Are you selling luxury rail travel? If it’s not on your radar, it should be. Travel agents who sell luxury rail travel say that it is a lucrative segment that more of their colleagues should be adding to their knowledge base.
Luxury vacation rail experiences are not your daily commuter rail trains, but instead provide upscale offerings coupled with the romance and glamour of a time gone by. For clients, it also means a seamless way to travel, with a number of components packaged together—while they experience such delights as the unsurpassed beauty of the Canadian Rockies with Rocky Mountaineer, the nostalgic appeal of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, or the high-end delights of Belmond Royal Scotsman, The Blue Train of South Africa or Rovos Rail of Africa, to name just a few options.
“Adding a luxury rail component to an itinerary is an excellent way to differentiate your travel design skills from others,” says Jim Bendt, CEO and owner of Pique Travel Design in Excelsior, Minnesota. “It’s something different.”
Bendt notes that while luxury rail might suffer from lack of awareness, clients are immediately intrigued when they are made aware of the options. “When I bring up a luxury rail line, it might not be on the top of the client’s mind, but they automatically get an image in their head,” he says. “There is a romance and history of riding the rails and it sparks enthusiasm.”
Bendt adds that once he brings up the idea of luxury rail trail, he usually doesn’t even have to sell the idea. “The selling just becomes more about the logistics, such as what food is offered—not whether they should do it,” he says.
Advantages of Rail Travel
Virtuoso’s 2018 Luxe Report, which forecasts what to expect in travel for the year ahead, “shows the desire for unspoiled natural beauty continuing to motivate travelers” and “reveals consumer preferences in high-end and experiential travel.” Top Travel Motivations, according to the study, include “crossing off bucket-list items” and “seeking authentic experiences.” Luxury rail travel offers clients the opportunity to do just that, with a plethora of immersive and authentic opportunities as well as the chance to see unspoiled natural beauty as part of the trip. Rocky Mountaineer representatives, for example, say many of its travelers see rail travel as a “must-do experience.”
“You have two experiences in one,” says Bendt. “You have the thrill of riding the rails, which isn't a common occurrence for many Americans. And the luxury rail options have dialed up their experiences off the train to offer travelers a true sense of place.
Booking luxury rail travel also appeals to travelers seeking an easy and seamless way to travel. While the details will vary among luxury train experiences, clients can typically expect first-class cuisine aboard the train, nightly hotel stays or luxury sleeping quarters and customizable experiences while in each destination.
“It’s a big advantage for couples not to have to worry about doing the driving—who’s driving and who’s doing the directions,” says Linda Tassone, travel agent with AAA Carolinas in Raleigh, North Carolina. “You don’t get to enjoy the scenery when driving. But with rail travel, everyone gets to enjoy amazing views and being pampered without the stress. Everything is handled for you.”
Barb Cline, a Cruise Planners Franchise owner in Frederick, Maryland, notes that another selling point of luxury rail travel is the ability to customize the experience to suit a traveler’s comfort level. “If I have a client who wants a lot of hand holding, I can get what the client wants,” she says. “Those who are more seasoned can go and explore on their own.”
Marketing Rail Travel
While luxury rail travel can be appealing to all demographics, agents say that empty nesters and retirees are among the biggest targets for luxury rail. Tassone notes that empty nesters are also bringing their friends and family along, increasing the opportunities for both commissions and potential new clients. And Bendt adds: “Retirees are going to have an affinity for luxury rail travel as they have the time, and in many cases, the disposable income to take these types of trips. Empty nesters have time as a couple and more freedom and flexibility to do these experiences as well.”
Agents should also target past cruisers. Research conducted by Rocky Mountaineer, for example, shows that more than 70 percent of river cruisers find a Rocky Mountaineer rail journey appealing. “Clients who have been on river cruises quickly understand the benefits of seeing the scenery roll by with ease and convenience,” says Bendt.
That appeal translates well to those who have enjoyed ocean cruises as well. But Cline stresses that the rail travel is for clients seeking something more hands-on than what they can typically experience on an ocean cruise. Plus, she adds, “You’re not just one of 5,000 people. It’s a much more intimate experience than a cruise ship.”
Clients will also find similarities between rail travel and guided vacations. “You have a host and a guide doing storytelling with history and tidbits on each area,” says Tassone. “It’s a big perk. People like to know facts and details to make the experience come alive.”
Agents who have found success selling luxury rail travel also advise packaging rail travel along with a land or cruise experience for those who have more vacation time. “People get the best of both worlds,” says Cline. “It’s very economical—if clients have two weeks at least, it’s a great way to see all of the area.” And clients agree: Rocky Mountaineer’s research, for example, shows that 40 percent of guests take an Alaska cruise in conjunction with their Rocky Mountaineer journey.
Bendt includes luxury rail as a component when available at destinations throughout the world. “People cruising to Alaska who haven’t been to that part of the world also have Jasper and Banff on their bucket list so pairing Rocky Mountaineer with an Alaska cruise makes it a really interesting trip for clients,” he says. “The Belmond Hiram Bingham train in Peru is a great way to dial up the anticipation as you journey to the heart of the Incan Empire at Machu Picchu—riding the rails in a luxury 1920's style carriage is a truly unique experience. In South Africa, Rovos Rail also captures the romance of a bygone era, and it's easy to include a three -day adventure to either Cape Town or Victoria Falls in any itinerary.”
Spread the Word
While certainly everyone knows what a train is, not everyone is aware that luxury rail vacations are available and accessible for many types of travelers. That’s where the concept of “storytelling” comes in. Bendt says his agency markets luxury rail travel “through storytelling taking different forms.” Examples include a feature in the agency’s monthly newsletter highlighting an agent’s personal rail experience and a “Rail Night” at the agency with storytelling about the experiences rather than simply a sales pitch. “Even through direct marketing, we go beyond ‘salesy’ and make it more experiential,” says Bendt. “The story line is going to sell it so you understand why it’s such a great experience.”
Photos, too, enhance the story, helping potential clients understand how a luxury rail vacation is so very different from the commuter rail images that might come to mind. Whether part of a Facebook post, Pinterest board, email newsletter, traditional ad or any other form of marketing or advertising, well-chosen photos convey the relaxing luxury, first-class service, stunning scenery and other elements that travelers will experience on a luxury rail journey.
To that end, personally experiencing luxury rail can help agents better sell the experience. Cline, who recently enjoyed a luxury rail experience with Rocky Mountaineer, stresses how the first-hand experience helps in her sales efforts. “I can have a great BDM [Business Development Manager] and great training,” she says, “but being on it and talking from my heart about it is a totally different experience.”
SELLING ROCKY MOUNTAINEER
Since 1990, Rocky Mountaineer, the world’s largest privately owned luxury tourist train, has welcomed more than 1.7 million guests aboard its all-dome fleet. Working side-by-side with travel agents, the company’s staff helps agents sell Rocky Mountaineer’s 65 vacation packages, which include daylight rail travel, world-class cuisine on board, overnight hotel stays, luggage handling and a choice of destination activities. Its four rail routes travel through such destinations as Seattle, Washington; Vancouver, British Columbia; and the Canadian Rockies in Alberta.
“Many agents have customers who’ve done a lot of things now and are starting to look for something different,” says Graham Cove, senior director of global sales operations for Rocky Mountaineer. “Once they experience Rocky Mountaineer, they wonder why they haven’t done it before.”
Cove describes the advantage of luxury rail travel with Rocky Mountaineer’s as the “4 Ss”:
- Scenery, which on Rocky Mountaineer includes such natural beauty as the Fraser River and the Canadian Rockies
- Sweet and Savory, featuring local cuisines and the flavors of western Canada
- Service and Storytelling, including a train host who points out wildlife, explains history and puts the whole experience together
- Socialization, where you not only interact with the host, but get to know the other people in the dome car in a shared experience
Guests have a choice of GoldLeaf Service, a bi-level domed car with seating up top, dining below and outdoor viewing areas, or SilverLeaf Service with single-level glass-domed car and dining in your seat. Guests on the train experience gourmet à la carte meals, complimentary alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and snacks, and the services of multiple hosts who include storytelling along the journey. Each dome car seats 68 to 72 for GoldLeaf Service and 56 for SilverLeaf Service, with the number of cars and the length of the train varying with each departure.
Overnight hotel stays are also based on the two level of service. The trains only travel during daylight hours through the region’s most scenic areas, many inaccessible to cars, from mid-April through mid-October. Hotels during the rail journey are included and Rocky Mountaineer offers packages that can also add on Alaska cruises and/or hotel/land stays pre- or post-train rides, as well as meal plans while in the train destination stops.
Rocky Mountaineer has a team of 17 at the ready to help travel agents market the product, including Business Development Managers, Key Account Managers, National Sales Managers, Regional Sales Directors and a Senior Director. In addition, the company’s team of vacation consultants in the sales center is available to answer all questions and help agents plan customized itineraries for their clients.
Tools that Rocky Mountaineer offers travel agents on its dedicated portal include a BtoB newsletter, educational webinars, customizable flyers, brochures, sales guide for travel professionals, as well as YouTube channels with videos that can be sent to clients. Agents receive 50 percent off the brochure rate on the rail-only component so they can personally experience Rocky Mountaineer.
“If there is an agent who hasn’t sold Rocky Mountaineer before, we have a team who wants to help them through the process,” says Cove. “Any agent can call and talk to our team about the product to understand and know it better. If you have someone interested, we will help build the right quote and right presentation. We will take whatever time is needed. We strongly encourage travel agents to call in and speak to our vacation consultants, and work with them.”
For more information about working with Rocky Mountaineer, go to RockyMountaineer.com. For current promotions, be sure to sign up for our newsletter here and check out our Agent Portal here for training opportunities, marketing tools, a personal dashboard to track and review bookings, promotions, research tools and more.