ABOARD THE EUROSTAR -- The high-speed Eurostar link between the U.K. and the Continent is still a teenager, but it is about to see a couple of changes that will effectively transition it into adulthood.
The 15-year-old service connecting London with Brussels and Paris will become a stand-alone company in January, to be known as Eurostar International. Its owners, led by the French railroad SNCF, will become silent; they will not have representatives on the board of directors, nor will they contribute funding.
It is Eurostar's intent that this move will be transparent to customers.
On Dec. 13, the European Union will implement the first stage of deregulation for railways in member countries, ending the monopolies of national operations (see related report, "E.U. passenger rail lines take first step toward deregulation.").
At some point, customers will witness the formation of new rail operators and added services. Eurostar is bracing for competition on the London-Paris route "in the not-too-distant future," said Matt Jones, regional sales manager for Eurostar.
To a degree, Eurostar already represents the future envisioned by deregulation. It is a seamless international operation, providing service on sleek, modern rolling stock.
It also offers some of the choices that deregulators tout: It sells both first and economy classes of service, and since September 2005, it has divided premium-ticket holders by purpose of travel, assigning seats in Business Premier or Leisure Select cars. In first class, meals are served at passengers' seats. It is also one of a few rail operators with business-class lounges and a loyalty program.
This is the Eurostar that seven U.S. travel agents, winners of a Rail Europe sweepstakes, sampled last month on a whirlwind six-day fam trip to London and Paris. The itinerary emphasized all things rail, including Heathrow Express, which is another Rail Europe partner, and use of the London Underground and Paris Metro for nearly all local transport.
Rail Europe also laid out atypical sightseeing and hands-on experiences to share with well-traveled customers. After all, said Jim Prchlik, West Coast regional sales director for Rail Europe, based in Oakland, Calif., clients don't usually cross the ocean just for a train ride; they choose their destinations for tourist or business reasons before they choose their mode of transport.
Prchlik's goal is to ensure that once clients are committed to travel between London and Paris or Brussels, agents talk up the Eurostar choice. More broadly, he wants agents to routinely offer the rail option for travel anywhere in Europe.
He said Rail Europe, which these days receives about half its business from the trade and represents about 40 railway companies (including Amtrak as of September), ran the Eurostar sweepstakes last spring "for visibility and promotion."
As Rail Europe's host, Prchlik used the two Eurostar journeys between London and Paris, as well as some meals, as low-key seminar time. He raised the kinds of points rail enthusiasts love to tout:
Rail is more comfortable than air travel, and it is a positive aesthetic experience.
It is safer than air or car travel: In 28 years of operation, Prchlik said, the French high-speed TGV trains have carried 1.5 billion passengers, and there have been no fatalities.
Finally, there are the time efficiencies. He said Rail Europe calculates that the shortest flights within Europe consume at least five hours, taking into consideration travel to and from airports and security checks.
"There are lots of options for rail trips" in Europe that take less than five hours, he said, especially considering rail lines go from city center to city center.
Besides, he continued, on the high-speed trains, the travel time is higher-quality than on planes, with trains offering work space and technology not found on aircraft.
Eurostar's Jones touted rail not just as the quintessentially European experience but as the green choice. In the case of Eurostar, he said, it produces carbon emissions at one-tenth the rate of air service on the same routes. In addition, he said, in November 2007, Eurostar became the world's first train operator to make all journeys carbon-neutral, at no extra cost to travelers.
Corporate, cruise markets
Prchlik said Rail Europe's products, while generally popular with leisure travelers on land trips, face hurdles in two arenas: the corporate and cruise markets.
European business travelers have moved to rail, especially the high-speed kind, in significant numbers, with rail overtaking air as the primary mode of travel on major routes where air once dominated. Eurostar claims that 80% of London-Paris and London-Brussels travel is now on its trains.
Nevertheless, Prchlik said, Rail Europe has a hard time making much headway with U.S.-based corporate travelers. Sweepstakes winner Chris Severs, who serves corporate clients for Carlson Wagonlit Travel in St. Charles, Mo., said his customers resist Eurostar because they fear delays -- although airline on-time records are not necessarily better.
In the case of Eurostar, it reported an average on-time performance of 95.2% so far this year compared with 83.9% for the airlines on its routes.
Steven Bussell, a travel counselor at American Express Travel in New York, said the volume of baggage is another issue.
For his clients from the Garment District, "it is a lot of bags to carry," Bussell said, because they buy clothes in Europe. "They go to get inspiration on designs, prints, colors, models."
Prchlik said the trick is to identify the kind of business needs that match with the rail option. Banking is a good one for Eurostar, he said, because of the need to travel between the two banking centers of London and Paris. He said he has found a few other business-travel possibilities, but it is slow going.
For business travelers, he said, he does not stress cost, although rail looks good when comparing first-class air with first-class rail. Often, Prchlik said, people compare first-class rail with economy air. Nevertheless, he said he stresses time efficiency and more quality time with computers and the phone while traveling.
As for the cruise business, he said, Rail Europe would like to participate in pre- and post-cruise itineraries, but again, baggage is an issue. People often travel with a lot when cruising, Prchlik said, although there may be opportunity for rail add-ons as more travelers ship bags to ports of embarkation or send some home after a sailing is completed.
He said rail also could be used for cruisers' shore excursions, and "little by little, we are getting this."
Linda Harbin, travel agency supervisor for AAA Idaho in Boise, decided to test the excursion potential during a Mediterranean cruise on the Celebrity Infinity in April. She paid the agent rate for a Rail Europe three-country pass and used rail for her excursions in France and Italy, at Cannes, Livorno, Civitavecchia and Naples. In each case, the ship was in port for the full day.
From Cannes, she traveled to Nice and Monaco; from Livorno, generally the port for Florence, she went to Cinque Terre; from Civitavecchia, she went to Rome; and from Naples, she took the train to Sorrento and returned via hydrofoil.
Her experience illustrated Rail Europe's challenge. She said rail provided independence and control but also a lot of stress, because travelers need to hustle to see what they want and get back to port before their ship departs. She found that quite a few cruise passengers were also taking the trains; they were very independent people who had previously visited the destinations, she said.
Harbin had also previously visited all the ship's ports. Therefore, she opted for every rail experience possible to gain knowledge of the product. She sold $60,000 for Rail Europe in 2008 but said sales were down in this recession year.
While she can now talk more confidently about how to use Europe's trains, she also said she won't recommend rail for shore excursions for anyone not well traveled and experienced with these trains.
Besides, she said, her customers usually choose their European cruises as a way to see cities they have not visited, in which case planned shore excursions are the surest way to see as many important monuments and museums as time allows and to be certain of reboarding the ship before departure.
The exception is Rome. When clients are opting for transfers but no sightseeing in the Italian capital, the bus transfer provided by ship lines is "outrageously priced," she said, whereas rail costs a fraction of that and the Civitavecchia station is a seven-minute walk from the port. Even then, she said, this alternative is for clients who have specific plans for their Rome visit.
Harbin had taken advantage of Rail Europe's AD75 passes, which give agents a 75% discount on regular prices. Prchlik said that in the past, the company imposed a productivity minimum before granting the discounted tickets, but it recently decided it was more beneficial to Rail Europe to give all agents access to the services.
More than 2,700 North American agents had requested AD75 passes by mid-November, already surpassing all of 2008's 2,368 users. Rail Europe also operates or participates with tour operators, trade consortia or tourist boards in about 10 or so fam trips a year, Prchlik said.
Rail Europe is a preferred supplier for all U.S. travel agency consortia, cooperatives and franchise organizations except American Express. The relationships entitle member agencies to productivity-based commissions that are somewhat better than the modest base rate. Prchlik said 90% of trade sales come from agencies qualifying for the overrides.
While Rail Europe won't reveal its base commission rate for unaffiliated agencies producing under $2,000 a year, it does recommend adding service fees. Prchlik said Rail Europe has cut pay to agencies in recent years because the railways themselves have slashed their payments to Rail Europe.
At the same time, he said, software at the company's Web-based Euronet booking system enables agents to add service fees to rail prices. Rail Europe reported that 6,500 North American agencies used this service-fee capability in 2009, and average service fee levels rose about 10% this year over last.
Ina Schweitzer, manager of European Travel International in Riverside, Calif., said she used the tool because "it's much easier than billing separately, given rail clients are usually paying by credit card."
However, another significant portion of sellers collect fees in other ways. For example, Cathy Koenig, who operates A Time 2 Travel in Laguna Niguel, Calif., as an affiliate of the Nexion host agency, uses a Nexion-provided tool called Merchant POS to process and collect her fees. Prchlik estimated that 85% or more of agencies in his region, the West, collect fees on rail sales.
In addition, more than 250 North American agencies have a Euronet system in their offices that enables them to issue all tickets and passes on site.
Rail Europe is in the early stages of offering e-ticketing. It has had some e-ticketing at its call center for a year, but as of Sept. 15, when it relaunched its website, Rail Europe offers e-ticketing for Eurostar -- its top-selling product, accounting for 15% of sales -- and for French trains for which reservations are required. SNCF is Rail Europe's largest shareholder, with 88%; the Swiss national railroad owns the rest.
Prchlik said e-ticketing would be available soon on Thalys, which operates high-speed services in Northern Europe.
Currently, Rail Europe delivers a confirmation, and the passenger must use a kiosk at the train station, input the e-ticket number and collect the boarding pass. Prchlik said a print-at-home capability is in the works.
He also pointed out that e-ticketing evolved slowly at Rail Europe because the company has to create unique links for each of the 40 or so rail companies, since their internal systems differ.
There are other ways for agents to sell European rail. Eurostar sells in the GDSs, and there are GDS booking capabilities for the French, German, Spanish and Swedish railroads. Sales are further facilitated by a number of airline codeshare deals with SNCF and by Virgin Atlantic's interline agreement with Eurostar.
However, those are not Rail Europe sales, Prchlik noted.
The Eurostar experience
Travel agents account for 70% of Eurostar sales in the U.S., according to Jones. He said international markets, which account for 11% of sales, and leisure markets are growing. Due to very targeted marketing, U.S. business is up modestly this year over last despite the recession, he reported.
Rail Europe's sweepstakes winners took their first Eurostar ride out of London following a whirlwind schedule in the British capital that included a private, guided walking tour of the East End (vendor: Urban Gentry) and tea at the Langham Hotel. Participants were also treated to a couple of quite different ways to see the city: a turn on the London Eye followed by the James Bond Speed Boat Tour up the Thames.
Then, it was off to St. Pancras Station to the north of city center, Eurostar's home for the last two years. The Victorian, gothic-style station was rescued and refitted for Eurostar -- and with the 2012 Olympics in view -- at a cost of $1.3 billion. Its attached hotel, the former Midland Grand, was closed in 1935. Following a makeover, it will reopen as the Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel London around December 2010.
The hotel and train station share a red brick exterior; inside, the station has lots of glass and iron, plus featured artwork.
The station also has a business-class lounge plus spacious and modern waiting space for all other travelers. In addition, there are numerous computer stations, the St. Pancras Grand brasserie, a champagne bar described as the longest in Europe and a raft of other eating and shopping outlets.
Our lunch was at the clubby Betjeman Arms, serving English pub favorites in an upstairs corner of the station.
Our group sampled another Eurostar service, which agents can arrange through Rail Europe for groups: Our baggage was transferred directly from Sheraton Park Tower in London to Le Meridien Etoile in Paris and was in our rooms on arrival.
St. Pancras is Eurostar's London hub, but the train stops at Ebbsfleet on the city's outskirts to collect or drop passengers -- locals or visitors with rental cars -- who don't want to or need to go into the city to catch a train.
In Paris, the Gare du Nord has been Eurostar's home from inception 15 years ago; the elegant, 19th century stone facade is under scaffolding now, with newly cleaned sections peeking out in some places.
As in London, we hit the (under)ground running in the French capital. Sweepstakes winners were treated to a Seine dinner cruise with Bateaux Parisiens, followed in the next two days by a wine-and-cheese lunch at the O Chateau wine cellar near the Louvre, private tours of the Paris Opera and Centre Pompidou and a guided tour of the Louvre.
As for the rail trips themselves, we traveled first class. Although meals are served at the seats, we sampled only one; there are limits to how much one can eat even if France is on the itinerary.
Eurostar operates a classy service that many prefer over air for a variety of reasons, not least because it is a smooth and comfortable ride, with options to work (if one must) at the seat, with a desk in first class, or to move around while traveling.
Jones said the product would get an upgrade beginning in 2012, when every railcar will be stripped to the shell and fitted with new seats, color schemes and technology tools for passenger use.
Sweepstakes winners were impressed with the product as it is now. Louise Truman, an outside sales agent for Travel Network in Pukalani, Hawaii, said it is "certainly something I will promote." She said she had never hesitated to recommend European rail but figured she would be "talking up rail much more enthusiastically" now.
Philip Freno, assistant manager of the Garden City branch of AAA New York, said he believed he could sell more Eurostar "now that Jim [Prchlik] put flying into perspective" by comparing travel times.
Having discovered or rediscovered the virtues of rail travel, our group made it a theme with a key exception. We used taxis from Paddington Station (terminus for Heathrow Express) to our London hotel and from our Paris hotel to Gare du Nord.
The baggage was manageable on Eurostar, but not so much in an underground system. If only we could travel with small carry-ons.