EyeforTravel North America 2018

October 2018, Las Vegas

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Why travel brands see ground-based transport on the road ahead

The online skies may be crowded with companies selling flights but digital companies in the rail, bus and car sector see boom times ahead. Senay Boztas reports

Bus travel is taking off – certainly if you talk to entrepreneurs who are moving from the crowded space of selling air flights online to trains, buses and car trips.

Clare Gilmartin, chief executive of the Trainline online ticket seller which has just added coach journeys to its offering, said that she sees clear tracks ahead for expansion in ground trips.

“Rail and coach is a $250bn global market and 70% of it is bought offline,” she told the EyeforTravel Europe summit in London earlier this month. “My phone is full of pictures of ticket queues across Europe. We added coach [travel] because it was very adjacent – the first ticket we sold was for someone who had missed their train at midnight.”

Rail and coach is a $250bn global market and 70% of it is bought offline

Some travel businesses believe that rail could have more barriers, though, for international travellers who don’t understand the network in a new country – and this is an opportunity for businesses to offer more personalised service.

Didier Pinson, CIO at Rail Europe, explained that the key to encouraging people to stay on the ground is a helping hand. “Most of our customers don’t understand the train system in Europe and in some cases are scared of it,” he said. “How to go from Paris Gare du Nord to the Gard du Lyon is scary for foreigners. Or using the subway in London. We have backpackers, families, businesses, seniors and we have to cope with their requests and requirements.”

Online ticketing does not suit all markets, he added: “Japanese customers expect you to print a ticket, put it nicely in an envelope and send it to their home address – while Americans complain that you haven’t sent the bar code to their phone.”

Room for growth 

Rod Cuthbert, chairman of Rome2rio travel search engine agreed that the ground transport has space to grow. “Trainline sells half a million tickets a week online – we just don’t give a lot of prominence to these companies as Expedia and others haven’t got to rail yet,” he said.

“A very small percentage of road, rail and ferry is booked online. There’s tremendous opportunity for us as a company and for the industry to integrate that into their business.”

Meanwhile, Brenda van Leeuwen, chief executive of Eurail – selling rail passes for Europe – said that the everyday nature of rail might have stopped travellers considering it for holidays. “Is air more attractive and rail seen as a commuter transport for work, or is it to do with technology?” she wondered. “Teaming up with Skyscanner or Expedia is the right way to go. There need to be more talks to give rail a prominent place.”

There need to be more talks [with the likes of Skyscanner and Expedia] to give rail a prominent place

She believes that rail has a great advantage in connecting travellers to local communities. “People travel by train to get in contact with locals, and we are thinking about connecting travellers to help each other too,” she added.

Meanwhile some start ups see opportunities in personal drivers: Tomas Turek, chief executive of Daytrip Europe, which connects tourists to English-speaking car drivers in 29 European countries, said: “There’s definitely a lot of growth ahead. We are teaching people to use ground transport instead of flights or trains. For Americans coming to Europe, it’s a great relief to have someone drive them, show them around, and help with the local language.”

Cutting down on flights could be a quick way to reduce your environmental impact too. So perhaps it’s time to save the skies, and look at the world from the ground.

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