For the first time in 20 years Canada’s most famous train will benefit from new carriages.
Rocky Mountaineer is going through the biggest capacity increase in its history, 27 years after it was established by owner Peter Armstrong.
In the next two years, 10 new GoldLeaf coaches will be added, increasing capacity by 66%, and two new SilverLeaf coaches, increasing capacity by 20%. The main difference between the two is the coach design, which facilitates a different service model; Gold Leaf is bi-level – it has guests sitting up top and dining below – whereas SilverLeaf meals are served seatside.
RedLeaf, a service with fewer frills, was phased out by the end of 2015 and replaced by SilverLeaf, a new introduction in 2013.
The inventory split between the two service levels is 60% in favour of Gold Leaf, but by the time Rocky Mountaineer has added the new carriages and finished upgrading the existing Gold Leaf fleet, it’ll be more like 75% by 2020.
The extra capacity does not faze Craig Upshall, business development manager – Europe, Middle East & Africa. He helped deliver a 20% revenue increase in the UK last year, making it the top growth market for Rocky Mountaineer. With a cruise background and cruise partnerships part of his remit, the UK market also has the highest attachment to cruise – 60% of UK Rocky Mountaineer bookings are combined with a cruise, predominantly Celebrity Cruises or Holland America Line, compared with a global average of 50%.
Increases in cruise capacity in Alaska and flight capacity to Western Canada, along with Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations, and a top billing by Lonely Planet as best travel destination only give him more reasons to be optimistic this year. “We’re expecting similar growth [to that of 2016],” he says. “There’s been a dramatic increase in capacity with a new service into Vancouver with WestJet from Gatwick, and Air Canada and British Airways have also added new capacity into Vancouver and Calgary.”
Despite the product description fitting neatly within the once-in-a-lifetime experience bracket, he also says it’s far from a mature market.
“There is a challenge with the need to continuously source new guests,” he says. “But we see plenty of opportunity in the market – we’re nowhere near mature.”
He also hints that Rocky Mountaineer fans could be given reason to return if there’s proven viability in moving carriages that sit unused in Calgary maintenance yards over the harsh Canadian winters further south into the US. With the company having added a Seattle-Vancouver extension in 2013, you wouldn’t bet against it.
“We do have a team looking at where we can go,” he confirms. “And is that further south as we move into the winter months?
“Seattle was a test for going into the US,” he adds. “But there are no confirmed plans yet.”
Visibility is another challenge, given the marketing budgets of competitor destinations such as the USA and New Zealand, but currency fluctuations are working in Rocky Mountaineer’s favour: “It’s much better value to visit Canada than the US right now,” Upshall says.
He resists the notion that the high price tag of an exclusive product could be a deterrent, but, given the package focus, he has no need to publicise rates for the rail segment.
“Price doesn’t really come into it,” he says. “Our customers know we are the best way to experience the Rockies. We offer good value for a one-off experience and, when you look at the full package, it is affordable. I’ve seen entry-level pricing for £2,299 for 14 days, including flights, an inside cabin on a cruise and Silver Leaf service. And when you compare us with other luxury rail experiences, such as the Orient-Express and the Blue Train, we are competitive.”
The core products are two-day all-daylight services: First Passage to the West, connecting Vancouver and Banff (up to three departures a week in both directions) and Journey through the Clouds, between Vancouver and Jasper (two departures a week in both directions).
Coastal Passage adds Seattle – with 12 departures on offer through the May to September cruise season. Rainforest to Gold Rush is a weekly departure in either direction that links Vancouver and Jasper via Quesnel and Whistler.
“You can combine the routes into one full-circle journey, with packages starting from seven days; an increasing number are choosing to do that,” says Upshall. With Rocky Mountaineer rarely booked as a standalone product, the focus for the European team of six, which also covers the Middle East, Africa and India, is solely on trade.
“The average length of stay for a Rocky Mountaineer guest in Canada is 18 days and we are commonly integrated into a land, sea, air and rail package. Our European model is tour operator driven. From an agency perspective, we’re a component of a package you’d book through the likes of Canadian specialists Travel 2, Prestige Holidays and 1st Class Holidays.”
The team’s newest recruit demonstrates that commitment to the trade. A new role of training and sales executive for UK & Ireland was filled by Sarah Revell at the tail end of last year. “Sarah’s main purpose is to get out on the road and see those agents we don’t really talk to, in partnership with our B2B operators. She’ll also start growing brand awareness in Ireland and devote time to events, such as Cruise Trade News’ Cruise Challenge.”
“We’re 100% behind the trade,” he adds. “It’s our bread and butter, and where we invest.”
Given the company’s focus on service delivery, he urges agents to recommend the product where possible.
“We have the highest guest satisfaction scores in the travel industry. We offer an exceptional guest experience in a must-see iconic environment. It’s the best way to experience the Rockies, sitting back, in comfort, enjoying culinary excellence in the unique setting of a train.”
He adds: “Guests come back completely satisfied and raving about the experience, which paints the agent in a good light, having recommended it.”