soft linens, fluffy towels, excellent coffee and countless other amenities that make this a great hotel. It’s the remarkable staff. From the moment we ‘checked in’ we were treated to warm, greeting smiles.” The Milestone, further down in the rankings, at least for this day, was no slouch: “I have stayed at many hotels in most continents. This place holds a special place in my heart. Last time I was here I was away from home on a super sad trip during Christmas and the genuine attention I received from the staff was outstanding and went way beyond my expectations.”

Tollman says that any positive comments can mean so much, — from the simple, “We liked our room,” to “We loved your hotel and enjoyed the food,” — but, in the end, the most positive reviews come down to the service, and, “it’s always mostly about the staff,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

“That’s so important, because they make your business for you. They’ve got to be sincere, and they’ve got to be well-trained, and that’s what we really spend a lot of time on, the training, and giving them the opportunities to grow. Because the thing is, it’s a very boring life if you’re a maid, doing the beds every day, just the same thing. There’s nothing at the end of the road to make your efforts seem worthwhile.” She said many employees have risen through the ranks at Red Carnation. One example she is especially proud of is Adam Lake, who started working for Red Carnation Hotels at the age of 16 as a linen porter at The Rubens at the Palace. He’s now the general manager of  The Chesterfield Mayfair. “That’s such a good example for others,” says Tollman. “Anybody can be anything at Red Carnation Hotels if you try hard to get the opportunity. They all have the opportunity to grow. The thing that means most to me in the hotel business is that anybody can do anything, and anybody can be anybody,” says Tollman.

The Sunday Times frequently names Red Carnation Hotels as a top company to work at in the U.K.; it’s been in the Top 10 for the past three years. “That tells me we’re doing the right thing,” says Tollman. “Because without your staff, you haven’t got a hotel, I don’t care how many people you’ve got working there, if they don’t know what they’re doing or they don’t care, it doesn’t matter.”

De rigueur at all hotels are monthly afternoon teas where prizes are awarded to top performers and for those who have been recognized for delivering, “TNTs,” or “Tiny Noticeable Touches” to the guest. 

And then there’s Christmas, when Beatrice Tollman buys every employee a present. That’s 4,000 presents. And each March, Red Carnation holds a gala appreciation party in London for 1,000 team members, including 50 from South Africa for a special evening where awards are presented and there’s plenty of music from a 16-piece band flown in from Paris and dancing to celebrate.

“It’s the most wonderful night to look forward to,” says Tollman. “It’s my favorite night, you know, because everyone is so happy. I do it because how do you say, ‘thank you?’ People work so hard in a hotel, it can be until the middle of the night. It’s early mornings, seven days a week, and you often have to call on your staff to work overtime.”

Tollman pays special credit to two individuals who lead the Red Carnation team: “I am brilliantly assisted by Jonathan Raggett, our managing director, who works tirelessly to help maintain and embellish our renowned high stands and philosophy,” she says. “We are equally very proud to work very closely with Terry Holmes, executive director of Red Carnation for the past 15 years. Terry is a font of knowledge and experience, which benefits our team and hotels every day.”

Comfort Food

At the heart of Red Carnation Hotels is a fixed focus on dining, in which Tollman, a self-taught chef, is deeply involved as well. An excellent cook, she has published five editions of her cookbook, “A Life in Food,” with many of the dishes appearing on her hotels’ menus, and on Uniworld’s as well. Of note is “Bea’s Chicken Soup,” “The best Dover sole in London,” and “pot roast brisket and chicken.” Comfort food is clearly her style; she feels that’s what guests are looking for when they travel. Tollman speaks with the  hotel chefs weekly, carefully reviewing menu orders to be sure guests are being served what they like. “If the guests don’t eat it, then clearly they’re showing you that’s not the type of menu item they like,” says Brett Tollman. “Getting this feedback every week gives her a good idea of what they’re buying. That’s a clear indicator of giving the customer what they want, which is another one of our core philosophies.”

Designing Touches

When in London, Beatrice Tollman can be found in her office, which she refers to as “the Madhouse.” There she has one long dining room table where she sits with a team that keeps many aspects of the business going, especially the design and upkeep of all the hotels and the river cruise ships.

“There are so many things to think about, to check in on to be sure nothing’s getting shabby,” says Tollman.

She’s also keen on designing hotels that are true to their location. If a guest is coming to London, they want to see something that is traditionally English, she says. For that reason she frequently buys antique furniture to reflect a hotel’s history, but mixes in fresh furnishings to keep the image vibrant. “You don’t want it to be old and dowdy,” she tells us. “You want something that’s going to be colorful, where the fabrics are lovely, and you have fantastic bedheads, because the bedhead is the focal point of the room. It’s got to be comfortable. It’s got to be practical. It can also be glamorous. It’s a matter of mixing a lot of things.”

She designs a variety of rooms at each hotel so that the guest has something else to try on their next visit.

“When I did The Milestone, I did every single one of the 63 rooms differently,” says Tollman. “There are no two alike. It’s difficult, but it’s different. People love that. I try to make life more interesting.”

Such skills were greatly needed when the Tollmans purchased Ashford Castle in Ireland and ventured on a $70 million renovation of the vast estate, which was built in 1228 and had been in the Guinness family for 150 years. Brett had expressed an interest in purchasing the property, which had fallen in to receivership, but his father, Stanley, wasn’t initially too keen on the concept. That all changed when the Tollmans traveled together to inspect it; the drive up to the main building was so dramatically beautiful and the greeting they got from the staff was so heartwarming, Stanley decided to purchase it on the spot.

Bea Tollman began work on the décor of the hotel as quickly as possible while leaks through the property were fixed, pipes and windows were replaced and air conditioning and Wi-Fi were installed. She also oversaw the rebuilding of the kitchens, where she had all the equipment replaced.

Once the dust had settled, she put in to effect her practice of presenting each staff member with a Christmas present. That meant a lot to many of them. As she tells it, “I was walking down the passage past the restaurant, and two ladies who work there came up to me, and said, ‘You know, Mrs. Tollman, we thank you for the present, we’ve worked here for 15 years and nobody’s ever bought us anything.’” The gifting didn’t end there; over the years when the hotel was in hard times, the staff had taken a cut in salary. “After we bought it, my husband repaid them everything that was deducted from their salaries for the last few years,” says Tollman. “He gave them all that money back, and increased their pay by the same amount we increase our staff everywhere, every year.”

With the castle needing such a broad-reaching refurbishment, the décor was almost the easiest part of the project, says Tollman, who bought up as many four-poster beds as she could find at auction. She took special care to design each room individually and to respect the grandeur of each; some even have 30-foot ceilings. “Also, people at that time didn’t have walk-in closets, so I had to buy wardrobes for every room,” she says.

Local artisans and materials were used throughout, with much work done to repair surfaces that had been repeatedly varnished over the years. An architect redesigned the bathrooms, which now sport marble finishing with the hotel’s emblem in full view. Toni Tollman oversaw the process, along with Brian Brennan and Terry Gelfand, who head up projects for Red Carnation and Uniworld.

The gardens at Ashford Castle needed to be replanted as well; and a cinema, a pool and a spa were also added for the first time.

The hotel is performing well, with many guests from the United States visiting in search of their Irish roots. TripAdvisor reports are extremely positive; as we were going to press, one recent visitor posted: “This is a magical place, the castle and grounds are simply beautiful, the rooms are impressive, and the beds very comfortable. The staff was top notch, every single person was friendly and helpful.”

Truth is, having Ashford Castle in the family is gratifying to Brett Tollman, who has fond memories of visiting it as a boy.

“Brett always loved to fish,” his father, Stanley Tollman, told us during our visit.“We took him to Ashford Castle and he caught a giant brown trout. If you go to Ashford Castle today, they have a hall of fame with everybody who’s ever stayed there, from John Wayne to the Reagans and the Kennedys. Hanging up is a picture of Brett with his big brown trout.”

Brett Tollman says he is ecstatic over how the renovation turned out. “As a remarkable hotel brand, I thought it would benefit Red Carnation overall, and also be a wonderful family asset for generations to come,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. In fact, the extended Tollman clan was off to Ashford Castle just two days after our visit, after stopping off in New York to attend the Travel + Leisure World’s Best awards where five of their hotels — Hotel 41, The Milestone, The Egerton House and The Chesterfield Mayfair in London, as well as Ashford Castle — were winners. Uniworld also took home the top award for river cruises.

The family can work, and vacation together because there is a conscious effort to get along well. “We have a high level of respect for each other,” says Brett Tollman. “That’s a very important aspect of any relationship, familial or otherwise. We’re very careful not to get in a disagreement because that is a slippery slope and we’ve seen terrible examples of that within family businesses.”

“My husband has a wonderful thing that he’s taught all of the children,” says Bea Tollman. “He said, ‘If you take a box of matches and you put all the matches together, you can’t break them. But if you don’t hold them all together, you can easily break each one of them down.”

She says that it’s important the entire family has the single ambition of building a solid business. “If you have jealousy and competition, it can so easily break down. We are determined that it’s not going to happen because we all respect each other and we all know that everybody works so hard and cares so much. You can always get around a slight problem as long as you can be open and talk about it.”

Brett Tollman echoes a similar sentiment. “We’re all passionate about the same thing, which is the business and the customers and our people,” he remarks.

Watch for that philosophy to continue on through the coming years.

“The future sustainability of our family business, moving into our fourth generation, is essential and looking bright,” says Brett Tollman. “As a family, we remain passionately committed to continuing our parents’ legacy of providing an outstanding, consistent quality of service, experiences and value to every guest and traveler, across all of our brands.” 

Brett Tollman: Walking the Talk

Brett Tollman, CEO of The Travel Corporation, learned his mother’s tenets for running a good hotel as a young boy, when his family was opening The Tollman Towers in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa. He would follow his mother, taking notes as she inspected each room. He still carries that careful attention to detail as he runs the day-to-day of The Travel Corporation (TTC). Based in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and three children, he says his work ethic comes from watching his parents being very hands-on as leaders. “My father has an expression, ‘Never shirk a journey,’” says Tollman, whose job takes him on the road more than 220 days of the year. He looks for similar values even when he’s hiring. “You want someone who has that passion, who puts people at the heart of everything they do,” he tells us.

Tollman is constantly reviewing TTC’s businesses to ensure “every brand walks the talk.” On any given day he can be found conferring with the marketing department, checking on final product pricing and reviewing upcoming brochures, say, for Trafalgar, Insight or Contiki. Product development for future tours is always in play as well.

When we met recently, he had just conducted three advisory boards across the United States. “Our trade partners are essential to our business and to every single one of our brands, so spending time with them is very important,” says Tollman. And that’s not just updating them on what’s new and different, but getting constructive feedback from them, he adds.

An advisory board meeting provided great input for one of The Travel Corporation’s newest product lines, initially called Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations. Advisors suggested the branding of the luxury company should be separated from Insight, and so in 2017, it will be called “Luxury Gold - Curated by Insight Vacations.”

Tollman says he always enjoys the yearly February kickoff meeting for the Uniworld Boutique River Collection, where he spends time getting to know 400 crew members as well as the culinary team. He’s just made a big change at Uniworld by appointing Ellen Bettridge as the new CEO and president of the cruise line, which is launching a new ship, the S.S. Joie de Vivre, on the Seine next spring.

Having worked for American Express, Silversea, Sandals and Azamara, Bettridge is known for her strong relationships with luxury travel advisors. “I’ve known and worked with Ellen for a decade — she embodies everything that makes her the perfect match to lead Uniworld forward,” notes Tollman. “She is truly special and unique. Her beauty, her style, her passion and drive, her personal engagement, discipline and superb emotional intelligence make her one of the very best at relationships and is the perfect match for our stunning ships and experiences.”

The Tollmans don’t intend to stand still with any of their product lines and it’s possible there will be more additions to Red Carnation Hotels, say Tollman. Edinburgh and Dublin are of interest but the family is taking a long-term view and looking at only the types of jewels that would fit in to its portfolio, like Ashford Castle.

So watch for growth, but only growth that will help TTC remain solid from a business standpoint.

“By solid we mean, we have no mortgages or debts on any of our assets,” explains Tollman. “We’ll always be cautious in terms of not expanding or acquiring too much.”

A major initiative of The Travel Corporation is giving back via its non-profit TreadRight Foundation, whose goal is to ensure that the environment and communities TTC visits “remain vibrant and preserved for generations to come.” TreadRight has supported more than 35 sustainable tourism projects worldwide. Past project partners include WWF, Conservation International and The National Trust in the U.K. Currently, TreadRight is sponsoring the National Geographic Society’s inaugural “World Legacy Awards,” to combat wildlife crime with WildAid, and empowering individuals with the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. “As a family we’ve had our share of ups and downs and what you learn from life is that it’s always important to give back and that’s really the foundation and the principle behind Treadright,” said Tollman.

Red Carnation Hotels

London

The Milestone Hotel
41 Hotel
The Egerton House Hotel
The Chesterfield Mayfair
The Montague on the Gardens
The Rubens at the Palace

Ireland

Ashford Castle, Cong
The Lodge at Ashford Castle, Cong

Guernsey

The Old Government House
The Duke of Richmond

Dorset, England

Summer Lodge Country House
The Acorn Inn

Geneva, Switzerland

Hotel d’Angleterre

South Africa

The Twelve Apostles Hotel
Bushmans Kloof
The Oyster Box

Florida

The Chesterfield, Palm Beach

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