The following article, which provides an overview of the travel 
sales via INTERNET in Belgium, was published in "Trends 
International" of May 1999.  The editor of the article is Mr. 
Bruno Leijnse. This article is reproduced in its original English 
version with the authorization of Mr. Leijnse.

International research points to a worldwide upsurge in Internet 
travel purchases over the next five years. In Belgium, though, 
there appears to be less enthusiasm.

Major tour operators use all media available when selling their 
products, directly or indirectly, by mail order or CD-ROM, or via 
call centers.  The latest addition to the list is Internet.  
According to Forrester Research, the number of trips booked on-
line should rise eight-fold over the next five years reaching 
65.6 million.  That means an increase from 1.8 per cent of all 
trips booked in 1998 to 12.2 per cent in 2003.

But Belgium paints a very different picture.  Peter Van Elst, 
general manager of Neckermann tour operators in Belgium, says 
that the case for Internet has been "seriously overstated for the 
sector." Van Elst does, however, promise his company will have a 
comprehensive state-of-the-art site for the year 2000.  "Internet 
is a fundamental part of our strategy," he says, "but we don't 
think that in the short term it will be very profitable." Almost 
one Belgian in two goes to C&N (name of holding) to book a 
holiday, either directly via one of the 85 Neckermann agencies or 
their call center, or else via other travel agents and brands 
such as Sunsnacks, All Seasons or Pegase.  Altogether this made 
for 478 million Euro business in the last financial year.  And 
all that without a single website on the World Wide Web.
"If you had asked me three years ago about our Internet plans, I 
would have told you it wasn't on the agenda," admits Peter Van 
Elst.  "Today it is very much an issue." Neckermann is already 
registered as a domain name.  Peter Van Elst: "A specific 
category of customer will certainly be thinking of the Internet.  
Convenience and accessibility are essential to a customer-
oriented approach.  The call center is a partial answer, being 
open seven days out of seven from 8 am to 10 pm. But Internet 
means reservations and information 24 hours a day, whenever the 
customer wants it." He is in no doubt that "the great majority of 
customers want to have direct contact with a salesperson in order 
to get reliable holiday advice." But Internet is one factor, one 
possibility within a multi-faceted policy, according to Van Elst.  
"I can't change the customer and I don't want to.  If he says in 
the morning, I want to consult you by Internet - and I'm sure 
that will happen - then as market leader I have to be ready.  
Otherwise I'm behind the times." The question then is not 
whether, but how.  And even that is just one step in a process.  
"When the call center opened up alongside our own distribution 
system, there was quite a lot of opposition.  The word was that 
it would take away our customers.  But it also represented 
another way of infor7ning customers.  In the end, the Neckermann 
Organization has done alright out of it these past two or three 

Competitors of C&N are already on the web, but on a limited and 
not very sophisticated basis.  Jetair (wwwjetair.be) from the 
TUI-group was still, as of mid April 1999, largely at the 
preparatory stage, but says itself that it wants to provide 
business and product information and direct people to a list of 
travel agents.  Sunjets (www.sunjets.be), the direct sales 
channel for the same group, offers a more detailed service: you 
can order brochures and a CD-ROM and inquire by e-mail about 
availability.  Reservations have to made by a 070-number.  At 
Best Tours (www.best-tours.com) you can calculate approximate 
prices and there is an on-line booking form where you can choose 
your travel agent.  There is a mailing list too.  A number of 
smaller tour operators, such as Gazelle World Wave, Exclusive 
Destinations and EcuTravel, have their own websites but they all 
direct you to travel agents.

All in not on-line

Travelstreet.com, the consumer arm of the Gateway company in 
Heusden-Zolder, is the most innovative.  Valere Vandecruys' 
company is neither a tour operator nor a travel agent, but a 
business-to-business information provider.  The Megatop database, 
which lists all available flights and prices in Belgium, is used 
by more than 800 travel agents.  Only slightly less popular is 
Megatour, containing all possible brochures, round trips and 
packages, special offers and last minute deals.  Gateway has been 
working for three years on its Internet service.  "We don't sell 
anything ourselves.  We don't have a license.  We want to 
centralize what is on offer and be a gateway for the surfer for 
everything to do with travel.  We try to bring together all the 
tour operators we can," Vandecruys says.  Forrester Research 
predicts that this approach will eventually win out over on-line 
booking with individual hotels and airline companies.
GATEWAY is working on an electronic commercial infrastructure.  
Until now, apart from travel agents, only small or niche tour 
operators have presented their products there, such as Escape, 
Intercomfort, Portugal Travel, Enjoy Paradise, Sri Lanka Tours, 
Southern Cross Tours and Toboggan Club.  But the bookings are 
made through travel agents.  This is a matter of what is 
technically feasible for Vandecruys, "At the moment no interface 
is possible with the tour operators' booking systems."
Frank Clarijs, senior project manager at Unisys, comments, "The 
tour operators are not technically ready to offer Internet 
services." That is partly due to the nature of their work.  "The 
added value for a tour operator is still above all in the all-out 
package of transport, hotel and guides," says Van Elst.  Gateway, 
for example, does have a booking system for flights which handles 
between two and ten bookings	a day in April, in cooperation with 
the travel agents White Sun, AirStop, IS&TC and Clemens' 
Reiswinkel.  But tour operating is another kettle of fish.  
"Certainly all-in products cannot be booked on-line just like 
that.  There are various providers involved and they are not all 
on one integrated reservation system as with the airlines."

Belgian Travel Network

And yet there is a common reservation system in Belgium for tour 
operators.  Nine of the big ones, including the top three, sell 
their products to more than a thousand travel agencies through 
the Belgian Travel Network (BTN).  The intranet service dates 
from 1996 and avoids travel agents having to have a separate 
reservation system for each of their tour operators.  
Unfortunately, BTN is not really an integrated system like Sabre, 
Amadeus, WorldSpan or Galileo.  It is just a gateway.  "BTN 
exchanges structured messages between travel agents and tour 
operators," explains general manager Willem Van Neck.  Frank 
Clarijs, who oversaw the development of BTN, comes to its 
defense: "It's up to the tour operators to make intelligent use 
of it." In other words, BTN offers no real overview of what the 
tour operators are offering.

So not only do the rules prevent BTN from going on-line as this 
is reserved for recognized travel agents, but there are also 
technical factors.  Although Vandecruys, whose Gateway is well 
placed for such a development, still hopes to be able to make the 
connection.  "Through BTN the consumer would be able to book 
online from the big tour operators.  I asked them again in March 
to be allowed to do this." The answer was no, even though in the 
end the reservation would have been through a travel agent.

"There is absolutely no plan to make BTN available on the 
Internet," confirms BTN manager Van Neck.  That kind of direct 
access would represent a revolution and everyone shies away from 
it.  At the moment, 88 per cent of business in the sector still 
follows the classic sequence of customer-travel agent-tour 
operator according to Antoon van Eeckhout, founder of the 
Association of Flemish Travel Agents, which sees the Internet 
more as an evolution in communications technology rather than in 
travel selling.  "Direct selling would squeeze out the travel 
agent," adds Veerle De Boeck, secretary of the Association of 
Belgian Air Tour Operators.  "We have never dealt directly with 
customers and in the short term that certainly won't change." 
Apart from their information technology shortcomings there is 
another reason why tour operators are slow to go on-line.  They 
all express doubts as to whether the customer could cope.  As Van 
Neck puts it: "We are talking here about people who maybe book a 
journey once or twice a year.  Are they ready to learn the skills 
involved?  And tour operator A will always operate in a different 
way from tour operator B."

Major investment is required to start a site where it would be 
easy to book.  "We are talking about substantial investment, 
millions of Euro," admits Van Elst of C&N.  Set against that, the 
Internet "will be a medium with relatively low costs." Forrester 
Research says the potential savings on running costs are 
"dramatic".  That could be irresistible in a sector where, 
according to Frank Clarijs, "the best work on margins of two per 
cent, most on half to one per cent, and many operate at a loss."