The Tollmans, the world’s wealthiest travel and tourism family with over 10,000 employees in 29 companies spread across the world, has fallen in love with Xigera, a small, picturesque camp within the Okavango Delta. The family recently bought the camp and says it will spare no expense in making Xigera the country’s most attractive tourism estate. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports
Michael Tollman, nephew of family empire founders Bea and Stanley Tollman, cuts an unassuming picture, given the immense wealth and influence he represents.
Michael is the family’s point man for its African interests and operates out of Cape Town, where the Tollman’s iconic Twelve Apostles Hotel sits, a five-star facility poised above the Atlantic Ocean and flanked by Table Mountain.
That hotel is a small part of a globe-spanning empire, which includes five-star hotels in the US, UK, Switzerland, luxury cruises in Europe and Asia, guided tours across the world and many other business interests. All told, the Tollmans have operations in 80 countries and handle 1.9 million travellers annually, held together by their group company, The Travel Corporation.
Michael speaks matter-of-factly about the family’s sprawling businesses, emphasising how the family motto ‘the pursuit of excellence’ has been its guiding mantra since the early days of the family’s first hotel in Johannesburg in 1954.
“It’s a family business,” he says, speaking during a rare visit to Gaborone.
“We work together, holiday together and that’s what is critical to our success.
“My aunt is the glue that makes it all work. She’s over 80-years-old but runs the hotels, still works in the kitchens, reads every guest comment and replies and is still actively involved entirely in the business.
“Her two daughters are also involved with design and marketing.
“We all have different skill sets.”
In 1995, Michael recalls a family trip to Botswana, which wound up in the Okavango Delta.
“We first came to Botswana in 1995 and that time, the first camp we went to see was Xigera and we fell in love with it.
“We’ve always had a love for this property from the day we arrived and we saw the lionesses crossing the bridge at night while we were having dinner.
“Everyone in the family has stories and an attachment to this property.”
The Tollmans first invested in Botswana in that year, taking up a majority stake in a then young Wilderness Holdings, which had six camps in the country at the time. Wilderness grew rapidly to 50 camps by 2001, which included Xigera. Michael sat on the group’s board at the time.
“This growth was a combination of the direction of Wilderness founder, Colin Bell and our family, in particular my aunt Bea,” he recalls.
“We would go to every camp and my aunt would help with its design, even the meals and everything.
“We were involved in the company until 2008 when its management decided to take it public.” As a family business, the Tollmans generally lean towards private structures and taking Wilderness public was not in their make-up. Recently, the family’s South African holding firm, Cullinan returned wholly into the Tollmans’ hands after another equity partner, Bidvest Group, divested. The exit appears to have been music to the Tollmans’ ears.
“Wilderness’ decision to go public was not our recommendation and we stood down from the company. We have not been involved in it at any level.
“Our decision was to say instead of being part of a corporate organisation, we wanted to be part of creating something.”
After the exit in 2001, it would take the family
“We were looking at SA before at a five-star, but then we said this is much better, and we love this camp, let’s rather do this.
“We are now waiting for regulatory approvals and once that’s done, we will be finalising our plans, which are already in the final stages,” Michael says.
While nostalgia is part of the reason the family picked Xigera and Botswana over South Africa, a huge part of the decision was about the best fit for the Tollmans’ focus on luxury in their service and product offerings.
From their tours, cruises and bouquet hotels, ‘the pursuit of excellence’ has driven the family’s investment decisions. In their hotel business, in nearly every country they have entered, the Tollmans have ‘flipped’ properties, taking over three-star hotels and revamping them into five-star iconic attractions.
The family adopted this approach in Ireland, England, South Africa and other countries and Xigera, which is currently three-star, will be no exception. Michael says the family’s eyes are focussed on making Xigera the best in the country and not on the costs of the upgrade.
“We looked at it and it’s operated as a three-star at the moment and we said to ourselves that, we have done this many times, creating five-star iconic properties.
“That’s our vision for Xigera; to make it an iconic property that will be recognised globally.
“You have seen what we can do. It will be the best camp in Botswana and that’s very good for the country because it creates interest in a destination when you have an exceptional property, people come and see the country.”
He continues: “I was talking to someone in the transport business here and he was saying most of his business goes to Madikwe, across the border. He said it was because Michelle (Obama) went there and it became big for Americans. “I’m confident that we will have the best and from that a lot of top people will come. That can only be good for everyone.
“Botswana is seen and is a much higher value destination for safaris than South Africa.
“When you look at Xigera, a five-star camp there would be much more beneficial than a three-star. People who want a three-star could go to SA, but there is a big market that wants that five-star luxury experience with the kind of beauty that Botswana offers.
“SA doesn’t have that level.”
For the Tollmans, the return to Botswana as a direct, full owner of the beloved camp is in line with the family ethos.
“The overriding principle of our business is about creating something special.
We have operated in many countries around the world and Botswana has always impressed us.”
“We have dealt with many people and the people here are fantastic.
“This is a place that we feel very comfortable operating in. We have been here before indirectly and we are excited to be back in our own right. We have no hesitation in recommending Botswana to the world.”