Reed travel’s online blunders

By | May 30th, 1996

What the hell is going on at Reed Travel Group?

Ever since the Internet emerged as a promising new medium, the top-heavy subsidiary of British publishing conglomerate Reed Elsevier Plc., has sent confusing and mixed signals to the industry about its online intentions.

It started with what many considered an utterly botched consolidation of Official Airline Guides into the travel group during the early 1990s, which weeded out some of OAG’s most impressive talent. That led to even more downsizing – much that made sense, but some that flew squarely in the face of reason.

Then came Reed’s early forays on to the Internet. Fearful of alienating its existing customers and doubtful that it could turn a profit online, the unit’s first efforts to stake out an online presence-particularly on the Web – were characterized by amateurism and obvious lack of resources.

Reed executives knew long ago they’d have to act fast to capture what they thought was their fair share of the interactive travel market, but instead of behaving as the industry leaders they claimed to be, they fell victim to the kind of senseless internal politicking that could someday lead to the piece-by-piece dismemberment and sell off of the once-proud subsidiary.

The recent game of corporate musical chairs played at the pinnacle of the travel group’s hierarchy is a good example of how a set of counterproductive power struggles has already poisoned the company’s chances for success.

Last year, Reed hired one of the industry’s top travel executives to lead a division that eventually included Reed’s online efforts. Peter Sontag had a distinguished career as one of the founders of USTravel, the mega-agency that was later absorbed into BTI Americas. A skilled consultant, he had the kind of vision and experience that chairman Ian Thomas liked.

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After an apparent disagreement with Reed’s inner circle, however, Sontag abruptly resigned earlier this year. He was replaced, for all intents and purposes, by Jerry Landress, whose tenure seemed shorter than this paragraph. Now Thomas has named the affable Kathy Misunas, who used to head American Airlines’ Sabre Group, to the job no one else in the business dared take.

But there’s more trouble in the wings. The one person who knew more about the Internet than perhaps anyone in Reed’s sterile Secaucus headquarters is leaving.

David Vis participated in the earliest efforts to put Travel Weekly online before being whisked upstairs to coordinate a sizable portion of Reed’s cyberspace activities. I understand he donated his spare time to create a Web page for the trade publication while he was its technology editor, after it became clear no one upstairs cared. He’s off to Madrid, where he will become the new Amadeus Webmaster.

All this shows that Reed’s worst enemies aren’t the volatile market forces that shape an interactive travel product, but the company itself.

Because Reed’s overcompensated circle of vice presidents and presidents can’t stop what’s obviously one round after another of bickering and infighting long enough to agree on a unified strategy for tackling the interactive market, it should come as no surprise that the signals they’re sending are mixed.

When the lifespans of the executives charged with spearheading cyberspace projects are measured in months, is it any wonder people are confused?