Skift Take

There's a long road ahead to achieving environmental sustainability in the travel industry. It involves a lot of effort from companies, but travelers and governments have to get on board too.

Hundreds of the travel industry’s most forward-thinking executives will gather for our first Skift Forum Asia in Singapore on May 27. In just a few years, Skift’s Forums — the largest creative business gatherings in the global travel industry — have become what media, speakers, and attendees have called the “TED Talks of travel.”

Focusing on top marketers, strategists, and technologists in the APAC region who are defining the future of travel, Skift Forum Asia 2019 will take place at Equarius Hotel in Singapore.The Forum will feature speakers including CEOs and top executives from AirAsia,, Genting Cruise Lines, Jumeirah, Oyo, Rakuten, and many more. The following is part of a series of posts highlighting the speakers and touching on issues of concern in Asia and beyond.

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Sustainability means many things to Brett Tollman, CEO of The Travel Corporation, one of the world’s largest private travel companies, with more than 30 brands including tour operators, hotels, and river cruises. He evaluates a travel experience based on how it affects people, animals, as well as the environment.

When it comes to that last factor, Tollman is especially concerned with reducing travelers’ reliance on single-use plastics. Targets include water bottles, non-biodegradable name tags, and plastic used throughout the supply chain. “We declared war a couple of years ago on plastics,” he said, noting that he’s also wary of replacing lots of plastic bottles with lots of giveaway reusable bottles. Reducing plastic throughout the supply chain may be tough, according to Tollman, but it’s on the agenda.

Tollman perceives that the travel industry has a tremendous amount of work to do, and that includes accountability for companies, travelers, and governments alike. Travelers themselves are sometimes hesitant to truly go green, especially if it costs them money or convenience.

“Our society is not far enough along, but it has to come,” he said.

Tollman will speak on May 27 at Skift Forum Asia in Singapore. He gave Skift a preview of his upcoming talk.

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Skift Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Skift: When you think about a sustainable tour, what kind of qualities come to mind?

Brett Tollman: We have three pillars in our nonprofit First, supporting our communities, particularly focused around women’s empowerment initiatives, and other projects and activities to benefit the local communities and cultures of the destinations we visit. The second aspect of sustainability is around our actual footprint, and the footprint of our travelers. The third one is being responsible in regards to animals, wildlife in Africa and India in particular, as pertains to the ethical treatment of and interaction with animals. That’s a declaration we signed back in 2014. We removed shark diving, running with the bulls, elephant riding, and so forth.

We declared war a couple of years ago on plastics. We have banished plastic water bottles that we’d previously given out or sold on our trips — we started that at the beginning of this year. We’ve been working for a couple of years now to remove all unnecessary single-use plastics throughout our supply chain and operations. This year we eliminated non-biodegradable name tags. We devised a reusable luggage tag, as opposed to the ones used in the past that just went into the landfill, and we’re moving to an e-documentation plan.

Skift: You have a lot of different brands that cater to different demographics, Contiki for example skewing a little younger. Do you find that any of these demographics value environmental sustainability more?

Tollman: Unfortunately not yet. There’s little messaging or discussion around it with much of the younger demographic, and it’s more noise than anything else, and certainly nothing we’ve seen today says that people are yet ready to pay more for a greener trip. In the older demographic there’s some awareness, but there’s not a lot of demand on the travelers’ part to seek that out.

One has to expect in the next five to 10 years it’s going to come. When you watch them on TV, all these 30- and 20-somethings on boats and trains are drinking from plastic water bottles and throwing them on the ground. In general our society is not far enough along, but it has to come because we’re killing our planet.

Skift: Do you find it difficult to deliver an upscale experience when you’re trying to incorporate reusable or refillable materials, which some people may associate with a budget experience?

Tollman: Not at all. As long as it doesn’t impact someone’s holiday or the guest experience, whether it’s luxury or whatever else, people are happy enough to go along with it, and as long as they’re not having to pay more.

Skift: What’s your most challenging goal when it comes to achieving environmental sustainability?

Tollman: In our hotels, it’s finding a good substitute for the small plastic bottles, which we plan to eliminate by the beginning of next year, which is our last big plastic item that we haven’t moved out of our hotels. On the traveling brand side, it’s getting the other parts of the supply chain to move up their targets.

It can be done, it just takes courage and effort. Let’s do it today, not postpone until next year.

Come See Brett Tollman Speak at Skift Forum Asia


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Tags: climate change, environment, plastics, sfa2019, skift forum asia, sustainability, the travel corporation

Photo credit: Brett Tollman, CEO of The Travel Corporation, is working toward environmental sustainability with the company's many brands. The Travel Corporation

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