Global tourism industry visionary, entrepreneur and philanthropist Stanley Tollman, founder and chairman of The Travel Corporation (TTC), has died at the age of 91 in the South of France following a battle with cancer.
Celebrated as an architect of the modern travel industry, inducted into The British Travel and Hospitality Hall of Fame, and the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Travel Weekly Globes (UK), Tollman was admired for his visionary leadership, innovative approach to travel experience development and innate understanding of excellence in hospitality.
He may best be remembered globally, by family, colleagues and peers as the beloved patriarch and visionary steward of the century-old, family-owned and run business he nurtured.
Unwavering in his commitment to ensure his efforts were a basis for opportunity creation for others, today TTC has more than 10,000 employees and delivers hospitality to guests across 70 countries worldwide.
Furthermore, Tollman’s not-for-profit TreadRight Foundation is now in its 13th year of international project activation and traveller inspiration to give back, reduce carbon footprints and ‘make travel matter’.
A man from very humble origins, Tollman was born in the small fishing village of Paternoster in the Western Cape in 1930.
His pioneering spirit and love for hospitality were rooted in his first home – the family’s modest hotel in Paternoster, where the lavatories were outdoors and a young Tollman roamed barefoot.
At the age of eight, Tollman’s family moved to Johannesburg, where his parents acquired another hotel.
This early, evolving exposure to the world of hospitality shaped Tollman’s work ethic, curiosity, and passion for all things culinary, embedding itself into an ambition to become a hotelier himself, and ignited his lifelong passions.
In 1954, Tollman married Beatrice Lurie, beginning an extraordinary love story and partnership that has lasted almost 70 years.
Their journey in hospitality began right away, when in 1954, they used their wedding money to purchase their first business venture, the Nugget Hotel in Johannesburg.
As a young hotelier, Tollman worked tirelessly. He was driven by his relentless pursuit of perfection and a hunger to have an impact in South Africa and, if possible, the world.
Never one to overlook any detail or take for granted any customer, the tenet ‘driven by service’ was embedded in all aspects of his business’ delivery of guest experiences.
This approach would become a hallmark of his life’s work, which grew beyond hotels to all facets of the travel industry.
With this ethos in place, the young Tollmen soon became some of the leading hoteliers of South Africa.
Their Hyde Park Hotel put them on the global stage by being the first to bring world-famous artists to South Africa in the mid-1950s. The hotel was to become the go-to choice of famous visitors to South Africa including Marlene Dietrich and Maurice Chevalier.
The Hyde Park would also become the home base for film crews at the time, including Stanley Baker’s historic film, Zulu, starring Michael Cain. Live entertainment at the hotel nightclub, The Colony, brought top-flight entertainers to Africa for the first time.
This was elevated further when the Tollmans created the first five-star and all-suite hotel in South Africa, the Tollman Towers, raising the bar for the South African tourist industry to new highs, with a signature ‘Tollman’ quality of guest experience.
Simultaneously, the evolving interests of Tollman across segments of the tourism industry and global travel markets came together with the creation of TTC, which included the purchase of Trafalgar Tours, a pioneering business and brand that defined his love of international travel.
As a man of values, Tollman was unable to accept the racist apartheid policies being enforced in South Africa at the time. He was one of the first to boldly invite black guests and performers into his luxury hotels despite the ruling government’s policies.
Importantly, he championed a program of training promising young people of colour in the hospitality business, unlocking employment opportunities until then reserved for whites.
Providing opportunities, giving back and promoting from within, would continue to be an important and enduring practice in all Tollman companies.
Sadly, government policies forced Tollman to shift his focus beyond South African borders and, together with his wife and four children, he left South Africa in 1976.
Rebuilding in England and then the United States, Tollman’s influence and impact continued to expand in the travel industry over the decades.
His influence can literally be seen on roads, waterways, and historic landscapes across the world, including Australia and New Zealand, where Tollman was one of the first global travel leaders to invest in businesses that would open the countries up to his over two million travellers from across the globe.
Significantly, this includes his purchase in 1996 of AAT Kings, which he built into the foremost South Pacific travel brand, representing the very best of Australia and New Zealand.
Tollman went on to build a strong portfolio in the region, bringing the world to Australia and New Zealand, and taking Aussies and Kiwis to the world. These include Inspiring Journeys, SEIT Outback Australia, Adventure World and Down Under Tours.
Throughout his life, Tollman remained a humble hotelier at heart. His signature red carnation lapel pin – the symbol of his international boutique collection of luxury properties – remained until his final days, as did his love of animals, sharing his passion for wildlife, nature and beautifully curated experiences with his many friends and family.
He was renowned for his generosity, sense of humour and being the master of the one-liner.
Tollman was a larger-than-life bon vivant character, a true statesman with a dedication to his family and business that is deemed exemplary by his peers in the industry.
Though never one to court the spotlight, he counted global figures, such as politicians, movie stars and prominent business leaders as some of his closest friends.
Over the years, his brands garnered numerous awards from prestigious publications such as Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveller. In 2013, he was awarded a lifetime achievement award by Travel Weekly (UK).
A true innovator and entrepreneur throughout his career, Tollman was continuously on the search for bold new ideas and initiatives in both travel and hospitality. This can be seen in his sponsorship of art and culture in South Africa through coordination of the first international tours of foreign artists to the country.
His footprint in bringing an understanding of local indigenous people in countries visited, by partnering with them to enable guests to have a deeper authentic understanding, is an important pillar that was pioneered by Tollman’s TTC brands.
In 2003, he established the Tollman Award for the Visual Arts, an initiative in the development if the arts in South Africa. Since its inception, the award had significantly advanced the achievement and body of work of its recipients.
Past award winners include Zanele Muholi, Nicholas Hlobo, Portia Zvavahera and Mawande Ka Zenzile.
Tollman was a champion for sustainable tourism long before ‘sustainability’ became a global, industry-wide call to action. During TTC’s years of step-change expansion, he was unwilling to focus purely on business growth.
Acutely aware of the need to protect the people and places visited by his portfolio of companies, Tollman set up and chaired The Travel Corporation Conservation Foundation (TTC-CF) – a not for profit focused on activation of community and conservation projects and partnerships.
This was a unique move as few, if any, tourism industry leaders had sustainability and responsible travel on their radars.
Renamed The TreadRight Foundation in 2012, today TreadRight supports over 55 projects worldwide, has developed a five-year sustainability strategy directly aligned to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals directly engaging all TTC brands in measurable efforts to embed sustainability in across the business, and is championing a traveller-facing campaign (#MakeTravelMatter) to raise the awareness and engagement of travellers in more responsible travel choices.
Under Tollman’s leadership as chairman, TTC has become one of the most-renowned and respected family-owned and run travel businesses in the world.
Tollman’s objective of TTC globally remains consistent with his first days of being a hotelier. Central to the success of TTC is Tollman’s determination to keep his business portfolio privately-owned and financially independent, enabling the company to take a long-term vision and strategy to its brands, with an ethos of attention to detail in all aspects of its business.
Internationally, each brand is strategically positioned and is clearly differentiated in its market sector. From an employee growth and development perspective, across TTC’s brands and businesses is the ethos first and continuously lived out by Tollman: genuine care for the people of TTC, as well as its clients, partners and staff.
Even in the final decade of his life, Tollman was providing his family and company with inspiration to create hospitality guest experiences that redefined global standards.
Ashford Castle Hotel in County Mayo, Ireland was re-opened in 2015 following Tollman’s bold transformation of the heritage property into what many consider the best hotel in the world.
Niall Gibbons, CEO of Tourism Ireland, said: “We in Ireland are eternally grateful for the lasting impact and legacy of Stanley Tollman. His vision, positivity and values left a positive influence on us all.
“The investment of Red Carnation Hotels into Ashford Castle has meant Ireland continues to punch above its weight on the world stage. The consequential impact on rural Ireland cannot be overstated. Our thoughts are with his wife Bea and the entire family at this time.”
In 2020, both Xigera Safari Lodge, in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, and the five-star 100 Princes Street hotel, formerly the home of the Royal Overseas League, which overlooks Edinburgh Castle, were brought to life despite direct challenges to development programs as a result of the global pandemic.
The Tollman family’s success with TTC has always been driven by the entrepreneurial and industrial spirit of the patriarch. Tollman has been unwavering in his insistence that family bonds must never be compromised.
From the beginning, his partnership with his wife Beatrice, known universally as Bea, to whom he has been married for 67 years, has provided Tollman with the love, support, confidence, and complementary expertise needed to courageously venture out into the global tourism world.
At one time or another, Tollman has lived and travelled around the globe, but his heart, however, has always been in Africa.
Although forced to seek his fortunes away from his homeland, once apartheid was abolished, he returned to the land of his birth, reinvesting heavily in South Africa and South Africans.
Hearing of the loss of an industry legend, Sir Geoffrey Kent, founder, co-chairman and CEO of luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent, said Tollman was “one of the most amazing figures in travel and tourism”.
“I have known him and his lovely wife Bea since I met them for the first time in 1972 in the Tollman Towers, a brand-new hotel they had just built in Johannesburg in 1970,” Kent said.
“Our travel paths have been closely linked over the years. Stan and his lovely family were always on the cutting edge in the travel industry and continually creating new products run with consummate style. They made so many people so very happy.”
As a son of Africa, Tollman was always drawn back to its wisdom. An old African proverb says that when an old man dies, a library closes.
For some people, that may be true, but Tollman readily shared with everyone he met and to whom he spoke a seemingly inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, wisdom and comment from a long life well-lived.
As the world suffers the loss of an iconic leader, while the library may be gone, one can only presume Tollman’s books are all out on loan.