The European online travel market is ready to surge, according to the newly released PhoCusWright Report, The European Online Travel Marketplace, 2000-2002.
PhoCusWright estimates that the European online travel market will more than triple in size from an estimated US$2.9 billion worth of gross bookings in 2000 to more than US$10.9 billion in 2002. That puts it a few years behind the U.S. in its development - but that`s where most similarities end.
One big difference: tour operators. In Europe, they are major powerhouses that own or control airline fleets, hotel rooms, cruise ships and retail travel agencies. As a result, the battle to dominate online sales is not a two-way struggle between airlines and online agencies. Rather, it`s a three-way near tie among airlines, tour operators and online agencies, which control 28%, 27% and 26%, respectively, of the European online travel market.
Also unique to Europe is its highly developed and utilized rail system, another mode of travel that has been quick to seize upon the Internet not only as a new distribution channel, but also as a highly effective yield management tool.
That`s why the top three sellers of travel online include not just an airline and an online agency but a national rail company as well. The current top dog is easyJet, the low-cost U.K. airline that sells 75% of its tickets online. Its projected 2000 online gross bookings were $266 million. Next is ebookers.com, which began life nearly 20 years ago as flightbookers, a traditional agency that has moved online quickly by buying other travel agencies throughout Europe. Third is SNCF, the French national rail system (PhoCusWright included its sales through Minitel, France`s text-based information service).
Ferries are another major mode of transportation that anecdotal evidence indicates has moved online, according to PhoCusWright.
What does all this mean? In the U.S., purchasing an airline ticket is generally what moves consumers online. It`s a fairly straightforward, relatively inexpensive, low-risk venture. But, in Europe, consumers can buy an airline ticket, a train ticket or a ferry ticket online - the risk is not much greater than buying a few CDs. That broadens the size of potential online travel consumers significantly. European travel consumers have not one, but three low-risk ways to test the waters of online travel purchasing. And, there is yet another product that is far more popular in Europe than in the U.S., that should ease the way for Europeans to work their way toward buying more complex and more profitable travel products - perhaps sooner than their U.S. counterparts will. That is last minute travel, the mainstay product of several major European travel sites, including the eponymously named lastminute.com, which this fall acquired the French site Degriftour, whose mainstay is also last minute travel. Expedia localised its U.K. site to feature more last minute travel and L`TUR, a major German site, also specializes in last minute travel. A last minute package has fewer changeable components and is therefore easier to book online. That makes it an easy way to introduce consumers to buying vacations online - and online travel retailers need to sell vacations, because they are high margin products that will allow them to stay in business.
All that said, establishing an online presence in Europe is far tougher than it was for U.S. online travel sellers when they were at the same stage of development a few years ago. One is the investment climate in general. Dot-coms have gone from being the can-do-no-wrong darlings of the investment world to the outcasts - only those companies with a track record or a truly unique business plan are getting any additional investment in Europe these days (examples include ebookers.com, eDreams.com
That`s too bad for European players, who need more money than their U.S. counterparts did at this stage of their development. That`s because a company can`t have one pan-European site, it has to have local sites in all nations and all languages. That`s expensive and means that whoever is going to win in Europe needs deep, deep pockets. Which gives the advantage to two very different players. The first are U.S. dot-coms benefiting from the scale they`ve built in their U.S. operations. Expedia.co. U.K. is an excellent example of this.
Although U.K.-based ebookers.com`s total sales are greater than Expedia`s, that`s because about 60% of ebookers.com`s bookings come from outside the U.K. Expedia is the leader in the U.K., with gross online bookings of $87 million. The other players with the greatest advantages in terms of resources are European tour operators. The best example is Preussag, Europe`s biggest tour operator, whose total travel sales in 2000 were more than $9 billion. Its chairman, Michael Frenzel, sees the Web as a way for Preussag to generate incremental business.
European tour operators already have brand name recognition and a customer base. But the Internet offers them new ways of pricing and a way to bind themselves more closely to their existing customers - and generate incremental sales as a result. There are many other players trying to establish market share across Europe. Both Expedia and Travelocity.com have sites in the U.K. and Germany, Europe`s two largest travel markets. The U.K.`s lastminute.com has sites in France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands and elsewhere in the world. France`s travelprice.com is in the black with its French operations and has sites in Germany, the U.K., Italy, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Canada and plans further expansion. Flights.com, founded as TISS in 1994 and based in Germany, has 22 sites, nine of them in Europe.
All of these online travel sellers have obstacles to overcome. European consumers pay for their local phone calls, which inhibits online time. Fortunately, flat rate Internet access with pricing structures that include telephone time are being introduced across Europe.
Europeans use credit cards less than Americans, forcing European e-tailers to give their customers alternative payment options online, such as using invoices, a practice that is a constraint on the growth of online retailing in general, not just in travel. There are technological challenges; it`s hard to book a holiday package online. And in Europe, unpublished fares proliferate - integrating published fares (which are the most common fares used in the U.S.) and unpublished fares on a single screen is another challenge.
At the same time, Europeans are forging ahead of Americans when it comes to m-commerce. Already consumers can book and pay for a rail ticket in certain countries using their mobile telephone and then use the display screen of that same phone as their ticket when on the train.