Will Europe lead?

By | April 18th, 1996

Like it or not, the European travel industry sees opportunities in the information revolution that American companies are oblivious to.

The Europeans were quietly experimenting with smart cards and ticketless travel while the New World’s agents and suppliers bickered about commissions.

The Continent rolled out interactive TV-based teletext systems years before the information superhighway got busy. And let’s not forget that the Web was developed in Switzerland, not San Francisco.

All this raises a question: could Europe, bound by senseless government regulations and divided by language barriers and an inferior communications infrastructure, take the lead in interactivity?

Absolutely, according to some of the sharpest minds in the business. “I would say that in some areas, the Europeans are already way ahead of us,” says IBM futurist Lee Olsen.

He estimates that European software developers are two years to three years in front of American competitors in the race to set up ticket-dispensing kiosks that could offer a wide range of interactive services.

Why is it happening? Ironically, government regulation is part of the answer. In European countries where the state maintains a telecommunications monopoly, phone charges remain prohibitively expensive. That’s pushing more people toward the less costly Internet and creating a serious market for interactive services that’s both practical and profitable.

European users are less interested in bells and whistles than the bottom line – a sharp contrast to the vapid twentysomething audience spawned by the likes of HotWired in America.

Olsen, who is conducting a study of interactivity for a German retailer, says Europeans are eager to learn from mistakes made on this side of the Atlantic and to improve on technologies invented in the U.S. If that’s only half true, they have plenty of material to work with. It’s only a matter of time before the best and brightest in the States are playing catch up.

Related story:   Here comes buytravel.com

New York software developer Seth Perelman sees it that way, too. “I think Europe is trying to leapfrog ahead of the United States, and they may be able to,” he says.

He cites France’s early efforts to connect the entire country through an electronic directory as evidence that Europe is serious about interactivity. That governments are funding many projects, rather than just paying them lip service as they do in the U.S., is widening the gap.

It’s curious, notes industry contrarian Rolfe Schellenberger, senior analyst with Runzheimer International, that European travel technology is evolving so fast. “In some European countries you’re not even allowed to have an on-site office for a travel agency, and ticket delivery is restricted,” he points out.

Despite cultural and regulatory obstacles that would stop most American businesses in their tracks, the Europeans are moving forward – precisely because governments are more supportive and users less mercurial.

It is impossible to find in Europe the same vast tracts of undeveloped land that can be found still in the U.S. Where does a business go when it wants to expand? Cyberspace is the last corporate frontier.

Judged by their present efforts, many American travel businesses believe the Internet is nothing more than an experiment, a sideshow to their current enterprise. But the Europeans are online for good.

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