Open the way to exciting new experiences for your clients with luxury rail travel.
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.”