What is your vision for Black Tomato?
Our vision is to become the leading go-to travel company in the world for people looking for truly immersive, inspiring, and remarkable travel experiences, by delivering best in class, deeply personalised service with an uncompromising attention to detail. Our ambition is to be the preeminent travel brand, globally, by providing outstanding, experiential travel that meets and exceeds all our client’s travel needs. We want to be known for the quality and breadth of our travel and immersive experiences. It’s important for us to be recognised equally for crafting superior holidays, to say a beautiful private island, as much as for our more against-the-grain, innovative and boundary-pushing services like ‘Get Lost’. That said, we like to dream big and design highly creative travel products that inspire our clients and hopefully future customers who read about them, like with our latest ‘Take me on a Story’ collection.
How have you led the company through the current Covid-19 crisis?
Together with my co-founders James Merrett and Matt Smith, early on when Covid first hit and we realised the likely impact, we knew that the most important thing we could do was to communicate – with our clients, partners, staff and critically with the outside world, including press. In a time of crisis, we firmly believe you can’t over communicate. While this isn’t the first time we’ve been through major global issues, at the start of Covid, in many ways it was like doing an MBA in crisis communications in just four weeks. But ultimately, I’m really proud of how we’ve navigated the situation, and continue to do so. We saw a lot of companies put their head in the sand, battening down the hatches, but we didn’t want to go into hibernation and we’ve been determined to keep the lights on and to provide assurance to customers.
From the beginning, we assured our clients that we were going to help them plan, rearrange or refund, and most importantly that we cared for them. This was paramount. We also communicated to partners to let them know we were looking out for them and their livelihoods. And in a similar vein, communicating with our staff to make sure they knew we were here, has really brought everyone together and strengthened our relationships. By no means least, we kept communicating with the outside world – to dispel the notion that the travel industry was just going to die. We always felt it critical to let people know we were still around and communicating a message of ‘when you’re ready, we’re here’ – of course in a very sensitive way, has resonated well.
While recognising the challenging situation, we also wanted to make sure that our presence was known so that people could have something joyful to look forward to.
By introducing ‘State of Flex’ and eliminating a lot of the red tape, so we have simple T&Cs, to provide a 100% refund for up to 30 days before departure, should a client wish to postpone or cancel for whatever reason (Covid related or not, no questions asked), knowing they won’t lose out has made a big difference. This has helped to give people reassurance during an extremely uncertain time.
While walking the tricky tightrope to not be intrusive, the result of keeping front of mind is that our current clients have even more faith in us because they know we care and we’re the right people to be travelling with. And in continuing to produce inspiring and relevant content and being open and transparent with our messaging, we hope we reached potential customers who looked at us and appreciated our approach.
Creating relevant product and tailoring what we offer to our different audiences has been key. Of course, everyone was dreaming of the trips they could take far in the future, but we had clients who really wanted to travel right away, and this was especially true for Americans, who account for the majority of our client base. While they couldn’t travel internationally, we pivoted from our usual international, multi-stop itineraries and rolled out a partnership with Auberge Resorts and Mercedes to create epic road trips across New England, the Rocky Mountains, and the West coast. We've always executed exceptional US domestic trips, but they were largely for our European clients. When we communicated this to our customers and the press, we generated significant sales, and showed that the power of knowing where your strengths lie as a business and extracting this in a time of crisis is invaluable.
What do you see as the future of travel post-Covid?
We are already seeing the trend for people looking for that truly epic adventure, maybe with one big trip a year, instead of 10 small weekend breaks. We’ve anticipated this and have seen a lot of success in creating Journeys to Come last year, which are longer trips designed around a seminal moment, event or experience that is truly once-in-a-lifetime, like swimming with humpback whales beneath the midnight sun in Iceland. The idea is to make people see this trip and say, ‘I have got to go and do that’ and to feel the hassle involved with travelling in the time of Covid is worth it.
Another of our latest collections is a series of eclipse trips including an incredible itinerary to experience a total solar eclipse in the depths of Antarctica on a private bespoke luxury yacht. These are jaw-on-the-floor trips that go beyond your average bucket list – they can end up defining you as a person.
I also think there’s going to be a big trend, now that people are working from home, to go and work in different countries for several months in remote places where they can build life experiences. This isn’t as easy for people with school-age children, but we have clients who have taken a year off to see the world and taken their kids with them.
Naturally, everyone is talking about the future of travel as remote and inherently socially distanced, to destinations in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, we’ve been doing epic wilderness and intrepid journeys since the company started and we know we excel at it.
Perhaps controversially, I think city breaks in places that are normally bustling with tourists is an attractive option, simply because it offers a new perspective on familiar places.
It’s a rare opportunity to see Paris or NYC when it’s relatively empty. For people who want to see cities themselves (rather than absorb the buzz of a crowd) this is the ideal time for a city break.
Most importantly for us, the future of travel is people looking for someone they can trust. People have realised how crucial the role of experts is and that it’s imperative to be in reliable hands with those who know the ramifications of airline changes, what places will be opening, what a particular hotel is doing in terms of social distancing, or how you can transfer in a boat from here to there. We believe that people will move away from larger booking sites and turn to travel advisors to be a port in the storm of changing rules, logistics, and requirements.
What trends are you seeing among luxury travellers?
After this time spent apart from friends and family, we’re seeing big groups coming together, especially multi-generational families, seeking to reconnect and relish in time away from home. We’re also seeing clients planning ahead as one thing the last year has made people realise is how much travel means to them and they don’t want to be in the position of missing out on experiences, perhaps only available at a certain time. A lot of luxury travellers are savvy to the fact that the types of things they want to do, or places they want to go, are of limited supply and those fortunate to have the capital and wherewithal are making sure to lock these in – and also to have something to look forward to.
Where will be the travel hotspots this summer and beyond?
We wear two hats when answering this question as we have a lot of both UK and US clients. We’re of course closely following government updates and in the UK what the traffic light system brings. We know a lot of domestic product has already been booked as people are so keen to travel, but if things stay as they are, there are positive signs that the Greek islands and the classics like Spain – particularly the Balearics, Italy and Iceland will all be popular, with demand for more remote and private houses. We obviously don’t have a crystal ball, but as a company we’re very good at working diligently to track the latest developments so that we’re able to deliver extraordinary, safe travel experiences for our clients seeking to head overseas and can adapt very quickly if needed.
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind Black Tomato’s ‘Take me on a Story’ collection of travel itineraries?
At Black Tomato we have an innovation team within the company that regularly meets to talk about trends and ideas and ‘Take me on a Story’ first came about in one of these sessions. I remember us talking about the role of storytelling in travel and having had my own daughter (who very recently became a sister), I thought it would be interesting to explore developing this within the context of family travel in relation to iconic children’s books. After following the journeys of many clients that have grown with us over the years, this also inspired us to develop a new collection of truly engaging family focused adventures, that would speak to their needs and delight adults just as much as their children.
What was your big break?
Black Tomato’s big break was really early on, only about a month or two into the business starting, when I was introduced to someone at Conde Nast Traveller. Very fortunately the writer thought the company sounded interesting – our name piqued her interest, and so we met for a coffee at World Travel Market and there and then she said she wanted to put us in the magazine in the ‘Future of Travel’ issue. This meant a full photo shoot a few weeks later with the three of us (founders) being shot in a massively staged room at the Sanderson and a full-page photo of us then appearing in the magazine, quite surreally on the page following Bono - for his Red campaign with Amex. The headline was ‘these three people are redefining the way we travel’ and while it wasn’t exactly opening the floodgates for bookings, in terms of credibility this set the scene and was a significant step forward.
What would you be doing in a parallel life?
Definitely journalism, as a foreign correspondent and if I really pushed myself, perhaps as a war correspondent. I did the corporate world for a bit, but this was more of a means to an end. Dispatches by Michael Herr is one of the best books I have ever read, and they are my true heroes. War correspondents are a different breed, just amazing. I’m not sure I have quite the self-sacrificing nature of most of them, but their pursuit of the truth and desire to share the harsh reality of the world leaves me in awe.
What does British luxury mean to you?
World standard, respected craftmanship and progressive thinking. I think it’s quite easy for people to look at British luxury at times through a somewhat antiquated or heritage-only lens, but while it has authority and integrity, it’s also incredibly forward thinking.
For a small island, our influence as a nation renowned for our products and services and approach to luxury, remains as powerful as it’s ever been.
What is your favourite travel destination?
It changes each year and I’m very lucky to be in that position. But perennial favourites are Iceland, Namibia and the Atlas Mountains. I also can’t not mention New York, which I called home for several years. It’s difficult to choose because you look at different destinations according to what they do for you there. I could talk about Denia in Southern Spain, which looks like Cape Town and is a three-hour ferry ride away from Ibiza and I love it there, but it just depends what you want. Whereas New York, if you’re travelling for inspiration and looking to find the elixir of life, I don’t think anywhere in the world beats it.