Tour OperatorsWith full ownership and new partners on board, the DMC chief is intent to turn the 65-year-old legacy business into a digital disruptor.

What's behind Stephan Roemer's vision to drive Diethelm Travel as a startup

Stephan Roemer, CEO, Diethelm Travel Group: "I want the groove of a startup for Diethelm."
Stephan Roemer, CEO, Diethelm Travel Group: "I want the groove of a startup for Diethelm."

Diethelm Travel may be Thailand's oldest destination management company (DMC), but CEO Stephan Roemer's vision for the 65-year-old company is to act like a startup.

Roemer, who held the chief executive role since 2017, is intent to turn Diethelm into a tech-focused company as he acquired full stakes in the DMC with two other partners.

DK Travel Holding has sold its remaining shares in Diethelm Travel to Roemer and two partners, Thomas Maurer of Arcothai International, and Swiss IT and private equity investor Gonpo Tsering. Details of the deal were not disclosed.

The interest to acquire Diethelm Travel's remaining shares, said Roemer, was already seeded way before the pandemic in 2018 when he was given first rights. But he let the rights lapsed in 2020 as he didn't want to shoulder additional risks during Covid-19.

The conditions to take up full ownership turned ripe towards end-2021 when the right partners came along in Maurer and Tsering. "They are my number one choice, bringing expertise from other areas," said Roemer.

Like Roemer, Maurer is no stranger to the DMC scene in Asia. The Bangkok-based Swiss tour specialist founded Travel Center Asia, which was later sold to Diethelm Travel Group in 2018.

Tsering, meanwhile, is a successful investor in the digital field, with an eye for identifying promising digital startups for international growth. Ranked among Switzerland's 300 richest according to Swiss economic magazine Bilanz, he had served on the Executive Board of DKSH for over a decade and was credited to be a key force in the IPOs of DKSH Holding and On Shoes.

"His wide experience, namely in the digital field in startups, will definitely bring a much-needed new groove into our business. I want the groove of a startup for Diethelm," Roemer told Travel Weekly Asia in a virtual call.

Roemer, together with Thomas Maurer and Gonpo Tsering, are the new owners of Diethelm Travel.
Roemer, together with Thomas Maurer and Gonpo Tsering, are the new owners of Diethelm Travel.

Digital transformation underway

Roemer isn't starting Diethelm's tech push from zero though, as the company's digital transformation efforts already started before the pandemic.

"We changed the IT system just before Covid in early 2020. For all the harsh impacts from Covid, the pandemic gave us a unique chance and the space to experiment and adapt the whole IT system during this period."

Roemer had already introduced a leaner and flatter organisation with shorter lines of reporting at Diethelm, while frontline staff were given more autonomy and decision-making abilities.

As Diethelm gradually brings back furloughed employees, this also means an opportunity for returning staff to undergo training to adopt a faster, streamlined workflow.

The new workflow implemented also paves for greater efficiency, allowing travel agent partners to access product information and reservations immediately. "An immediate turn around can only be ensured if you're digitally organised and have very efficient workflows. Workflows which may have prevailed five years ago are definitely antiquated."

While Roemer readily admits that the implementation of digitalisation has been the "toughest nut to crack", Diethelm's stronger tech-oriented mindset has helped to attract younger hires to join the company.

Bringing innovation to travel products

Immersive experiences are expected to be the order of the day for travellers, who are increasingly seeking out authentic interactions with locals in the destinations visited.

That is where Maurer's expertise in product creation and design will prove especially valuable, noted Roemer. "He's a genius in new products and ideas, particularly in the land portion. We've definitely adapted some of his ideas into our tours, making them even better and greater."

Together with his expertise in organisation and operations leadership, Roemer believes the three partners can "motivate and empower one another" and play up to each other's strengths.

A tech-abled company is what Roemer firmly believes will be the future of DMCs.

"We will pursue the path of a modern DMC, tapping our know-how and experienced staff in all our countries. And this, together with digitalisation, is where we want to go in the future."

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