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19 min

Changing Luxury Travel with Tom Marchant

Will the next big trend in luxury travel be travelers seeking silence, or maybe blink travel? Tom Marchant, Co-Founder of the Black Tomato Group, shares how luxury travel is being redefined by modern travelers, the value of word-of-mouth publicity, and being named one of the "48 people changing the way we travel" by Condé Nast Traveler.

"These days, the luxury consumer, any consumer, is inundated, absolutely inundated from the moment they wake up to the moment they get to sleep, with messaging. So the key thing is, how do you cut through?"

Intro: This is Brand USA Talks Travel, elevating the conversation about international travel to the United States. Here's your host, Mark Lapidus.

Mark Lapidus [0:09]: How do you inspire your team to think outside the box? After all, everything you do is creative.

Tom Marchant [0:14]: The heartbeat of our business is how people think and what that produces. I think what drives it most, mainly, is the culture we create within the company. What I mean by that is, a culture that allows people to feel they can think outside the box, but also appeals to a group of people who are like that, who want to come and work for a company like us. Our culture is underpinned by just three values, which are about being thoughtful, being humble, and finally, being curious. We recruit against those values really carefully. When we interview people to join us, there might be lots of people look great on paper, and they are great on paper, but then probably the most important interview in their assessment is how they feel against the values. So what that does is, that then creates this culture of smart thinkers, of a welcoming, thoughtful, caring environment that allows people to think openly. And then within that, we also have a a number of setups and platforms and groups that constantly look at how we can disrupt or push forward. So for instance, we have an Innovation Council that is made up of a group of people from across the company, and different people join at different times. And that is dedicated solely to looking at both product and service ideas, both within our company, but outside of, not just Black Tomato, but outside of the industry and see what's happening. How can that inspire? How can we evolve? Where's the white space? I could talk for a long time about that, but yeah, ultimately, that's what drives it. It starts with culture, and on top of the culture, we then start layering in opportunities for that culture to throw out innovative ideas from the people working with us.

Mark Lapidus [1:35]: Joining me today is Tom Marchant, Co-founder and Owner of the Black Tomato Group. He's also a Travel Advisory Board member at Six Senses Hotels, Resorts & Spas, and a columnist with Inc. Magazine and Harper's Bazaar. Tom has been named one of the "50 people changing the way we travel" by Condé Nast Traveler. Welcome to Brand USA Talks Travel, Tom.

Tom Marchant [1:54]: Thank you very much for having me here, Mark. I'm delighted to be on the podcast.

Mark Lapidus [1:57]: Tell me about the Condé Nast award.

Tom Marchant [1:59]: I guess it's quite a subjective award. It was just something that I think, in an issue a while back, they tend to look ahead at the future and trends and what's shaping travel, both in the moment and perhaps down the line. For some lucky reason, I was included in the list of people doing that, which I never take for granted. I'm very humble about it all. It's very nice to get applauded, but really, for me, it's all about the work, and then hopefully, it's the stuff that the clients come back and talk about that makes a difference. But yeah, nice to be seen, really be featured amongst a group of other people who are working hard in this wonderful industry of ours.

Mark Lapidus [2:26]: Tell me about Black Tomato. I don't really know that much about it.

Tom Marchant [2:29]: Yeah, Black Tomato, tomato. It's funny, I lived in the States for six years, and when I was in New York, I would introduce myself and say, I own Black Tomato, and that would always prompt a, "Oh, that's funny. He doesn't say tomato." After a while, I'd end up saying tomato, but then they thought that was funny, seeing a British guy trying to say tomato. I couldn't really win. But Black Tomato, Tomato. It's a luxury travel company; I started it with two partners nearly 20 years ago now in London. And it was set up around the insight that travel should all be about the experience and the pursuit of feeling. Myself and my partners, we traveled a lot when we were younger together. We met at college and we'd go for these great adventures. And often before we started the adventure, we didn't necessarily know where we wanted to go, but we knew how we wanted to feel. So then we'd do research and try and find experiences that would deliver that for us. It was around that type of travel that the idea for starting a business dedicated to that was born. We started in London. It was catering, and still does, to a discerning, globally-located, curious audience of thirsty travelers. It grew, luckily for us, quite quickly in London. Then significantly, about five years into it, we started getting a lot of pickup in the USA. Then I've seen rapid growth there; as I mentioned, I then moved to New York, where I was there for five years. I was then in Los Angeles for a year before coming back to London, when my wife and I had our first child. But we have so many USA-based customers, it's really become the heartland of our business. Having spent a long time in that magnificent country, it's a delight that we have a large team in the US, and so many fantastic customers over there. I'm in New York probably once a month, throughout the week, so I get to have the best of both worlds. I have a great time living in London, and I get to get my New York fix every month or so, which is wonderful.

Mark Lapidus [4:10]: What inspired the name?

Tom Marchant [4:11]: The name came from travels from many moons ago. When I'd left college, I was doing an internship in London. At the end of the second week, a guy at the company said, did I want to go and work in Moscow, of all places? I'd never been, and I was just the curious person I am and said, yeah, why not? I went to work on a project. I think they were buying a company in Russia, and they just wanted me to go and help as someone just to literally carry the files around. It's not like I could speak Russian. I was just trying to earn some money. Anyway, I went for two weeks; it ended up being closer to seven, eight months. Then I came back, and me and my business partner started planning what this company, and we'd subsequently take trips back to Russia, because that was, obviously it's tragic to be talking about Russia in this way because of what's happened since, but in those days, Russia had these great journeys, the Trans-Siberian express, train routes to St. Petersburg, Moscow is this great imposing cultural phenomenon. And so we go, and on one of our trips before we started the company, we were in a restaurant there. It was actually a Ukrainian restaurant, would you believe, given everything that's happened. And on the menu was a black tomato. I asked the waiter what that was; I had never seen or heard one before. He gave a very passionate speech about the black tomato being this rare form of tomato, that, when you find it, it tastes amazing, and it gives you this rare quality experience. And my partner and I decided that that's what we wanted our company to be about: to be the black tomato of travel, offering these rare, quality experiences.

Mark Lapidus [5:35]: What a wonderful name. It's so memorable.

Tom Marchant [5:37]: Thank you. I think a lot of people thought we took a bucket of colors and a bucket of vegetables and fruit and just picked them out at random. But there is a meaning to it.

Mark Lapidus [5:45]: You've been in luxury travel for quite a long time. What trends are you seeing now for this year and for next year?

Tom Marchant [5:51]: At the moment, we're still seeing this big pursuit of incredible group experiences that, I think, came out of COVID when everyone missed each other and wanted to reunite, but people become more nomadic or more spread out. So it wasn't as easy, just popping around to someone's house. So it was like, let's have these incredible experiences in these beautiful places where we can reconnect. And this idea that some experiences are exponentially better when enjoyed with other people, and you're seeing how they're reacting to that. So the rise of the group experience and the types of things you're doing, that's growing and growing, from celebrations to challenges to events to families. And that will continue. We developed a product line last year called See You In The Moment, which is inspired by that, and that continues at a pace. And then the flip side of that is this pursuit of silence. We're starting to see, for a while, been looking at this, finding places of genuine quiet. Because if you think about in our day to day lives, we're so overwhelmed by white noise and buzz; a luxury can be something that is unique or rare or different to what you're doing. The chance to go away and be in a place where the only noise you hear is natural, whether it be the wind or the pages of the book you're reading and not hear the buzz or the noise, is becoming rarer, but equally sought after. So silence, and not just retreats, but experience that come with it. There's these people like the National Parks of Quiet, who are designating certain parts of the world for just natural environments with no other noise in there. I think it's going to grow and grow. It talks to mindfulness in a really beautiful way. They're quite juxtaposed, aren't they? The big group trip, which is going to be rambunctuous and fun and all that, and then moments of pure solitude. But I think they complement each other.

Mark Lapidus [7:19]: You know what's interesting about what you just said? My 27-year-old, my baby, actually, told me recently he's joined a silent reading group. It's a bunch of his friends that get together, they get a novel, and then they just sit in a room and read it together, but silently. They don't talk to each other.

Tom Marchant [7:33]: It's amazing. I actually read an article, I'm not sure where exactly, but about this, this phenomenon. I think it's, I think it's brilliant. I think it's just - living in the city, and then if you go out to the countryside, you go somewhere remote, and for the first time, it's quite discombobulating, because why does it feel strange? It's like, actually, I'm just... It's silenced. I love that. I read it, I think it was in the Times, an article. I think it was a journalist, went to a silent reading club in New York. Yeah, I love that.

Mark Lapidus [7:55]: What other products and services are you offering, and what is the Blink service?

Tom Marchant [7:59]: It's called a product and services, but, we're a bespoke travel company. So the purpose of our company, why we exist, is to inspire people through remarkable travel experiences. How that manifests is through, it could be long immersive trips to Europe over three weeks, exploring the very heart of these magical places, getting into the skin of places. It could be taking a private house somewhere. It could be an expedition. It could be a big family reunion on a safari. We really are a bespoke high-end luxury travel firm, but around that day-to-day business offering, we like to launch new product lines each year. And one of our most successful ones has been a thing called Blink, as you mentioned, which is, ultimately, it's pop-up accommodation, which we will set up camps. It's called Blink because we'll build it. The client has a chance to input on to what's created, from the layout of the camp to what goes into these camps. And we'll build it in remote places that no one's ever put these camps in before, but are set in truly spectacular wildernesses or environments where you then get to witness the landscape and have experiences. And then the day you leave, it's all packed up and taken away, and it's a blink and you'll miss it, is where the name comes from. What it also means is it's truly, truly, truly unique to you, because all the variables in how it's created, both from the location but to the design of the tents or the structures, to the experience you're doing, no one's ever going to have it exactly as you have it. It's that quest to create something unique. We've been fortunate enough to set up many of these camps all over the world for clients, and it's a real joy working projects like that.

Mark Lapidus [9:23]: You know, Tom, I thought I had a really fun job until I started talking with you. I'm getting jealous.

Tom Marchant [9:29]: When we started the company, I'd be lying if I didn't say there was a big discussion between the three of us, about how can we just keep traveling and seeing this world? Can we have a crack at turning this into a job? We definitely didn't subscribe to the adage, "Don't turn a passion into a job, because you'll fall out of love with a passion." I'm the other way. It's like, if you can turn a passion into a job, it never feel like you've got a job. Although it is stressful, there's not a day that doesn't go by that I'm not incredibly grateful for doing it.

Mark Lapidus [9:51]: I find a lot of people that actually figure out a way to pursue their dreams - not everybody is successful at it - but fortunately, in travel, I've run into a number of people just wanted to keep traveling, and they invented businesses and different opportunities to enable themselves to do that. Some people do it in media as well. I have some friends - they become friends, they were originally just partners of ours - that make television content for us in the UK called Sorted Food. These guys grew up together, and they all started cooking together. Then they realized that they love doing it, and wondered whether or not they could make a living at it somehow. Then one of them put a video on YouTube, and this is now 20 years later.

Tom Marchant [10:28]: Amazing.

Mark Lapidus [10:29]: They're still doing it. They've become big influencers, and we use them for television shows. It all just started because it was out of a passion. It was out of a passion.

Tom Marchant [10:38]: That's the thing. I think when people often talk about starting businesses, obviously, there's loads of different advice. But if you're really passionate about something, that's what, A, keeps you going. And that's what does become enjoyable. I know there could be other businesses where you could say, "Well, look, here's a good idea, and it can make money in this way." It's all good when it's going well, but it's having that passion that just keeps you going. When we started Black Tomato, we wanted to do a business first, and kind of thought, what should we do? And it's like, well, what are we most passionate about? And travel was easily the top of that list.

Mark Lapidus [11:04]: Well, the ingredient you really need is tenacity, because you have to hang in there. If you don't have that, you don't make it. You just got to keep going.

Tom Marchant [11:12]: There are so many challenges that are thrown at you in travel. Just there are so many uncontrollables. If you look back over the years we've been running for, by the way, it's ash clouds over Iceland. Covid. It just, everything stops, and you have to adapt and dig in. I think it's when you're adapting and digging in that the passion and the tenacity can, and need to, come to bear.

Mark Lapidus [11:31]: I'd like to ask you for a free piece of consulting advice. You've been in the luxury segment for a long time, as I mentioned a few minutes ago. Could you share some effective strategies for appealing to the luxury travel segment for destinations in America? Are there some things that we're missing that are obvious to you that we really should concentrate on?

Tom Marchant [11:48]: For me, I'm always been a less-is-more person. So, don't overwhelm. You might have hundreds of assets to sell, but not many will be remembered. These days, the luxury consumer, any consumer, is inundated, absolutely inundated from the moment they wake up to the moment they get to sleep, with messaging. So the key thing is, how do you cut through? And so it's, find something that's simple, be distinctive, simple, clear, distinctive messaging, ideally around something that you can own, that is distinctive to your place that can differentiate you. If you're just dealing in hotel rates or cliché marketing, everything tends to blend. Look for those distinctive details, features, assets that you can lift and pull them into a really emotive storytelling approach that is simple. And just keep it simple; don't overwhelm. When we look at that day-to-day when we're planning, it's very easy to go and throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks, but rarely it does. I always say keep it simple, but find something you can own and bring some emotion to it.

Mark Lapidus [12:47]: There may be a couple of travel niches or opportunities that US destinations should be paying more attention to.

Tom Marchant [12:53]: I think we're just going to see a massive rise in education opportunities. When I mean education opportunities, I think, back in the day, it used to be like, oh, education opportunity travel. People either think it's going somewhere and sitting in a class, or doing a very stuffy academic tour. We're seeing both families say, when we're traveling, how can we keep our children engaged, and bring to life the things they've been studying or learn about the places? There's no better way of doing that than being in-situ and getting your hands dirty with what you're seeing. But also from an adult perspective, we're seeing this massive rise in adults saying, when I travel, I want to learn, but I want to learn by doing and seeing. And all that learning is, it's all proven it's good for your brain to keep learning. Keeps people fresh. But also it's what fuels your stories and your interests and opens your mind more. So I think across lots of destinations in the States, there are just incredible opportunities, whether it's historical, contemporary, to bring educative experience and learning things that will just fuel people's minds for years, both parents and children and grandparents. So just keep looking at that and celebrate it.

Mark Lapidus [13:54]: Tom, does the business you get come mainly through word of mouth, or is it through marketing that you do, or how do you obtain your clients?

Tom Marchant [14:00]: It's a real mix. It's a blend. The key cornerstone strategies are being very effective in generating good editorial coverage for us over the years. And that comes back down to the point I was making earlier, about the fuel and the right message and how you can stand apart. We employ the usual marketing strategy in terms of channels, so whether it's our digital strategy or smart SEO or smart comms across social. I say we do, we have a comprehensive, but the word of mouth is really probably the most compelling, particularly to the luxury consumer. There's no stronger advocate for your brand than someone who's done it and is then sharing it. So, we benefit from all the strategies I've talked about, but yes, certainly, word of mouth within the luxury sector is everything.

Mark Lapidus [14:39]: Before we let you go, Tom, any luxury travel disruptions that you're seeing on the horizon?

Tom Marchant [14:44]: Disruptions? Obviously, everyone's embracing the potential that AI is going to bring. I don't think it will change the value of what luxury travel brings, which I think is a very positive thing. I think there are ways that AI can help all maybe luxury travel companies from an operational perspective or a qualifying perspective. But the beauty of what luxury travel is about is so much is about a human hand-in-glove or face-to-face type service. But I think there's benefits AI is going to bring. I think there's going to be more exploration of different types of travel. I think we're seeing some quite interesting train product coming out. There's different air products emerging. Also, we could probably spend hours talking about this, Mark, so I appreciate we didn't have it, but just understanding what luxury means to different audiences and different generations. I think that's the key to still exist and thrive within the luxury sector. Everyone's definition of luxury can be different, but certainly there's some conventional historical definitions which might be slightly more formulaic that I think have evolved. So understanding what matters. So it might be now, it might be about uniqueness, it might be the luxury of time, and how do you save that? It might be the luxury of finding true silence. So I think the disruption will be around actually how we allow people to celebrate or spend more time with the things that are important to them when they're traveling, or that they don't get to do day. So, I'm going back to my silence tick - as you can see, I'm quite fascinated by it at the moment - but that equally will apply itself to taste, to sense. I'd expect a lot more development of products that speak to these intangible sensory experiences that, perhaps, have been overlooked in a slightly more conventional approach to travel product development in the past.

Mark Lapidus [16:18]: Before I got into travel, I used to believe that you had to be wealthy to do luxury travel. The longer I work in it, the less I believe that, because it seems that people find the money for things that they want to do. Has that been your experience?

Tom Marchant [16:31]: Yeah, I do agree that - well, to work in it as a company, we didn't start with any big investment or any treasure war chest. We built the company from bootstrapping it. Travel, if you can get it right, if you are getting customers in and deposits are down, and you can build a business if you're smart. You don't have lots of fixed overheads, you're not making physical products, if you're on the travel agent side like we are. Then when it comes to clients, I think it's like a lot of things in life: the things you really care about, you work hard to give yourself the opportunity to enjoy experiencing them. We certainly see that with a number of our clients. But I think that the band of what constitutes luxury travel is broad as well. But clearly, there are certain parts of the world or certain things to do that are expensive to get with. But if you're really driven to do a certain particular thing, then some people make sacrifices to achieve that, like many things in life. I'm not here saying it's for everyone, because that would seem, I think, tone deaf. But at the same time, I do agree with what you're saying, that there are aspects of it that can be reached even if you don't see yourself as a traditional luxury traveler.

Mark Lapidus [17:36]: Tom, it's been a real pleasure speaking with you today. I really appreciate you taking the time out.

Tom Marchant [17:41]: Pleasure, Mark. Thanks so much for having me on, it's been great to chat.

Mark Lapidus [17:43]: If you'd like to learn more about Black Tomato - or Black Tomato, depending on where you are on the planet - please visit blacktomato.com. That's it for Brand USA Talks Travel. I'm Mark Lapidus, thanks for listening.

Outro [17:55]: Your feedback is welcome! Email us at [email protected] or call 202-793-6256. Brand USA Talks Travel is produced by Asher Meerovich, who also composes music and sound. Engineering by Brian Watkins. With extra help from Bernie Lucas, Nthanze Kariuki, and Casey D'Ambra. Please share this podcast with your friends in the travel industry. You may also enjoy many of our archived episodes, which you can find on your favorite podcast platform. Safe travels!

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In This Episode:
Tom Marchant's Headshot
Tom Marchant
Co-Founder, Black Tomato Group

Mark Lapidus' Headshot
Mark Lapidus
Host, Brand USA Talks Travel Podcast; Vice President, Content & Marketing Technology