Travolution Profile: Chris Roe of Virgin Holidays


Sponsored by Puregenie, digital recruitment specialists.

The travel career of Virgin Holidays sales and distribution director Chris Roe reads like a case study of knowing what you want and grabbing your chances when they come along.

Roe, a former Thomson resort rep, like so many travel industry executives, admits he never had a grand plan for his career but maintained a focus on what he knew he was interested in and enjoyed.

It was this that took him down the online route having had a spell at Thomson in the UK as product development manager where he helped give birth to the operator’s differentiated product range that is now so central to its success.

Having tried and failed to land a job in a part-owned Thomson online subsidiary called First Resort, he was approached by travel recruitment specialist Gail Kenny about a job in a new firm called Expedia.

Over the summer of 1990 Roe went through the exhausting Expedia interview process culminating with the final one of six with Simon Breakwell, one of the travel giant’s founders, via a video conference.

Roe landed the job as tour operations manager becoming Expedia’s sixth employee and during his time there saw it grow from virtually nothing to a £1 billion pan-European business.

He recalls going to see the technology guys in Seattle and drawing on a whiteboard what a dynamic packaging solution ought to look like. Six weeks later the code was delivered.

“I just really enjoyed technology from a commercial point of view and seeing a small team make a big difference very quickly.

“After five years I was very tired. We had a start up mentality, it was very rewarding, but very tiring. I left for a complete change and went to Sky Travel to write their strategy.”

After Sky, which did not eventually put Roe’s plans into action, he found himself back in the cut and thrust of the online travel retail world with Opodo but was there for only a year.

Then Kenny approached him again about an opportunity at Virgin Holidays where he was brought in to run distribution and sales and instil a different way of working to a traditional operator.

Roe said throughout his career he has always been drawn to the web side, going back to his roots at Thomson he has also always enjoyed working with differentiated product.

“With Virgin you have got something that’s about something more than price, it’s a bit sexier. At Expedia we were competing against faceless brands with the same products whereas at Virgin you bring something to the holiday.”

And this comes back to his work originally as a rep, a period at the outset of Roe’s career which, importantly, put him in direct contact the product he enjoys so much developing.

He completed three ski seasons and four summers in Ibiza, working as resort manager for the east and west coast in his final summer.

Asked about the secret to his success, Roe said his career progress was more down to hard work than luck, although he does admit to being fortunate to have been able to do something he enjoys.

And how it could all have been so different had not Thomson originally kept his details on file after he first applied for a repping job aged 17, four years too early.

When he turned 21, having completed a Btec course in travel and tourism, accounting and finance and he was selling paper, board and plastics to painters and sign writers, Thomson got in touch.

So while hard work and focus has clearly been important in Roe’s career, it’s worth remembering it all started thanks to a speculative letter written as a teenager. 

“My advice to people would be to try different things. You might not enjoy what you are doing today but then a year ago I did not think I would be running a cruise retail business [Virgin Holidays Cruises], but it’s the most enjoyable part of my job.

“I was very lucky in having the Expedia foundations in technology. If you are not tech savvy and can’t get your head round how PPCs works or SEO or what an API is then learn it very quickly.”




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