Life-Changing Travel in the Time of COVID

Tom Marchant is owner and co-founder of The Black Tomato Group, parent company of the travel brands Black Tomato and Epic Tomato, along with incentive agency The Black Tomato Agency and Studio Black Tomato. Black Tomato is a leading authority on luxury travel and caters to a global list of clients.

Tom regularly writes and speaks on trends and the future of the luxury travel and lifestyle industries at conferences and on broadcast segments around the world and has been named young entrepreneur of the year by the British Travel Industry Hall of Fame. In 2019 he won the ‘Contribution to Experiential Travel’ award at the Pure Life Experiences annual awards.

He spoke to ARENI about the intersection of luxury, travel and wine. This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. For the full conversation, listen to the podcast.

You’re running Black Tomato, a luxury travel agency. We all know that this line of business has been challenging for the last 18 months, but before digging into this, I wanted to start on definition. What constitutes luxury for you and Black Tomato?

We knew there was a gap in the market for a travel company that felt and breathe and lived the passion that myself and the founders have to travel, that wasn’t there at the time. And we really came at it from a kind of experiential view. What we quickly realized was that the type of travel we wanted was rich and very immersive, often to the far-flung corners of the earth. Naturally you gravitate towards a more affluent consumer. People who had high disposable incomes who were in the fortunate position where they could push the boundaries in terms of where and what they could do.

That’s where we quickly realized that the space that we wanted to grow a business was the luxury one. Everyone’s definition of luxury back then was very what I call traditional. It was defined by price point, thread counts. It was still very cliché.

For us in those days, 2005, what felt like a luxury was something that felt truly unique to us; something that felt rare and not easily accessed and accessible. It wasn’t necessarily defined by price.  

The additional word I always use now about what luxury means to me is “thoughtfulness”. That means everything we do for our customers has been thought through for them.

Tom Marchant, Co-founder, Black Tomato

What would be the difference between travel and experience? And can you have one without the other?

When we started the company, the word “experience” was not as ubiquitous as it is now, and we really big about saying, “Well, you should travel to experience the world”. Our view was that travel is an experience. Now everyone’s jumping on to the experience bandwagon. We’re still in the business of producing experiences, but we see there being an experience spectrum, if you like. Where we sit on that spectrum is around those experiences that produce real meaning and really challenge and inspire: Hemingway’s quote about travelling not being a destination but about the journey.  I think today the challenge for people is to be really clear on what you mean by “experience”, because there is a risk that everyone becomes desensitized to that word.

If you get it right, experiences transform people and that’s what is exciting.

Tom Marchant, Co-founder, Black Tomato

The notion of hospitality and experience are often intertwined. How does the meaning of hospitality evolved in the world post-COVID? (though I’m not yet sure we can say post-COVID world)

It’s a good question. I can’t wait for the days they are saying that are not too far away. Hospitality isn’t experience, it’s the provision of services that constitute a customer’s experience. The ones that get it right put the customer first, and in  everything they do exude care and attention and, and willingness to create something that’s just right for that customer. How has hospitality changed in this pre- and post-COVID world?

Some of the criteria or other factors that were all being considered, or woven into hospitality, are not as important or as essential as they were.  When customers are considering maybe a property, they’re going to explore how that supplier is going to handle cleanliness, hygiene, distancing, privacy, where it just wasn’t much of a consideration before. Now it is an absolute essential part of the proposition.

I remember, before we started the company, you would look at a website that sold travel, or you pick up a brochure or a guide, and you’d be presented with long list of destinations and detailed descriptions of places, often quite factual. But what none of them did was convey how it would make you feel.

Tom Marchant, Co-Founder, Black Tomato

When we started the company, one of the most differentiating things we did was categorise all the travel experiences on the website according to the emotional feeling. For me, luxury is about for an emotional feeling.

We released our big study on Fine Wine consumers a couple of weeks ago. And one of the things that we found is when you studied High Net Worth individuals is that the classic segmentation – demographics, age, living place – doesn’t matter that much. We found that intent and motivation are more important. Would you agree with that?

We are about intents. We talk about attitude rather than demographics. We know that what binds our customer base is curiosity, this desire to explore and experience and feel. That passion can be held by someone who might be in their mid-70s who wants to explore. We take pride in understanding our customers. And the reason is by really understanding them and getting as many insights from it as possible, it allows us to deliver the best possible travel service. A key part of our process is every customer that ever travels with us, we always have post-trip calls and debriefs with them. By having these debrief conversations, we learn so much about how they felt about the trip, things that worked. And then that actually leads into a future trip.

When it comes to high-net-worth individuals, we identified four categories. We’ve got the status seeker, and from what we gather, they are decreasing. Then we’ve got the affluent, which is what I call the “just rich”. They buy expensive wines the same way that someone else would by a £5 bottle of wine, but they pay more because they’ve got more money, but they’re not engaged with wine that much. Then we’ve got the deep diver who collects and gets passionate about wine.  And then we’ve got the collectors. Do those categories resonate with you?

I understand and I do recognize all of those categories. You will see a lot of status, but that’s not a common theme of Black Tomato. That’s what you often call the “box ticker” in luxury travel. People who want to show other people they’ve been somewhere.

The deep diver is very much a kind of a common Black Tomato customer, who are passionate about travelling.  

There could be a whole separate conversation about a collectible with materials versus experiences, but we’ve worked with clients on what plans they want to be having in the next ten years. They want to do the Galapagos for three weeks, and then they’ll come back and say they want an odyssey through Iceland, or they want to spend time with marine biologists in South Africa.

How does wine tourism fit in your offer and how do you see it evolving?

It’s really important. When we do our surveys and ask about the motivation, you’ll always find cuisine. That manifests in many different ways, from finding great restaurants to great culinary experiences, to access to vineyards.

Cuisine and wine is one of the common reasons why people travel.

Tom Marchant, Co-Founder, Black Tomato

Have we ever developed a standalone wine tourism offering? No we haven’t, but it’s been built within the experiences we’ve created.

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