I just flew in from PhoCus-Wright '99, and boy, are my brains killing me.

PhoCusWright is the annual gathering of electrosuits in the Internet travel business, a two-day get-together where everybody who attends insists it's okay to lose a lot of money as long as you're building a business, tries to steal each other's top employees, trolls for strategic partners, wheedles for cash and, late at night, seated in front of stylish, empty drinking glasses, mutters to the gods for some saving vision. Things in the online travel business--in which revenues are very high but the companies themselves are leaking money like the Exxon Valdez leaked crude--are so odd right now that at one point the CEO of 1travel.com felt compelled to take the stage and protest that his company not be written off merely because it is in the black.

Since the presenters are mostly CEOs or presidents and those in attendance largely directors and above, it can be very hard to filter out from all the highfalutin sword-brandishing the things that really matter to us "end users" down at ground level--the solitary, often forgotten householders poised at our PCs, pursuing the dream that this network of wires and codes can somehow help us plan trips better.

It's probably unfair to say most folks who attend PhoCusWright don't ever think about users' needs, but it is accurate to say that they don't talk much about them here. One panel featured heads of 12 serious players in the online travel game, including IBM, Preview Travel, travelscape.com, vacationspot.com, bed andbreakfast.com and Gorp.com. The host asked each to declare his or her company's key distinguishing asset. Many issued the expected CEOleaginous declarations: Our people are our greatest asset, we understand and exploit our core competencies, our network of partners gives us global reach, yada yada boom. Only two of the 12 mentioned something they deliver to consumers.

My colleagues and I did our best to remind the crowd what ought to matter. I sat on a panel along with mediacrats from USA Today, CNN, the New York Times and others, and we were asked to share what we and our audience think about online travel services and products. We were not forgiving. Paul Grimes of Conde Nast Traveler reported how he'd used Priceline and Expedia's Hotel Price Matcher to book hotel rooms for this conference--but when he arrived, one hotel had no record of the transaction. Others reported their own, and their audience's, frustrations trying to book online. I offered the thought that sites appear more committed to shoveling suppliers' products into the market than helping users manage travel decisions, and that site operators should quit claiming to have the "lowest fare" or "best price" when they don't. It's a good thing time ran out, because the way things were going we might have told them their dogs were ugly, too.

All of this was greeted by grumbly seat-shifting and uncomfortable giggles. But afterward many attendees approached and said, quietly, that they have a hard time booking travel online, too. I'd take this as vindication, except at least half of them went on to say that the product or company they work for, on the other hand, offered something really good, and would I mind stepping over to the terminal for a quick demo? If it were true that what doesn't kill me makes me strong, I'd have come back from the Loew's South Beach Hotel in Miami able to crack walnuts in my eye socket.

But back to that end-user question: Was there anything in this annual hooeyfest that PC-compatible travelers need to know? A few observations:

1. The Trajectory of Decreasing Annoyance. I'm happy to report that, despite the lack of CEO attention at the conference, online travel sites are indeed making at least small efforts to become less bothersome. Call it a Trajectory of Decreasing Annoyance. Preview Travel (likely to merge with Travelocity in early 2000) will integrate Hotel Reservation Network's 40-city selection of discount rooms into its hotel database, meaning one-stop shopping for "regular" and "discount" room choices. After experimenting this past hurricane season, Expedia plans to use e-mail to inform ticketholders about potentially troublesome trips and other urgent or useful news. A number of sites, appearing to acknowledge the media panelists' concerns, said they hope to add online or phone support for Web transactions to provide that often-missing "human touch." Lastminutetravel.com, which debuted with the major annoyance of failing to separate offers for travel this weekend from cruise sailings 90 days away, has added a filter that lets you view only those trips in your time window. Bedandbreakfast.com has added software that will let small inn operators offer online booking. None of these is a world-shaking change, but each is likely to improve things in small ways for online shoppers.

2. Bottom-Fishing Feeding Frenzy. Spurred by the noisy but consumer-hostile name-your-price Priceline.com Web site, many online travel sites are determined to compete for bottom-feeding customers with their own products: auctions, no-name discounts and other tasty bait. My favorite is 1travel.com's White Label fares, which offer (along with other fares returned by its search engine) unbranded airline tickets with destinations, dates and times, at below-consolidator-level prices. With White Label you know more (but not all) about what you're buying than you do with Priceline and learn immediately whether you get your flight. Many sites are getting into the "distressed inventory" business--helping travel companies get rid of unsold or slow-selling seats, trips, berths and tours. Lastminutetravel is the loudest .com in that niche, but dozens of sites are offering (or will soon offer) auctions of last-minute or hard-to-sell stuff. Not a great way to plan a vacation, but a neat tool for nailing a quick trip on a lark.

3. StrangeBedfellows.com. Curious times create curious allies. Lowestfares.com, a leading air-fare discounter, has bought higher-end touring company Maupintour. Gorp.com, a well-respected, long-tenured site for outdoor enthusiasts, has gone commercial, buying American Wilderness Experience and planning to sell their trips from the Gorp site. Wal-Mart will begin selling travel online in early 2000. At least four new entrants plan to use the latest technology to sell people trips into the wilderness. Whether these odd matches reveal brilliant strategic thrusts or clueless lunges to find something that money sticks to remains unclear.

All that said, the big story is really waiting in the wings. There's an alliance of major airlines preparing a single fare-shopping site to sell anybody's fares direct to the public (see Coming and Going, Page E1). And, we learned at PhoCusWright, the companies that have long provided the computer systems (called CRSs) that travel agents use to book fares are poised to launch booking sites that sell direct to consumers. Meantime, one piece of booking software I previewed at PhoCusWright (and which the Travel section staff is now testing in its pre-release form) threatens to put into consumer's hands an air fare-shopping tool that will address most users' biggest complaints, like making easy comparisons between flights based on time, money and carrier.

If all goes as planned--which is to say, if pigs fly from National to LaGuardia on the half-hour--all these products will be on the market early next year. And if they do, they will make for a very different world by the time PhoCusWright 2000 comes around. And if that world's as interesting as the early news suggests, who knows? The delegates' dogs may appear much better-looking by then, too.