Arnie WeissmannAs much as I have done anything studiously, I have studiously avoided attending ResExpo. I worried that this annual conference primarily attracted those who live to debate the esoteric points of reservations technology, the people who, if you asked them what time it is, would begin by telling you how a watch works (to paraphrase former Sabre President Kathy Misunas).

But last week I attended, and found that the meeting halls in the Omni Hotel in Atlanta were filled not with esoteric technical vernacular, but fightin words.

On stage, to their faces, people were accused of promoting self-serving mistruths. There was talk of revolution, with the old guard responding, Bring it on. Counter-charges flew back and forth so fast that at one point a panelist said, I want to debunk the debunking. (By then, I had lost track of the original point.)

There was talk of war, of winners and losers. There was even a suspected Quisling.

What was going on was the first face-to-face debate between representatives of the GDSs and the founders of the alternative GDSs (also called GDS new entrants, or GNE, pronounced genie).

In this corner, Alex Zoghlin, Orbitzs very first employee and now CEO of G2 SwitchWorks, a high-profile GNE, announcing a successful round of venture capital and publicly shrugging off a lawsuit filed by his former employer. (I filed first, he pointed out, as if noting that a competitor had mimicked a feature of G2.)

In that corner, united for the very first time, Sue Powers of Worldspan, Chris Kroeger of Sabre and Mitch Gross of Galileo, breaking new ground in GDS history by nodding in agreement as one another spoke (except when Powers said, We had that first, after Kroeger described a feature in Sabre).

And in the next corner -- remember, there are four corners -- is Jeremy Wertheimer, CEO of ITA Software (another GNE), who, if he is to be believed, did everything first, because he started building a GDS from scratch.

And finally, the Quisling, Peter von Moltke of Amadeus, who broke from the pack by being the first GDS to offer a mea culpa for soaking the airlines (We gave the airlines a big stick to hit us with, and we deserved it) before siding with the invaders and claiming ground as the first GDS to turn itself into an alternative GDS.

All this reminded me of the early online travel conferences, where the forces of change (then-upstarts like Expedia, Trip.com and Preview Travel) set upon one another (and any poor travel agent who had the audacity to show up) with passion, intelligence and previously unknown levels of arrogance, smugness and venture capital.

Though many of those company names live only in the annals of history, it made for great theater at the time, and the opening sessions of ResExpo 2005 recalled that era.

The GNE founders were the first to speak, and built momentum. Then the Sabre, Worldspan and Galileo reps tried to turn the tide -- they pointed out that they already had most of the functionality that the GNEs were saying they would build -- but they were clearly on the defensive. (The machine the new entrants built is primarily a PR machine, Gross groused.)

Powers, noting that Orbitz had originally been code-named T2 (for Travelocity Terminator), tried to instill a bit of fear into the discussion, saying G2 would be an inducement terminator -- that travel agents would lose the cash incentives they now receive from GDSs. (It did make me wonder if G2 was code for GDS Guillotine.)

But the GNE guys werent fazed. The problem, Wertheimer noted several times, was that the GDSs were full of hairballs, a term introduced by a previous speaker in reference to the inefficiencies inherent in legacy systems. That term seemed to have some resonance with the audience.

Misunas, co-founder of the consultancy Essential Ideas (with Travelocity founder Terry Jones), moderated the debate, and said afterwards that she, too, believed the GNEs offered little, if anything, that was new, but also acknowledged that the GDSs did a poor job of defending themselves.

It occurs to me that, if this is war, it may be a 100 years war, with no clear winner. Yes, some of what the GNEs are offering is familiar ground, but theyll be changing the economics in a way that may be compelling for suppliers in some circumstances. Still, as was pointed out several times, GDSs do a lot more than take reservations, and some of that additional functionality is necessary.

What the future holds may be a reservations environment with little elegance and lots of options, where retailers choose some functionality from the GDS and some from the GNEs, until it all becomes so unwieldy that a company named A2 (code for Alternatives Alternative) will be founded.

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