Railtour lures ‘em aboard with luxury

'If we can't export the scenery, we'll import the tourists.'...

‘If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.’

Those words, spoken a century ago by Canadian Pacific Railway president William Van Horne, could well be the credo of the Great Canadian Railtour Company, owner and operator of Rocky Mountaineer Railtours.

In the decade since it began offering luxury train tours through the snow-capped Rockies, the Vancouver-based company has established itself as one of the Canadian tourism industry’s major regional success stories.

Rocky Mountaineer has seen double-digit growth in passenger volume every year since it first hit the rails. In the course of this year alone, more than 75,000 people have booked excursions – a 10% increase over 1999 figures.

‘There are lots of travel packages available out there,’ says Graham Gilley, Rocky Mountaineer’s vice-president of marketing. ‘What sets us apart is [the opportunity to see] Canada by rail. The train becomes the hook.’

Rocky Mountaineer’s track record is even more impressive when one considers the cutthroat nature of British Columbia’s $10-billion tourism industry.

Gilley says the company faces competition not just from Via Rail, which offers similar luxury tours, but also from cruise lines and adventure travel outfits. It’s the sort of circumstance that can teach an organization to hone its marketing skills in a hurry.

Rocky Mountaineer is the brainchild of former motor-coach operator Peter Armstrong. After the Mulroney government made drastic cuts to Via Rail in 1990, his company (then called Mountain Vista Railtour Services) stepped in and purchased the routes and equipment of Via’s Rocky Mountaineer daylight service.

Soon after, it began operating a 500-passenger train service between Vancouver and Jasper and Banff/Calgary. By the second year of operation, passenger capacity had increased to 600, and the number of departures per season had grown from 20 to 30. (Today, that number is up to 148.)

‘Generally speaking, rail is no longer a cheap, efficient way to transport people over long distances,’ Armstrong says. ‘However, this kind of rail experience where the scenery, service and history are the attractions can still be marketed successfully.’

Rocky Mountaineer operates from mid-April to mid-October, offering a variety of travel packages that range up to 15 days in length. (Special Christmas packages are also available in December.)

Until the mid-1990s, Rocky Mountaineer’s marketing and promotional efforts were fairly limited – the result, in large part, of limited resources.

‘Running a rail company is very labour-intensive and capital-intensive,’ Gilley explains. ‘We didn’t make money for a few years, and as a result our marketing suffered in the beginning.’

Today, Rocky Mountaineer relies primarily on full-colour print ads in publications such as Conde Nast Traveler, Reader’s Digest and Travel & Leisure, along with direct mail. (The company has mailed out some 800,000 copies of its current 48-page brochure.)

Not surprisingly, the creative plays up the natural beauty of the Rockies to the full. One award-winning print and DM execution, for example, features a photograph of a train set against a majestic backdrop of foothills and peaks, and the headline, ‘No one ever wrote a folk song about a minivan.’

Initially, Gilley says, the company kept its advertising approach ‘simple and straightforward,’ and concentrated primarily on targeting customers in its own backyard.

By contrast, the current campaign – created by Vancouver-based Bryant, Fulton & Shee – cultivates a much more sophisticated brand character, putting particular emphasis on the luxury amenities included in Rocky Mountaineer’s packages.

‘Rocky Mountaineer clients are used to being treated well,’ says Maureen Patterson, account director with Bryant, Fulton & Shee. ‘They’ve taken other vacations [such as cruises] where everything is provided for them, and Rocky Mountaineer needs to present itself as being able to do the same.’

From the outset, the core offering has been a two-day, all-daylight rail journey through Western Canada and the Canadian Rockies, retracing the route of the first transcontinental railway. (At the midpoint of the trek is an overnight stay in Kamloops, B.C., where guests can pay a visit to the Two River Junction Dinner and Musical Review, a 300-seat dining and entertainment venue established by Rocky Mountaineer in 1996.)

Sojourners can choose one of two levels of service: RedLeaf, which offers spacious, reclining seats, large picture windows, open-air vestibules and meal service at your seat; and GoldLeaf, which offers panoramic views in domed coaches, along with fine dining in the lounge. A new addition for 2001 will be the Canadian Rockies Gold service, which includes a concierge who travels with you during the land portion of your journey.

While approximately 60% of Rocky Mountaineer’s business comes from North America, its offerings are sold by travel agents and tour operators in 18 countries around the world. The company opened a branch office in London, England, in 1997.

‘We try to impact each market separately, particularly for offshore,’ Gilley says. ‘We rely a great deal on tour operators.’

Because Rocky Mountaineer has a modest budget compared to other competitors in the tourism business, ‘we can’t count on creating broad awareness of the brand,’ Patterson says. ‘So we have to really focus our resources and target our strategy to attract exactly who we are trying to reach as potential clients.’

Gilley says the primary target consists of baby boomers who are creeping past 50 and who feel the need to slow down and get away from it all. ‘It’s mainly couples, people who are still in the workforce but are looking to enjoy life and are able to take longer vacations. Well-educated, well-traveled empty nesters.’

The key, he says, is to position Rocky Mountaineer as offering a unique experience – something that can’t be had from the likes of Via, or from cruise lines and other upscale tour operators.

‘We’re a niche product,’ Gilley says. ‘We can’t compete with the relaxation and scenery emphasized by the cruise lines. There are no drinks with umbrellas while lying by the pool.’

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