Technology drives travel competition

Travel technology, from Internet booking to videoconferencing, is a key weapon in the travel agency shakeout that has produced giants such as American Express, Carlson Wagonlit and Rosenbluth.

“In the fight over who owns the customer—the airline or the agent—technology is the deciding factor. You have to have the size to have the money to get the technology that wins,” says U. Gary Charlwood, chairman of Uniglobe Travel International.

Uniglobe last month formed a buying alliance with a large travel agency chain, Woodside Travel Trust . Though separately run, the two companies, with a combined 6,500 locations, will buy travel jointly and share technology.

That’s just one type of consolidation in an industry that in the past year has seen mergers, buyouts, joint ventures and joint ownership deals. Examples:

American Express bought Travel One last October.
Carlson Wagonlit became co-owner of Thomas Cook.


BTI Americas became part of World Travel Partners.

A company called U.S. Office Products snapped up six midsize agencies and formed a giant called Navigant.

Each offers customized travel technology, from Carlson’s Act One customized travel expense programs to Travel One’s E-Tron electronic-ticket-tracking system to BTI’s Corre, an Internet booking system.

Small agencies hope technology will help them ride out the consolidation wave. “We do massive amounts of research for our clients through the Internet, and we have our own Web page, which is perhaps notable for an agency our size,” says Michael Pingrey of ACT Travel, a $5 million-a-year agency. “We’re mastering the technology that would otherwise put us out of business.”