We’re selling widgets

By | August 22nd, 1996

Quick, name the travel industry’s top product. If you answered airline tickets, guess again. If you thought hotel reservations, or cruises, or even software, sorry.

No, it’s widgets. We’re apparently selling truckloads of them to unsuspecting consumers, and I’m pleased to be the first to break this exclusive story.

The little-known trend first came to my attention after I read a story in the Dallas Business Journal claiming that a “generation of retirees with more places to go and more money to spend than their parents” had given birth to new category-killer travel stores.

In addition to predicting that the industry would “explode” with an influx of travel, Price Waterhouse vice president Al Meyers was quoted as saying, “These lifestyle concept stores are marketing an experience as opposed to a widget.”

Hmmm. What’s a widget, I wondered?

Journalist Jim Urban offered a partial answer. In a profile about Molly Stahlman, an MBA student at Carnegie Mellon University who wanted to start a company offering trolley tours of Pittsburgh, Richard Stafford, executive director of the Allegheny Conference, likened travel products to-surprise-widgets.

The economic effect of someone visiting Pittsburgh, he noted, “is no different than if they bought a $100 widget made here in the region.”

Widgets had to be travel-related, I was certain of it. But it wasn’t until I picked up a press release from the Travel Industry Association of America that I was sure, absolutely sure, that widgets were the industry’s staple product. The year old item, “TIA: Boycotting Pennsylvania Travel Industry is Not the Answer,” led me to the inevitable conclusion that widgets were really at the core of our business-particularly in interactive travel.

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At issue was an animal rights group’s planned travel industry boycott to protest Schuylkill County’s annual pigeon shoot.


“It’s irresponsible to sacrifice our industry-and our employees’ jobs-by boycotting us. This is not a travel and tourism issue. We have no ties to this event and should not be subject to an unwarranted boycott,” said TIA President William S. Norman.

“If you have a problem with the negligent actions of a widget maker, then you boycott that widget product,” Norman said. “But if you have a problem with the local citizens or local government, you shouldn’t call for a boycott of the travel industry and travel product and place the jobs of tens of thousands of innocent people at risk.”

In everyday business talk, widgets are hypothetical products, fictitious thingamajigs that exist only in the mind of the beholder. But the discussion takes on an added urgency when it comes to interactive travel, where widgets aren’t so much a codeword as they are a lifestyle.

Microsoft and its new accomplice, American Express, come to mind right away. There’s another name in the computer field for what these two corporate titans have done recently-or, as the case may be, not done. It’s called vaporware, a nifty industry euphemism for a product that doesn’t exist.

Microsoft has a distinguished tradition of trumpeting a pipe-dream program months or years before it is released and then utterly failing to meet the product’s expectations. Amex is not far behind, to hear some experts talk.

And let’s not forget the countless others, from the mightiest of corporate travel agencies to the lowliest of Internet consultants, who are neck-deep in widgets. They go to trade shows and announce a new program that won’t exist for months-and may never exist-to gain competitive ground at the consumer’s expense.

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If these developers were running a winery, they’d be taking advance orders on unfermented grape juice and delivering empty bottles. Maybe that’s why airlines such as Northwest see no problem with cutting Internet commissions; there’s no perceived value and precious little product.

But when you’re selling widgets, what do you expect?



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