May 28, 2024

Chris Thelen, co-founder of Take Two

Former Chambers Travel boss, Chris Thelen, has returned to the industry to launch a new TMC. He spoke with The Business Travel Magazine Editor Bev Fearis

What are your reasons for setting up TakeTwo?

There were two main reasons. Firstly, Julie (Cope) and I saw the devastating impact of the Covid pandemic, which has left so many highly-skilled and experienced people displaced. Obviously these companies have had no choice but to make cuts and I feel for them, but it means that the industry risks losing so much talent. With the launch of Take Two we will have that talent available to us and we will be able to prevent some of these people being lost to other industries.

Secondly, we saw the recent spate of TMC mergers and acquisitions had left a gap in the market for a mid-size TMC providing premium travel services. Rather than being with a big company, distracted by the complexities of integrating a new business, clients want a team of travel professionals who truly know and understand their needs. As travel returns, I question whether corporates feel that their existing TMC knows them personally any more or what they need.

How will you be doing things differently?

Every TMC provides technology – that’s now a given for the corporate customer – but what they don’t necessarily provide is an expert personal service. We’re all about preserving the ‘art’ of business travel. We’re calling our consultants Travel Heroes, because that’s what they are, managing complex travel and giving great service. We won’t be taking on baristas and giving them a few days training and putting them on the end of a phone as a travel consultant. We’ve got extremely-skilled consultants who will provide that premium service.

Several of the larger TMCs have got even bigger through recent mergers and acquisitions and they are also increasingly focussing on technology, rather than hands-on service from an experienced ‘real’ person.

So, if there had been no pandemic, would you still be launching this business?

To be honest, my initial plan was to return to the UK and retire, but the pandemic hit and when CTM closed its London operations, Julie lost her job and reached out to me. I saw the opportunity and realised I wasn’t done yet. A lot of the former Chambers employees and clients were asking me when I was coming back. I’m very passionate about the art of travel and so many of my former Chambers team were out of work and I could see what was happening with all the M&As. I feel very blessed to be back.

You sold Chambers to CTM in 2015. Is it your plan to grow this business and sell it on?

I want to make Take Two all that it can be and eventually I might look for a home for it, but we’re looking at 10-15 years, no sooner. Although I was close to retirement, it was an early retirement (I’m 55) so I’m going to be around for a while yet!

How many people have you employed and how many are ex-Chambers staff?

So far, we have recruited 20 staff who had been displaced and potentially were about to leave the industry and many are former Chambers staff. We’re offering flexible working and some are only part time but we will build up the team. We are in the strong position of not being shackled by venture capital ownership or big overheads, like some of the mega TMCs. At the moment, we have no plans to take on an office lease and we’re all working remotely but we are keeping an open mind and will consider bricks and mortar locations if required.

TakeTwo is also financially stable, unlike many TMCs – both large and small – which may be commercially vulnerable. As we grow, we will look to bring on board further staff and already we have a growing list of people – ex-colleagues and other industry contacts – that we’re talking to and who are interested in joining us. I’m a growth CEO, I’m not a cost cutting CEO, so I see this as a really exciting time.

What about corporate clients? Which contacts have you won?

We’ve already won around £11.5 million and there’s another £40 million in our pipeline. Some are former Chambers clients but definitely not all. And they’re coming from all different sectors too.

What are your longer-term growth plans?

Thanks to my time in the US, I have got to know the dynamics of the North America market very well and so the US is already on the radar and we will be expanding into this region in the coming months. We also plan to grow both organically and by acquisition.