Talking with Rail Europe’s energetic President and CEO Frédéric Langlois is always exciting, and Travel Agent’s recent chat with him was no exception. Over a continental breakfast of scones, croissants and quiche, Langlois talked about the company’s past year, and what we can expect for the present and future.
Right off the bat, he said 2009 was the most rewarding year he had ever had as an executive. When this raised an eyebrow or two, he explained: Seeing the signs of the coming financial meltdown and anticipating a disaster, Langlois and the company budgeted for a 30 percent drop in sales and aimed to simply break even. But sales only dropped 11 percent, the number of passengers stayed relatively flat, and the company remained profitable after all. Even better, he said, they did not need to lay off a single employee.
Adapting is a key feature to the company’s success. For decades, their bread and butter has been selling passes for Europe’s railways. As passenger needs have evolved, the company is now balanced 50/50 between selling passes and specific point-to-point tickets. Business is also equally split between selling to individuals and through agents—though agents have access to some secret benefits customers can’t get on their own. High on that list is access not only to trains throughout Europe, but to Amtrak tickets as well for domestic travel. This eliminates the need for agents to have several suppliers for one trip, and makes booking a rail vacation that much easier.
“We’ve become the rail GDS,” Langlois quipped.
Other developments include a Spanish version of the U.S. website (“We can’t ignore 15 percent of the population!”) and a mobile app for smartphones that will launch sometime in May or June.
A notable development that the company is currently promoting is their new Paris-to-Moscow route, which departs from Paris in the evening on an overnight train, arrives in Berlin the next morning and gives passengers a day to explore the city. At the end of the day, they board another overnight train and depart for Moscow, arriving the next morning. While the trip takes several days to complete, it gives passengers a chance to explore three capital cities on one fare.
In Europe, France, Italy, Britain, Germany, Spain and Switzerland are the top-sellers, but even top sellers’ business can fluctuate. Britain, Langlois said, has had a rough two years, while Spain’s business has increased as its rail network grew exponentially. With the recent expansions of high-speed rail networks throughout Europe, Langlois said, the company has noticed that travelers show a significant preference for traveling by land than by air. If they can get from city center to city center in less than two hours by train, he said, the train takes 95 percent of the market share, and even longer trips can command 70 percent of the market. Of course, price matters when convincing clients to travel—especially in a recession—and Langlois acknowledged that the company has several deals in the works, including a 20 percent discount on certain Eurostar tickets. North American passengers, meanwhile, can get discounts on British rail passes during the off-peak seasons. “We used to sell dreams,” he said. “Now we sell deals.”