Europe rail distribution: A complex, confusing world

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Contacts: Europe by rail

" ACP Rail International:
www.eurail-acprail.com; (866) 938-7245

" Rail Europe (Rail Europe Group): http://agent.raileurope.com;
(888) 382-7245

" DER (Rail Europe Group): www.der.com; (800) 838-3903

" Eurail:www.eurail.com

" Flight Centre:www.flightcentre.us; (866) 967-5351

" TravelBound:www.booktravelbound.com;
(800) 808-9541

Eurail Group, its U.S. sales agents and other, newer players are launching products and targeting new niches to encourage more U.S. visitors to travel Europe by train. 

Each distributor is trying to stand out in the rail-travel crowd, angling to imprint itself in the minds of agents, operators and travelers as the best bet for booking rail.

All of which often leads to confusion in trade and consumer circles.

Europe rail 101

Eurail is a Netherlands-based consortium of 26 European national railways that is charged with devising and distributing rail passes for overseas visitors and then distributing them, along with point-to-point tickets, outside Europe.

Eurail markets in North America primarily via its two authorized sales agents: Rail Europe Group in White Plains, N.Y., and ACP Marketing, based in Montreal.

(Eurail also has global distribution deals with Gullivers Travel Associates -- represented in the U.S. by operator Travel Bound -- and Flight Centre, but the amount of stateside business they do is minimal.)

Eurail, in most U.S. travelers minds, is linked with its Eurailpass, Eurail Selectpass and Eurail Regional Pass, but the consortium is sometimes confused with similarly named sales agent Rail Europe Group, owned by the French and Swiss railways.

Rail Europe Group sells Eurail product, along with some rail passes of its own, in the U.S. and Canada through its Rail Europe and Destination Europe Resources (DER) divisions.

Jean Heger, vice president of sales and product marketing at Rail Europe Group, said the firm has found in focus groups that the typical U.S. consumer doesnt understand what Rail Europe is vs. Eurail vs. a regular [national] railway ticket.

Thus, Eurail and Rail Europe are not interchangeable terms -- an important distinction given that Eurail itself now has begun distributing rail passes in the U.S. via its www.eurail.com Web site.

Rene de Groot, Eurails managing director, said Americans account for 89% of bookings at that site, at which Eurail hopes to do 20% of business within three years.

It was a giant hit from day one, he said. Were now focusing on online sales, although our main income and business remains 90% travel agent-driven.

Eurail product is sold in the U.S. by ACP Marketing, as well, through its ACP Rail International division, which is also the sole authorized U.S. distributor for U.K.-only rail purveyor BritRail.  BritRail is not affiliated with Eurail.

ACP Marketing also runs AccesRail, an alliance of railways operating as a virtual airline under IATA carrier code 9B, which lets travel agents book rail and air tickets together via GDSs, using a single PNR.

More confusing still, many Eurail passes and tickets -- along with BritRails U.K. passes and some exclusive Rail Europe Group and ACP products -- are also available through various subagents.

One such player is Wandrian, a Newton, Mass.-based technology developer and subagent of ACP Marketing that entered the rail business with travel trade site RailAgent.com and consumer portals Railpass.com and ItaliaRail.com, a joint effort with Italian national railway Trenitalia.

Neither heads nor tails

Both consumers and market-savvy travel agents could be forgiven for getting confused, especially since each railpass distributor often markets railpass or ticket offers or new products as exclusive offers.

In truth, European rail products rarely are exclusive to any one distributor for very long.

One example: In early October, Rail Europe Group rolled out discounted, two-day France Rail passes, good for off-season train trips in France through Jan. 31. It had negotiated on its own with parent company Societe Nationale de Chemins de Fer Francais (SNCF), the French national railway.

The discounted, off-season passes are priced at $99 in second class and $129 in first class. Standard France Rail passes are issued for a minimum of four days, at $229 in second class and $263 in first class.

But Wandrian President Mike Fuller said its only a matter of time before that pass is also available at RailAgent.com.

Well simply source those off-season passes from them, just like everyone else.

Because of RailAgent.coms economy-of-size buying power, the site also will be able to offer agents a commission similar to what Rail Europe and DER are paying on their own product, according to Fuller.

The French pass isnt the only Rail Europe Group product to get poached of late.

Eurail recently decided to take over the marketing of three two-country rail passes -- Austria-Czech Republic, Austria-Switzerland and France-Switzerland -- that Rail Europe Group had devised on its own.

The four passes now are being marketed as brand-new Eurail product and thus are available to all Eurail partners.

Theyre really the same products, just with the name Eurail with them, said Heger at Rail Europe Group.

To de Groot at Eurail, the takeover was natural and inevitable. I asked the national railways to ... let us market them to customers advantage; [sales] will be expanded on a global scale, he said.

But Rail Europe Group is not bitter; according to Heger, the U.S. market for potential rail travelers still goes largely untapped, and theres room for competition.

I think all of us -- and Id use the term friendly competition -- are interested in increasing rail ridership, she said. Theres room for all us to grow, reach out and get more Americans on the trains.

Eurails de Groot agreed, but stressed his firm will increasingly look to nurture the untapped U.S. market on its own, targeting niche markets with tailored rail products.

Vive la difference

But if various rail distributors dont differ appreciably in product, pricing or commission, how can they capture consumer or agent mindshare to their own advantage?

Denis Grenier, vice president of business development at AccesRail, Montreal, pointed to differences in distribution approach.

ACP is dedicated to a multichannel distribution approach, bringing rail product to consumers where and when they want it.

For example, ACP offers not only AccesRail for booking, but its proprietary, Internet-driven ACP RailNet system; a trade and consumer call center; an in-house travel agency, ACP Secrets Holidays; and a walk-in retail outlet, the Brit Shop in New York.

By contrast, Rail Europe Group focuses on both call center and Internet sales at its two trade Web sites -- with a strong effort to migrate the bulk of trade sales online.

In fact, the Rail Europe travel agent site at https://agent.raileurope.com was upgraded in June to offer GDS-style booking of live train point-to-point ticket inventory.

Meanwhile, Wandrian and Eurail (in the U.S.) focus solely on Internet interfaces.

The rail distributors can also distinguish themselves through periodic booking incentives, particularly for agent partners.

Rail Europe offers $5 Amazon.com coupons with each two-day France Railpass, while RailAgent.com awards retailers $10 bonuses for bookings of Eurail rail passes worth more than $200.

Distributors also compete on commissions. Rail Europe Group pays 4% to 7% on point-to-point and 4% to 9% on passes, with highest pay for electronic bookings.

Wandrians RailAgent.com pays 5% to 12% commission, as does ACP Marketing.

Fuller said rail distributors also differ on value-add and whether or not they charge service fees. Those are the things that tend to make a difference these days, he said.

To contact Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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