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Decision Makers

Breathtaking views and The Bachelorette: Rocky Mountaineer's growth strategy

A marketing push that included individual strategies for different countries put the Vancouver train-tour company on track to build its business

Rocky Mountaineer rail-tour company offers Western Canadian vacation packages that include four rail routes through British Columbia, Alberta, and the U.S. state of Washington.

The series: We look at decision makers among Canada's mid-sized companies who took successful action in a competitive global digital economy.

For Rocky Mountaineer rail-tour company president Steve Sammut, the vacation experience is "a cruise on the rails."

In the five-and-a-half years since he joined one of Vancouver's most unique tour companies, Mr. Sammut has seen the business grow on a fast track.

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Rocky Mountaineer president Steve Sammut, top left, and vice-president of global sales Karen Hardie, far right, at a sales retreat.

But that transformation didn't come by chance. It was the result of a calculated business strategy that saw Rocky Mountaineer commit far more resources to marketing and sales.

More from the series: What to do when your company reaches the size tipping point

For a tour company that shows visitors some of the most iconic and breathtaking views of this country, it took a while to figure out how to showcase them. Rocky Mountaineer was started when the company now known as Armstrong Group bought the trains and the routes from the federal government in 1990. The company offers Western Canadian vacation packages that include four rail routes through British Columbia, Alberta, and the U.S. state of Washington.

"We're very fortunate to have those visuals, but we weren't really taking advantage of that to the extent that we are today," Mr. Sammut says.

Though Rocky Mountaineer showcases some of the most iconic and breathtaking views of this country, it needed a major marketing push to build brand awareness among third-party trade partners, such as travel agents and tour operators.

With 80 per cent of the company's business coming from third-party trade partners, such as travel agents and group tour operators, building up both the internal sales team as well as brand awareness would enable it to grow the message around its luxury trains and what they could provide.

"I think those two things together, I would say that was really a turning point for this company," Mr. Sammut says, having seen the full-time staff swell to about 300 in 2018, from about 200 five years ago.

While the company continued to rely on newspaper advertising, in fact ramping up the scale, it also started to develop different approaches to different markets. With Canada, the United States, Australia and Britain representing 95 per cent of the company's business, the firm started to tailor its approach to each of those core markets.

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"We've come to realize that not every market is the same," Mr. Sammut says. "So in some cases, like the U.S. for example, the television strategy is a bigger one for us, but television and newspaper in [Britain] is more expensive, so we invest more money into working with partners there and using their marketing and their sales."

As an example, 2016 represented the first year that Rocky Mountaineer introduced a full TV strategy for the United States. That was all part of a more diversified approach, which now includes more TV advertising as well as social media and content marketing.

Rocky Mountaineer uses different strategies for markets in different countries and invested heavily in technology and analytics.

"I would say if you went back five years ago, it was pretty old-school, which worked for our demographic, which is typically baby boomers," Mr. Sammut says.

The company has also invested heavily in technology and analytics, designed to measure things like the resonance of some its digital strategies with target audiences, as well as whether its sales representatives are located in the appropriate places to connect with the right customers.

It has also made the largest capital investment in its history, updating its fleet of carriages, ensuring it can provide a true luxury travel experience, competing with the likes of cruise liners or the famed Venice Simplon-Orient-Express European train experience.

"We've got all kinds of different capabilities we've been working on, on trying to get better so we can understand the return on investment," Mr. Sammut explains.

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That investment has started to be recognized, with Rocky Mountaineer being awarded the 2017 Private Business Growth Award by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and Grant Thornton LLP.

Geoff Cronin, the national advisory service line leader for Grant Thornton in Canada: 'It's all about driving [the] top line.'

Geoff Cronin, the national advisory service line leader for Grant Thornton in Canada, says that it is rare for a medium-sized business such as Rocky Mountaineer to come up with the kind of investment to achieve its goals. That is partly because such disposable income is rare in that business size segment.

However, other companies can learn from Rocky Mountaineer's strategy, particularly how it overhauled both its marketing and sales at the same time, a key factor as "they go hand in hand," he says.

"Hopefully the reason you're marketing is to drive sales. It's all about driving [the] top line," he says.

Digital marketing has also been valuable, Mr. Cronin adds. It gives much better feedback than the "spray and pray" tactic of print. This allows an advertiser to not only get a much broader reach, but also to analyze the uptake almost instantaneously.

"So now you can understand who your target audience is and you can start to direct-sell or direct-market to them as well," he says.

The company has also been fortunate that its subject matter lends itself to effective social media campaigns.

A Rocky Mountaineer train winds around Morants Curve, Alta., on the British-Columbia-based rail-tour company’s First Passage to the West route. Rocky Mountaineer’s promotional videos give a real sense of the experience that customers can expect, according to the company’s promotional videos give a real sense of the experience that customers can expect.

Maureen McCabe, founder of McCabe Marketing in Toronto, says that the company's promotional videos give a real sense of the experience that customers can expect. However, she thinks the company could increase viewer subscriptions to its YouTube channel beyond the approximately 10,000 it has.

"Their videos are excellent," she says. "They're very professional, they're short, they hit everything out of the ballpark."

Ms. McCabe suggests that the company run a creative contest, asking passengers to create videos of just what it is about the Rocky Mountaineer that just has to be seen, heard or experienced.

That kind of contest could help build on the train's appearance on The Bachelorette in 2009, which showcased the company on a four-day journey through the Rockies. That kind of exposure really helps to generate buzz around a brand, Ms. McCabe says.

"That builds up drama, that builds up excitement. … The bachelorette actually rode that train during the filming, and that was great, that was savvy marketing, but that was just one time."


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