Everyone, including children, loves a train—which is one of the reasons that rail-centered holidays are ideally suited for families and multigenerational travelers, said Jim Marini, vice president-sales for Amtrak Vacations.
Amtrak itself covers the U.S. in depth with more than 500 stations in 46 of the 48 continental states and 14 destinations in Canada. Last year, over 32 million people traveled with the railroad, up from 29 million just five years ago. If Amtrak were an airline, it would be the fifth largest, Marini said.
Amtrak Vacations takes advantage of that geographical coverage with over 300 different packages—all of which are customizable, independent, FIT programs ranging from three or four nights to three or four weeks. “What makes it special for our agent partners is that we are a one-stop shop for hotels, attractions, meals, car rentals, even Broadway shows,” Marini said. “And whatever is pre-booked as part of a package is commissionable.”
The operator’s most popular destinations are the national parks, in particular, Grand Canyon and Glacier National Park, where the Amtrak station is just 208 steps from the park entrance. The biggest selling point for the parks is that Amtrak Vacations has allocated space inside the park lodges. When the general accommodations are sold out, the operator still has space, Marini said. “This is huge for us and one reason we get a ton of bookings for our agent partners and why we are preferred with all major consortia.”
National parks are very popular with families, so the earlier you book your clients the better—and Amtrak Vacations can be booked far out from departure dates. Other popular destinations include Niagara Falls and Toronto, along with Chicago, which is a draw for families because of such attractions as its aquarium and American Girl Factory. Washington, D.C., is also drawing families in droves during cherry blossom season, Marini said
Flexibility is central to Amtrak Vacations bookings. A full 62 percent of sales involve agents booking air—either one-way or roundtrip flights, Marini said. As an example, the Glacier National Park Express embarks in Chicago, travels to the park and disembarks in Seattle. Many travelers start in Chicago then fly home from the West Coast; others fly into Chicago as well as fly home from Seattle.
Another option for families is to place their cars on the Auto Train in Lorton, Va., for a trip to Sanford, Fla., near Orlando. On arrival, they have the use of their own vehicle.
The most popular overnight routes are those heading from Chicago westward—with the double-decker equipment on these routes called Superliners. Trains east of Chicago are called Viewliners. All Superliner trains have an observation lounge, an upper-deck level that features big glass-dome windows. The lounges are free for anyone on board. “I always tell agents that they should tell their clients to spend their days in those lounges,” said Marini.
A major selling point for booking overnight accommodations, said Marini, is that all meals are included. If, for example, travelers are going from Chicago to Glacier, they will leave mid- to late afternoon and get dinner, breakfast and whatever other meals are served while they are on board.
To enable agents to get to know the product, Amtrak Vacations produces bi-weekly webinars led by salespeople and business development managers. Most agents book through the operator’s call center because rail holidays offer multiple options. They can even request specific reservationists with whom they have developed relationships.
Agents can reach out to a team of business development managers with any questions. Managers also attend trade shows around the country.
Among the most frequent questions involves determining the difference between a roomette and a bedroom (bedrooms have private baths and showers while roomettes have bathrooms close by down a corridor), Marini said. Some trains also have family bedrooms formed by combining standard bedrooms.
The company offers marketing materials, which Marini said can be “white labeled by agents,” as well as such incentives as special early booking discounts. Agents are eligible for 15 percent discounts off any package any time anywhere; companions receive 10 percent off.
Who’s Riding the Rails?
The majority of customers are not train buffs, but rather travelers who might take a cruise or escorted tour, but are looking for a different kind of experience, said Jim Marini, vice president-sales for Amtrak Vacations.
An unusual selling point for passengers heading to the national parks is that there is no Wi-Fi available and families have to connect with each other while enjoying the scenery, Marini said, adding that many parks have purposely avoided installing Wi-Fi capability for that reason.
For many travelers, the train is the primary attraction of the vacation, with many passengers spending more time on board than they do off, he said. One popular route for train aficionados is Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder, then Seattle to San Francisco on the Coast Starlight and then back to Chicago on the California Zephyr, with very few hotel nights. The more time on the train, the more affordable the trip because fewer hotels are involved, Marini noted.
“If an agent calls us to put together a trip and it’s too expensive, we can easily adjust it,” Marini said. “There are so many ways to handle it.”