The world's biggest postal technology fair and conference has opened in Geneva. It aims to show that national postal services are responding to the challenges of new technology and the open market.
Post-Expo 2000 proves, if proof were needed, that the post is more than just stamps. More than 100 suppliers of the latest postal equipment and technology are displaying their products at Geneva's Palexpo exhibition centre until Thursday.
They include big-hitting companies like IBM, Mannesmann, Siemens, Lockheed Martin and Pitney Bowes, as well as major national postal companies like Swiss Post, Germany's Deutsche Post, La Poste of France and the United Kingdom's Royal Mail.
Swiss Post is showcasing Yellowworld, the one-stop e-business portal that it launched two weeks ago. It believes that this kind of diversification is essential for survival.
"It's necessary because physical mail will be replaced by e-mail to a certain extent," says Ullrich Gygi, Swiss Post's Chief Executive Officer.
"We must establish an e-mail platform so that our customers can be served electronically," he told swissinfo.
Like all national postal services, Swiss Post enjoys a monopoly on the sending of letters. However, it is subject to competition on parcels and other services.
"It may be hard for a former monopoly to compete, but we look forward to it. We must be prepared for competition by 2003, and we're doing all we can to be ready for that," Gygi says.
Post-Expo, the world's only fair dedicated to postal technology, is not just about companies putting their services and products in the shop window. It is also an opportunity for the big players - ministers and chief executive officers - to get together to assess where the industry is going.
This is the fair's fourth edition. It has previously been held in Hamburg and South-East Asia.
"It was felt that, because so many director generals of postal services and ministers of post and telecommunications and other top-level people attend this event, it made a great deal of sense to bring it to Geneva," says Tony Richardson, managing director of UK and International Press, which has organised the fair since it started in 1997.
"People can then go on to Berne, where the Universal Postal Union is based, and do any other business they want to conduct in the same visit."
This year, the UPU, a specialised United Nations agency, is involved in the organisation of Post-Expo for the first time. While Richardson is responsible for running the fair, the UPU is hosting a strategic conference where leading industry figures can outline their visions for the future.
The UPU's director general, Thomas Leavey, believes that, despite predictions that postal services would perish as a result of the dominance of the internet, they have much to gain from information technology.
"The challenge is to convert postal services from a heavy reliance on letters, and the delivery of bills and payments, to a system whereby much of that will by sent by electronic media," he told swissinfo.
"The mix of mail may change, but postal services will be delivering more goods and parcels. We're encouraging our members to develop the services that are needed to capture that business."
To do this the technology on show at the Expo - the latest sorting and 'track and trace' technology - will be essential to make the postal services leaner and more effective.
"I am optimistic about the future, if these services make the kind of investments to change the processing of the types of mail we'll see in the future," Leavey says.
"This is not a dying industry," he adds.
Leavey says that the UPU, the sum of its governmental parts, is in the process of reflecting the increased competition in the postal sector.
"We are sensitive to the fact that the public operators often have competition, and we recognise that the private operators offer services that the customer wants," he says, adding that the UPU has been holding talks with the private sector to see where they have common interests.
"Many governments want us to open up to some kind of associate membership for private operators. My feeling is that the UPU will open up to these partners and have some kind of institutional relationship within the UPU," Leavey says.
by Roy Probert