European rail travel isn’t just convenient and appealing—it’s also extremely lucrative for travel advisors.
There’s no doubt about it—rail travel is trending in Europe.
Travel design company Ker & Downey named train travel in Europe as one of the top trends for 2019, a prediction that’s backed up by marked industry growth. According to the sixth World Rail Market Study, a report conducted by Roland Berger and commissioned by UNIFE (the organization that represents the European rail industry) the rail supply market grew by 1.2 percent per year between 2013 and 2017. And the study predicts steady growth in demand for railway products and services for the next six years.
In its analysis, the study names several competitive advantages that are propelling rail travel forward, noting the appeal of the “green footprint of railways, its safety record and the high capacity.”
Travel advisors and their clients, of course, may find even more advantages to a European rail vacation.
“With so many destinations in Europe, experiencing it by rail allows you explore and experience each destination without the need to fly,” says Mary May, franchise owner at Cruise Planners in Binghamton, New York. “You are able to enjoy and relax while traveling in between cities, and see amazing scenery along the way.”
Flexibility is another big selling point for European rail travel, according to Marla Brignac, owner of Oak Lane Travel, an affiliate of Cruises and Tours Unlimited in Paulina, Louisiana. “You can catch a train to your destination at almost any hour of the day,” she says. “My clients also enjoy the comfort of the seats on board and the ability to easily move around the train. All around, it’s less stressful to travel by train in Europe than to fly.”
Indeed, Brignac recommends rail over air for her Europe-bound clients who want to explore multiple destinations. “Price and speed are also a factor when it comes to choosing travel by train,” she explains. “With the high-speed trains in Europe, you’re more likely to spend less time traveling by train than by plane, when you factor in the time spent at the airport. Also, the train stations are centrally located in the cities, which means it’s a quick taxi ride or walk to your hotel.”
Beverly Gibbs, owner and travel advisor at BeeGee Travel Consultants in Douglas, Georgia, notes that her clients are drawn to European rail travel when they want the freedom to travel independently without groups, guides, or the responsibility and potential hassles of driving a rental car. “It’s the best way to cover a lot of country in a short period of time,” she says.
Who’s Riding the Rails
Rail travel in Europe appeals to a variety of traveler types, but certain characteristics are common. “With my clients, it seems to be the ones who don’t like to fly or drive from one destination to another,” says May. “They are experienced travelers and enjoy a laidback, relaxed way of travel. I would say it’s maybe the older generation, but just this morning I received an interest for rail from a young family with two kids under the age of 10. The demographics for rail travel are changing.”
Gibbs says that her “adventurous” clients who don’t like being locked into a schedule are ideal candidates for riding the rails. “Train travel is perfect for the independent traveler who wants to see different areas, and feel a sense of freedom in going across a country quickly, without the restrictions of guides and the time limitations of bus travel or the designated driver of a rental car,” she explains.
Some travelers may not be educated about rail travel, but easily warm to the idea when they realize its benefits. “The first-time traveler to Europe is usually not aware of the option of traveling by train or how it easy it is,” explains Brignac. “I include it in their itinerary right from the start. Having experienced traveling by train in Europe myself, I can confidently explain the convenience and comfort of traveling to their next destination by train. Of course, if they prefer to fly, I give them both options to compare price and schedules. It’s ultimately their choice, but when both options are available, 99 percent of the time, they choose the train.”
May agrees about the positive response that rail travel frequently triggers, even among clients who wouldn’t have thought of it themselves. “Once I mention rail, it seems a light bulb goes off,” she says. “I have done a presentation with my local BNI [Business Network International] about rail and it was hit. I had people come up to me afterwards saying, ‘what a great way to travel.’ ”
Brignac also finds success in selling rail travel as an add-on for other types of European travel, including cruises and escorted tours. “I fit rail travel in wherever it is the best option for my independent travelers, but I also like when an escorted tour includes a little bit of train travel,” she says. “To me, it is part of the European experience.”
Client comments can also help determine when a rail trip might be a logical addition to a trip. May points out a few keywords and contextual clues that help her along these lines: “When clients mention they want to take their time to see different destinations without being rushed—pre- or post-cruise, coming in or going home—or having to take a bus or fly from one place to another, this is where you mention the idea of rail.”
Another advantage of selling European rail travel is its ability to promote future sales. “My repeat travelers know the advantages of rail travel and want it included in their future trips,” says Brignac. “Once they have the experience of navigating the train stations and understanding the ticket details, they have more confidence the second and third time around.”
Considering the fact that Europe is home to one of the world’s most extensive and modern networks of rail lines, it’s no surprise that rail travel is popular in a variety of regions. Which destinations sell the most may depend on multiple factors, including a travel advisor’s own area of specialty, marketing efforts and client preferences.
Brignac names several top sellers, as well as two up-and-coming destinations, where increasing numbers of travelers are opting for rail vacations. “Italy is by far my biggest seller where train travel is included, followed by travel between London and Paris,” she says. “And I have more clients requesting Spain and Portugal lately.”
May has gained additional insight into sales opportunities through local networking, especially through a local travel club that she recently created. “Rail and river cruises in Europe are the top two interests with my members,” she says. “Why? I talk about it. I talk about it with so much enthusiasm and passion, about them needing to consider a rail vacation.”
Speaking publicly about rail travel is crucial, according to May—as is support from partners like Railbookers, an independent rail vacation operator. “Travel agents need to get the word out, talk about it and most importantly, educate themselves about it if they are not familiar with it,” she says. “I don’t consider myself a pro with rail as I am still learning, but that is why I love travel partners like Railbookers. They are just a phone call away to answer my questions.”
Brignac concurs about the importance of having the right partners to create the best rail vacation experience for clients. “Suppliers are wonderful to work with,” she says, “With their extensive knowledge of rail travel, their experience and their vetting of hotels and tours that they offer, they can offer solutions and options when customizing itineraries for clients.”
Crafting and Customizing
Suppliers can also play a key role in maximizing one of the main selling points of European rail travel: flexibility. Using rail providers who work directly with travel planners gives advisors additional options and opportunities, so each trip can really be tailored to the individual client.
“My clients tell me their wishes, and I ask if it can be done, logically and logistically,” Gibbs says. Her rail representative will then “check schedules and available hotels, tours and more, and put together an itinerary. Together, we have created the perfect holiday for my clients.”
Brignac also makes use of supplier relationships to build customized rail vacations. “I like to create a complete package for a client’s trip, which includes hotels, tours, trains and private transfers, where the train fits seamlessly into the itinerary,” she says. “Using rail vacation operators makes it easy to put everything together as a package. This way, my travelers make one deposit and have one vendor to make payments to.”
Another way that rail suppliers can take a lot of weight off of travel advisors is through their extensive knowledge of the individual elements of rail travel, from specific routes and lines to preferred stations, service classes and more. “I really don’t customize the actual train journeys,” explains May. “I prefer to leave that to the experts who know the routes, train stations, tours and availability, and let them handle the entire rail journey.”