Sabre Travel Network plans to make a serious run at improving its status in the EMEA region, where it is “a distant No. 3,” according to Harald Eisenaecher, senior vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

“We are the challenger,” Eisenaecher, who joined Sabre from Deutsche Telekom a year ago, said.

“But I wouldn’t have joined this company if I did not think we could significantly change the business position in the next couple of years.”

Sabre is making major investments in technology— $500 million annually, Eisenaecher said — and it is “more and more focused on EMEA.”

It also is expanding with people, he said.

The GDS business has 340 employees in the region, and that will expand to 360 by the end of the year.

Eisenaecher spoke at Sabre Holding’s development center in Krakow, Poland, which serves all of the company’s business units and employs 1,300 people.

“Sabre is really investing in the region, and it will continue through the next year,” Eisenaecher said. “We are putting our wallets there, not just words.”

Sabre also has expanded its leadership team in the region, he said.

Stephane Aita has taken the reins in western Europe, “the traditional stronghold of Amadeus,” Eisenaecher said. “The task for Stephane is to expand our market position.”

To accomplish this, he said, “we have to show that we are different, and we have to do things differently.”

Sabre has taken as its model the sport, or more precisely the training discipline, known as Parkour, which focuses on overcoming obstacles. It involves moving from Point A to Point B in the fastest and most efficient way possible, whether by running, climbing, swinging, vaulting, leaping or rolling.

In the U.K., Sabre deployed the concept almost literally with a marketing campaign called “Take the First Step.”

Sabre sent 100 potential customers one left shoe and asked them to “take the first step” toward getting the right-foot shoe with a meeting with Sabre.

They weren’t just any shoes: They were pricey Nike AirMax running shoes, equipped with a chip that syncs with a mobile app to track a runner’s speed and distance.

Although Europe presents a “very challenging economic environment,” Sabre is holding its own, growing “above the market this year,” Eisenaecher said.

“And in eastern Europe, we see some opportunities.”

Sabre has seen “significant growth in Germany, and we are ahead of the market in Russia,” he said.

In addition, “online is performing really well for us,” and the market softness on the corporate side is offset by growth in the leisure market.

In the Middle East, Sabre is “growing tremendously,” Eisenaecher said.

A $1 billion technology agreement with Etihad Airways, signed in December, is likely to lead to “further opportunities,” he said.

Companies in the Middle East look at business differently, he said. “The safest way to get fired at Emirates is to talk about cost savings,” he said. “The second is to ask what I can’t do for my customer.”

The third section of the EMEA region, Africa, is quietly gaining importance, and any doubters should look at the investments that the Chinese are making there, Eisenaecher said.

Sabre Holdings has a joint venture with Emirates and its travel distribution arm, EmQuest, for distribution services in several African. Nigeria and Ghana have their own distributors, but “other markets are set for a Sabre entry,” Eisenaecher said.

On other fronts in the EMEA region, “rail is becoming very important, and we are doing important work with Deutsche Bahn,” Eisenaecher said. “Its lowest fares are now on the Sabre GDS.”

Middle Eastern carriers see rail as a viable feeder system in Europe, he said.

And Sabre just signed a distribution deal with Trenitalia, the Italian rail system.

While Sabre faces formidable competition from both Amadeus and Travelport in the EMEA region, Eisenaecher reminds skeptics of the early 20th-century race to reach the South Pole.

Roald Amundsen had a small team but was diligently prepared, Eisenaecher said.

He had lived with Eskimos and knew that the best and fastest way to travel by sled was with dogs.

Robert F. Scott, on the other hand, used motorized sleds that broke down and ponies that inevitably died.

Scott played it safe and was inflexible. Amundsen took risks and succeeded.

“We’re the Amundsen team,” Eisenaecher said.

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