Not So Friendly Cyber Skies

After flying more miles between more countries than I would’ve liked over the past four weeks, living the international experience in the air-space, I got curious about the international experience in the cyber-space.

Interestingly, I found a lot of parallels. I found that some companies are doing much better than others. And as is often the case on the Internet, it’s not always the traditional leaders who are leading the way.

Just as it’s a challenge for the airlines to deliver personalized service to passengers on airplanes, it appears to be an even greater challenge for most web marketers to accommodate international visitors to their web sites.

Pardon Me…

In the past four weeks, I’ve been asked if I would like coffee or tea in seven different languages, and learned how to fasten my seat belt in as many tongues, sometimes more than once. I’ve been told to lift my tray table in a language the stewardess best-guessed I spoke — not always the one I understood, but I usually managed to get it locked away before landing.

I’ve been given complimentary newspapers to read I couldn’t possibly decipher, and have been grateful to borrow a two-week old copy of Newsweek in English from a steward’s secret stash.

I’m not complaining though, because luckily I’m an American and can speak English. English was pretty universally spoken, especially in business class, although often with accents you could cut with a knife.

Booking Online

When I got back to the office, I wanted to look at how the airlines were marketing to international travelers on the web. I asked our team of Internet-savvy researchers to lend me a hand since together we represent a microcosm of international travelers with various language skills and travel needs. They were more than happy to help since many of them wanted to plan their Easter holiday trips, and were eager to find the best fares and put together sample itineraries as if to visit family, make business trips, or find someplace warm and sunny for their vacation.

Although the American carriers have received a lot of publicity about how well-developed their web sites are, we found that often this did not mean much to foreign hands clicking on foreign keyboards in foreign countries.

The debate between who is ahead and who is behind on the Internet seemed like a moot point when one of our researchers was trying to find out for me if a certain US carrier flew from New York to Nice, or whether they had a London to Paris flight. Their online flight booking engine could not pull up these routes, and there was no alternative to the booking engine for viewing destinations and routes. Luckily (for the airline) I’m an American and happen to know they fly to Nice, and a number of even warmer destinations, because we could have never found that out from their web site.

It was sort of too bad for the US airlines, because here we had at least 11 people longing for a palm tree. Yet not one of several top American carriers could provide information in Spanish, German, French or Italian…let alone Polish, Portuguese, Swedish, Danish or some of the other more exotic tongues that wag around here.

Some of the team abandoned the American carriers, despite the fact that they believed they could find cheaper fares or more choice of destinations, because it was too hard to figure out the routes, prices, deals and destinations on these sites.

Leading The Way

The competent offline image and service of some of the top US airlines doesn’t translate fluently on the international Internet, and I wondered, “Why not?”

Some non-US carriers, like British Airways, do a very good job of acting very local on the web. Even though they are still constructing parts of their multi-nation site, BA is clearly on target because they understand the Internet needs of the “foreign” international flyer. This is seen both in the way it markets locally, as well as in the languages offered on its sites. In these ways, it is establishing itself in a leadership position internationally.

The British Airways front page has 38 countries listed on its drop down menu, and localizes the content from the selected country’s point of view whether it’s Sri-Lanka or the Czech Republic, or even English-speaking markets like South Africa, Ireland, the UK, and the US. It offers specific route sales on the front page of each local site, as well as detailed explanations in (mostly) native language sections.

Making The Right Moves

And, as usual on the web, it’s not just the big boys that are making the right moves. A relatively small carrier, Icelandair, has parts of its site translated into nine different languages. This may be understandable, since few people understand Icelandic, but Icelandair has gone way beyond the usual mono-language site of the American carriers or the dual-language sites of English + 1 of most other airlines. It makes me think it wants the “foreign” international traveler’s business, and it’ll probably get it.

As it happens, during our little review, Icelandair came up with a special round trip fare of 1455 French francs to the United States, which equals about $260 or so.

“Voila!” one of our French researchers blurted out. I guess that means he’s on his way to Florida for Easter. Does anyone know any good hotels in Miami Beach?

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.