The Secret Ingredient – Thoughts on International Women’s Day
Anyone who loves cooking as I do will know what I have discovered, namely that having the right ingredients is essential. Having spent a life in food, I have found that recipes often call for a dash of something unexpected – a secret ingredient – that makes all the difference. This year, as we celebrate International Women’s Day and TTC’s first 100 years, I have been reflecting upon the secret ingredient that women bring to all that TTC does.
It is, in a word, passion. A passion for welcoming guests, making them truly feel at home. A passion for serving meals that are both beautiful and delicious. A passion for helping travelers discover the world. And a passion for leadership that that makes everything else possible. This is the something the women of TTC bring to everything we do – the power of passion.
I was quite fortunate to discover my passion for cooking at a young age, shortly after meeting the love of my life, Stanley Tollman, whose lovely Valentines’ Day posting, A Tale of Love and Oysters, you may have read last month. The two of us shared a vision of running the finest and most welcoming hotels to be found anywhere in the world. We were married on March 6, 1954 – this week, we are delighted to be celebrating our 66th anniversary. We put all the money we received as gifts toward the down-payment on our first hotel, The Nugget, in Johannesburg. Stanley greeted guests and ran the front desk, while I worked in the kitchen. My training to that point had been as a nursery school teacher and a competitive tennis player, so I knew only the basics of cooking, but set about teaching myself whatever I could.
While the foods we served at The Nugget’s restaurant were quite simple, even then I could feel the beginnings of what would become my deep love of cooking. The following year we opened The Hyde Park Hotel, home to The Colony Restaurant. This was to be South Africa’s first world class restaurant. Of course, a world-class restaurant needs a world-class chef, but none were available. In those days it was unthinkable that a top chef would travel from Europe to work in South Africa, and so I took on the task.
It was at The Colony that I truly discovered the abiding passion that has carried me through my life, the delight of deliciousness, the thrill of sending out magnificent dishes to our guests and having the plates return empty. While the kitchen staff all called me “Mommy”, I was something of a secret to our guests. I can still recall hearing the waiters, responding to guests who had enjoyed their meal and wished to give their complements to the chef: “We are so sorry, he has gone for the evening.”
Passion fuels a great deal of hard work, and we worked exceedingly hard in those early years, building our business as I gave birth to our four children. Each day I would be up early, get our children off to school, then work in the hotel kitchen, arriving home in time to serve the children dinner. After tucking them into bed, I would dress up for the evening and go back to the hotel, where Stanley and I would remain until the early morning hours, greeting guests and making sure each meal was cooked to perfection.
Even as my passion for cooking grew, I discovered another, as I set about to decorate The Colony. Again, though lacking training on interior design, I did have a sense of what was beautiful, and from there I taught myself. I absolutely loved it. I took over the interior design for all our projects, and my love of creating beautiful spaces has only grown over the years. It is the same with my passion for hospitality. To this day, I wake up each morning to review faxed reports from each Red Carnation Hotel, reading and responding to every guest comment. I do it because I love it.
This is something I have discovered about passion. Far from fading away, true passion glows ever more brightly. Happily, women of today need no longer hide that glow, as I did in the kitchen of The Colony. Rather, we celebrate it.
Today, over half of TTC’s leadership positions are held by women. This distinguishes us from much of the travel industry, which, while hiring many women, tends to promote fewer women to positions of leadership. I see TTC’s many female leaders as a key to our ongoing success, precisely because of the passion we bring to our work. I recognize my own passion reflected in kindred spirits such as Ulla Hefel Bohler, CEO of Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, and Ellen Bettridge, CEO of Uniworld and U River Cruises, with whom I have worked closely with over the years, developing the world’s finest river cruise line. Other impassioned kindred spirits include fellow ex-South African Lucille Sive who runs our North American-based African safari companies Lion World and African Travel, Melissa da Silva who leads Trafalgar, Costsaver and Brendan Vacations in the US, and whom I have seen grow and mature with TTC over the past several years. There are many more.
The glow of passion that infuses our women leaders also runs through the many, many women who work for companies throughout TTC, guiding guests on journeys of discovery around the world, and in the many women who welcome guests and prepare such beautiful rooms for travelers at Red Carnation Hotels, which I founded and continue to serve as president. I can feel the passion in the women who work in our kitchens too, many of whom I have had the privilege of mentoring, and our Executive Chef Jennifer Clifton, alongside whom I have worked for over 25 years.
The best thing of all about passion-driven leadership is what it inspires in others. For me, this has been true both as an executive and as a mother. Looking at my son, Brett, Chief Executive of TTC and founder of TreadRight, I see boundless passion and an unwavering commitment to excellence. My daughter Vicki, who works alongside me at Red Carnation Hotels doing operations, marketing, sales and public relations, has also become our impassioned spokeswoman for TTC – you will have seen her telling our stories so beautifully in the monthly videos celebrating our centennial. My other daughter Toni, a brilliant interior designer and much more, shares my passion for design, decorating and refurbishing Red Carnation’s Hotels and Uniworld’s ships. And what a joy it is to work with her daughter, Alexandra, who is an outstanding senior sales executive with Red Carnation hotels. Of course, when speaking of the passion of my family, I must mention my nephews, Gavin and Michael, who are like sons to me. As CEO of TTC’s most valuable brand, Trafalgar, along with Costsaver and Brendan Vacations, Gavin’s inspirational leadership is legendary in the world of travel. Michael oversees our businesses in Southern Africa and is also highly respected and renowned in the industry there.
Looking forward at the dawn of our second century, I am more optimistic than ever about the future of travel in general and of TTC in particular. This is due, in part, to the respect and opportunities we give women. As study after study has shown, the key to addressing so many of the world’s problems is to invest in and empower girls and women. In a world that too often focuses on what keeps people apart, travel builds bridges. So many of those who book holidays are women, playing a crucial role in building those bridges. I invite you to do so today, either with your travel advisor or by visiting us at TTC.com.
My optimism about the future grows when I see the passion of youth for travel. The next generation seeks to make travel personal and make travel matter, both of which are so beautifully served by our youthful brands, Contiki, U River Cruises, and Busabout. These are, indeed, exciting times ahead.
In last month’s post, Stanley suggested that the romance of Valentine’s Day should extend through the year, and I quite agree. I feel the same about the world’s recognition of the contributions of women, which I believe should also celebrated year round. This is what we do throughout TTC, supporting and empowering women, every day, and it is what makes us strong.
We look forward to sharing our passion for travel with you, your children, and your grandchildren, from generation to generation. Travel is a gift, meant to be passed on, and it is my family’s privilege to do so, from generations of our family to generations of yours.
P.S. Next month we will be sharing stories for Earth Day, and you will hear from another of TTC’s inspiring women leaders, Shannon Guihan, Chief TreadRight and Sustainability Officer at The Travel Corporation. So much of TreadRight’s work is about partnering on projects with amazing communities of women and girls around the world – stay tuned.