April 23, 2024

The ‘conscious uncoupling’ of Festive Road

Bev Fearis chats to Paul Tilstone and Caroline Strachan about the story behind the Festive Road split, otherwise known as 'Project Paltrow'

They’ve become business travel’s power couple, building their purple empire, identifying trends and creating frameworks – permissible travel, purposeful travel, disruption at the core – to help corporate travel buyers shape their programmes, policies and strategies.

They’ve worked together for more than 15 years and have been through some tough times, steering ITM through the financial crisis, establishing GBTA Europe and eight years ago setting up Festive Road, bringing it safely through the pandemic. In the last two years they have grown the company dramatically, doubling the size of the global team to 40 people and continuing their mission to ‘create better travel and meetings management’.

When Caroline Strachan and Paul Tilstone announced this week they were going their separate ways, it came as a shock to many in the industry and was likened by some (including them) to the ‘conscious uncoupling’ of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin.

Bev Fearis spoke to Tilstone and Strachan about the reasons for the split, their differences, their special bond, and what happens next…

You’ve decided to cut all ties and run two completely separate consultancy businesses – one for buyers and one for suppliers. Why didn’t you just set up a separate division for suppliers within Festive Road?

Caroline: We created Festive Road eight years ago to serve the whole eco system, but not everyone gets that. We’ve had to say ‘no’ so many times to suppliers who wanted us to help them with their strategy, sales teams, improve their account management functions, or sit on the board of start-ups because it would create a conflict with how we’re working with buyers, which is the big side of the business.

Being 100% independent is really key and we wanted, hand on our heart, to speak to any customer with no conflicts.

Paul: Before, if we were asked by suppliers – TMCs, airlines, hotel groups – to help shape their strategy or develop a product, it didn’t feel like something we could do because we were helping buyers to source those companies and products.

But surely other consultants cover both sides?

Paul: Most seem to specialise in one side or the other, but yes, some do operate on both sides – and quite clearly we have operated for eight years working on both sides, because we felt it was important to work across the whole eco-system to create better rather than isolating one particular side. As long as you’ve got management of the conflicts in place, you can do that and I am sure other consultancies out there are managing those conflicts all the time.

How are you both feeling about split?

Paul: This has been in the planning since September so we’ve had quite a lot of time to get used to the idea. It’s been an exercise in all sorts of things, from the complexity of how we’re going to do it to the emotion of  ‘okay, this is the end of an era’ and also the excitement of two new opportunities – and everything in between.

Caroline: Interestingly our team – who are such emotionally intelligent people – were just asking us about this. For me, going from being in a partnership to sole CEO, that’s a fundamentally different job. Having a business partner alongside you, facing the challenges together (we survived Covid together and if you can survive that you can survive anything). Moving from partnership to sole is something we’ve both had to consider.

Both of us have got such strong self-awareness that we get what that gap will be. I will be filling the gap that Paul leaves by having people and advisors around me and having the leadership team step up.

We’ve worked together for 15-plus years in three organisations. We can finish each other’s sentences and we know how each other is thinking. We are fundamentally different human beings – mass extrovert, mass introvert, top down, bottom up, unstructured, structured. And that’s why I’m happy that we’re having this conversation with you, Bev, because I know you’re a real people person, and that’s something we both have to be really aware of because we won’t have that yin yang in the future so we both need to make sure we get that yin yang from somewhere else.

Festive Road has grown rapidly in recent years. Has this also been a factor in the decision to separate?

Paul: Yes, it’s certainly part of it. One of the components of the decision – alongside the commercial opportunity and the removal of the conflict issue – is that we need to celebrate doing what we love. We have, together, made the decisions that have led us to this point in time, in the full knowledge of what we were building, but I also know that I’m a scrappy start-up sort of person – passionate and creative – and Caroline excels at growing a business and putting the structures in place to do that.

So, it is such a beautiful, natural time where what we’ve created fits Caroline’s style and will go on to do amazing things. Meanwhile, I’m really excited about taking a couple of steps back and starting something smaller, almost like Festive Road was back in 2016/2017, with a small team of four or five to start, including some of the Festive Roaders who were working more on the supplier side and were on contract and have taken the decision to move across to temoji because they like the idea of starting up again with something brand new.

So, they chose Dad over Mum? (all laugh). Seriously, though, does it feel a bit like a divorce?

Caroline: It’s funny you should say this, but we actually called this project Project Paltrow!

Paul: Yes, it’s a ‘conscious uncoupling’. That’s exactly what it is!

You say it’s amicable. Is it really? Can a separation ever be completely amicable? You’re so different. Surely there must have been disagreements?

Caroline: There have always been disagreements, but that’s the beauty of our partnership. If we had been exactly the same kind of person, we never would have worked so beautifully together for the last 15 years. It’s because I’m so passionate about my side of the view and Paul’s so passionate about his side of the view, but then we both sleep on it and we come back and said ‘you know, you’ve got a point’. And that’s what Festive Road has needed over the years – the coming together of two different minds and different styles. If you’ve ever seen Paul and I turn up at events, you wouldn’t even notice I’m there because I’m at the edge doing one-to-one chats, whereas Paul is talking to 100 people, like an excited puppy!

Going back to the marriage analogy, one of the team asked us ‘will the industry miss you as a duo?’ but I don’t see that. It’s interesting because you might have noticed we hardly ever go to the same conferences because we divide and conquer, and this actual restructuring is a divide and conquer moment. We don’t go the same events, hardly, because of budget and time – and we’re never on the same stage together in panel discussions. Until this week, we’ve never even been quoted in the media together. We would never be on stage together because the debates we have are so passionate, and sometimes with raised voices, but that’s within the confines of our working relationship because it feels so safe.

Paul: Through the whole relationship, including in the last six months, we’ve come at things from a different angle and have very different styles, but the core things that matter to us both – like openness, respect and being able to say how you’re feeling – that kind of empathetic piece – those have been what made the relationship work and those have been absolutely key as we go through this process – firstly in our decision to do it and secondly in the way that we do it.

Who actually came up with the idea to split?

Paul: It really was a joint decision. We were walking through Borough Market, talking about a bunch of stuff and how we saw the future of the business, and the conversation just went that way. We both said things that resulted in ‘that’s the answer’. It really was collaborative.

Will there be any crossover with your two businesses?

Paul. No. Not commercially. We might now be on the same stage at a conference, but not commercially. In fact, in order to have integrity and to be 100% transparent, we won’t even be recommending each other. To date, if a client has asked what’s the best TMC for me, our answer has always been the same – here’s the list of options we’re aware of and you’ve got to think about your cultural fit and other factors and make your choice. It will be no different.

Paul, what’s behind the name temoji?

It’s about travel’s emotive journey – the impact that travel has on humanity, on people when they go to different parts of the world, the positive and negative experiences of travel that create emotions in people, and all of the dramatic changes in our sector which are creating emotion within travel management, such as sustainability or NDC.

Will it be purple like Festive Road?

No, it’s bright pink, Barbie pink.

When did you tell the roaders and what was their reaction?

Caroline. We told them on Tuesday. They were initially surprised, then they were curious and now they’re at the excitement stage for the future. The change curve they’ve gone through so quickly is a real testament to all of them. They’ve now got to the point where they’re saying ‘why didn’t we do it sooner?’.

This has been a strategic journey and they were there at the start, 18 months ago, building out our 2030 vision with us. This is a stage on that strategic journey. We’ve walked the team through the whole process, the marketplace indicators that made this the right time. The messages we’ve been getting on LinkedIn and Whatsapp are saying ‘this is so needed, the time is right’. That feels good.

What about your clients?

Caroline: Our clients have wondered how on earth we kept this quiet, but we’ve been very careful in how we’ve managed things, even bringing in an external expert. From our clients point of view, it’s been very much business as usual and it will continue to be that way. The response has been really heart-warming and instead of thinking about how it’s going to impact them, they’ve been asking us how they can help. That’s meant the world to me. I’ve been blown away.

(Our interview has overrun so Paul has left to take a call from a client).

What will you miss about working with each other?

Caroline: Funnily enough, one of the team asked that! I will miss Paul’s wide-eyed, anything-is-possible childlike optimism. I think of it like mice coming out of a mouse hole. One mouse sees cheese and the other sees a cat. Paul sees the cheese and I’m the cat girl. I can easily be a cheese girl but I really have to be aware of where the cat might be. And I can tell you what Paul said. He said he would miss my structure and the way I operate in a structured way, with discipline, vision, communication.

Will you stay friends?

Caroline: Absolutely 100%. We’ve been through such a lot together and there’s so much friendship there. We will always be friends.