Confessions of a big game columnist

By | March 20th, 1997

Inside Interactive Travel turns one this month, against all odds.

Hard to believe this gadfly is still buzzing the business after a year. Critics like me don’t usually survive very long in this jungle of an industry.

So on this column’s first anniversary, here’s an invitation to join me behind the scenes.

Ever wonder what it’s like to sit on this side of the terminal? People ask me all the time, and I tell them, “think of a safari.” You know, as in guns, jeeps, and big game.

I think that’s an appropriate metaphor: the thrill of the hunt makes you forget about the danger, the adrenaline overrides your common sense, and you don’t really care what you’re going after, no matter how powerful it is.

Which I think is important for interactive travel, a place where the voices of dissent are often muffled by avaricious suppliers or ignored by a collaborative trade press. While other columnists waste their time penning doting profiles of travel agents or sidestepping tough questions about prospective advertisers, this column has quietly observed one simple rule: there are no rules.

Are the heads of American Express, Microsoft, and Reed Travel Group figuratively stuffed and mounted on my walls? Not quite. But they were remarkably easy targets. Fun, too. I’ve taken shots at the industry’s most cherished institutions, such as travel agents, and lived to see another column.

Soon after my debut the hate mail started arriving. As you might expect, I took each message as a compliment, whether it was intended as one or not.

The first person I trained this column’s crosshairs on was an entrepreneur named Kevin Mitchell, who had rattled the industry a few years earlier by proposing to do away with some of the commissions and overrides exchanged between corporations, agencies, and airlines. His proposal to introduce net fares through expensive club memberships for large companies flopped, and it was high time someone declared the Business Travel Contractors Corp. dead.

Related story:   Smoke and mirrors in cyberspace

As BTCC had evolved, however, I noted that Mitchell kindled serious debate in the travel industry about cutting travel agents out of the purchasing process. I though it was necessary to point out Mitchell’s contributions, which gave the interactive travel industry a big boost during its infancy.

An angry Mitchell shot off a letter to ITR accusing me of getting the facts wrong, but he withdrew the claims just as hastily when asked to back them up. A few days later, Mitchell unveiled what was then called BTCC II, the reincarnation of his ill-fated project. I guess there is life after death.

Another early casualty of this feature was Reed Travel Group. Reed had mismanaged its Internet strategy for so long that someone had to say something. Who was going to write about it? Maybe one of the Reed-owned trade publications? Maybe not.

The response was surprisingly positive. One current Travel Weekly reporter thanked me for researching the piece, noting that the editorial staff remained in the dark about Reed’s Internet plans. A marketing executive phoned to tell me I’d “gotten it right,” while one of Reed’s vice presidents, in an uncharacteristic display of candor, confessed to a colleague that I had “hit the nail on the head.”


I wish I could report that Kathy Misunas, Reed’s new top executive, has turned things around. But apart from the sporadic press releases about a new round of promotions or word about a new acquisition, I see very little evidence that Reed is a feasible 21st Century player.

Yet another column that got a lot of response was my article on the “most dangerous person” in the interactive travel industry. People guessed I had pointed my pen at Bob Dickinson, John F. Davis III, or Michael Eisner when I described someone who was poisoning the industry with patently false information about the Internet. No one has yet claimed the prize I offered to the first person to identify this mystery man. Perhaps someday I’ll reveal who I was writing about.

Related story:   Lessons learned from biztravel.com

This column brought a few surprises during the past year. My critique of Web ratings drew an unexpectedly negative response from TheTrip.com. In the column, I called the ratings exploitative and gently admonished TheTrip.com for promoting the scam in its press releases. The company shot an angry letter to my editor, insisting it was not playing along with a hoax and that I had gotten the facts wrong.

When asked to substantiate its claim, TheTrip.com quickly withdrew the statement. Turns out there was nothing provably wrong in the article, only a few worries at TheTrip.com that would-be investors would think the site’s editors were fools.

One of my favorite victims, the advertising-supported travel trade press, couldn’t handle my criticism of its readers, travel agents (also a favorite target). So it dispatched their columnists to interfere with my hunting party. But the watered-down arguments they used to support the parasitic system sounded so shrill, so unreasonable, that no one paid much attention to them.

Finally, just before the column’s first anniversary, I took a shot at biztravel.com, the online project I helped start. This was difficult. On the one hand, I wanted the site to succeed, but at the same time I thought the lessons from its early days would be useful for readers. Although it’s too soon to tell what the response from the old biztravel team will be, I consider the column very sporting. Had I wanted to inflict real damage, I could have pulled out my file of biztravel’s early budget projections and quoted from it.

In late 1996, at the height of my selective and relentless trashing of the interactive travel industry, ITR editor at large and industry guru Philip C. Wolf told me, “You seem very angry.” I shouldn’t have been surprised at his observation. Other businesses (except perhaps the computer industry) tolerate resident columnists whose criticism borders on the passionate from time to time. Interactive travel lacks such a skeptic.

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Why? Maybe it’s part fear, part greed. Or it could be just the industry’s thin skin; it can’t handle criticism from the inside. Wolf is right: I am angry. Yet without my indignation (however controversial it is) interactive travel would be a much more boring place, don’t you think?

Inside Interactive Travel took aim at some of interactive travel’s best and worst, its most competent and incompetent, and yet many potential victims remain. I probably won’t get to all of them this year.

But I’ll try.



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