Breaking Travel News interview: Steve Sammut, president, Rocky Mountaineer

Breaking Travel News interview: Steve Sammut, president, Rocky Mountaineer

Since 1990, Rocky Mountaineer has welcomed more than two million guests to inhale the mountain air of Canada and let nature take their breath away.

Offering dozens of trips throughout the north-west of the country, and down to Seattle, it is a product synonymous with the oft-recalled ‘golden age’ of travel, with trains wending their way at a leisurely pace through some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.

But it is also run by an ambitious team with aspirations of international growth.

Speaking to Breaking Travel News in London, president Steve Sammut explains the company has been expanding the adventure side of its offering as sales begin for the 2019 season.

“The destinations we have, have been running for a number of years now, and we are not changing those.

“These are places our guests want to go to – Vancouver at one end, and the Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper at the other,” he details.

“What we are doing looking ahead is spreading out the product a little.

“For example, if you look at the Rocky Mountains end, there is a trend toward people wanting more adventure.

“So, here, we have added, within Banff National Park, a new package allowing guests to stay in Canmore or Kananaskis; they are smaller towns, rustic destinations.

“We are also offering more soft adventure packages; what we are hearing from our guests is that people love the train, they love the experience, but they want to do something that makes them feel like they deserve that luxury.”

He adds: “This means adding more hiking, things where our guests can get a bit more adventure.

“For 2019, we are also excited to partner with Canadian Mountain Holidays, the largest heliskiing operation in the world.

“We have created a package where you can leave the train and be helicoptered up to their lodge in the mountains, and you can do two and a half days of hiking – just a gorgeous place, right in the Caribou Mountains.”

Rocky Mountaineer draws its guests from a small pool of source markets, led by the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, with Canada following close behind.

In an age of fierce digital competition, the company is keen to nurture relationships with the travel trade.

“We are always looking for new partners, and around 80 per cent of our sales come through the trade,” continues Sammut.

“We continue to work with them, to educate them on what we are doing.

“Around 20 per cent of our sales come out of the UK, so it is important for us to continue working with our trade partners in this market.

“We have a team that is based here, a full-time team, who are out there meeting with the trade partners, and we have been adding to that team.

“They are looking to get a bit deeper, train the sales agents, and make sure they know how to use the online training portal, Tracks, for example.

“We are doing a lot on the trade marketing front as well; our team is working very closely with our partners to get out there.”

He adds: “In terms of age, we share the demographic as to what you might see on cruise lines, baby boomers, but you do see a nice mix, families, Millennials – but our bread and butter is still that boomer generation.”

As with many hospitality providers, there is also a desire to expand into China, tapping the fast-growing outbound tourism sector there.

Sammut explains: “For us, we are at the front-end with China.

“The number of guests we have seen to date is negligible, which is why we are seeing an opportunity.

“The number of outbound Chinese travellers is of course increasing, although it has muted a bit.

“But to Canada, Chinese visitation was up 18 per cent last year, and it continues to grow at about the same rate this year.”

In an anticipation of an increase in guests from China, Rocky Mountaineer is also tweaking its product.

“When you look at what we offer, there are a lot of personal touches,” continues Sammut.

“Our hosts are not just there to make sure you have your drinks, there is a lot of story-telling going on, there is rapport, a connection.

“So, for Chinese guests, it is important to have hosts who can speak Mandarin, so our guests can really get the full flavour of what we are doing.

“We are also looking at putting comfort items on the menu; guests come to experience western Canada, but these are there if they feel homesick.

“The government has done a lot of work to put a system in place where Chinese guests can apply for a ten-year visa, while there has also been a recent expansion of number of visa centres in China.”

Sammut joined Rocky Mountaineer in 2012 and was appointed president in 2015.

Before his current role, he served as executive vice president and chief financial officer overseeing all areas of finance, IT, strategic planning and corporate development for the organisation.

Under his leadership, the train operator has currently undergoing its largest ever capital investment.

He explains: “We have a fleet of almost 70 vehicles, that includes locomotives, generator cars, crew cars, and then the passenger carrying cars.

“Currently we have a fleet of 16 GoldLeaf cars, these are the ones with the bi-level domes, where your seat is on the second level and the dining room is below.

“Then there is the single-level dome, which we call SilverLeaf, which is also a great experience, on one level.

“Right now, we have ten more GoldLeaf cars coming, while we are going back and refurbishing all of the existing fleet.

“Though, the fleet was not very old to begin with, with the cars dating from 1995 and 2007, but they will be updated to have the same seats and aesthetics as the new cars.

“Then, we have been SilverLeaf for four years, so by the start of the season next year, we will have 19 of those cars.

“This investment, which is in the range of a couple of hundred million Canadian dollars, is designed to cope with the growth we are seeing.

“The company is privately owned, so the cash is coming from within the organisation, or we have some great financial partners.”

However, with a relatively small base of operations, and a limited season (with trains only run mid-April through to mid-October), further expansion could prove tricky.

As a result, Sammut and his team are eyeing a possible overseas development.

He adds: “We get some repeat visitors, in the range of three-to-four per cent of our guests come back.

“This is why, looking forward, we are looking at adding another product, similar to what Rocky Mountaineer does in western Canada, but somewhere else in the world.

“We have so many guests who walk off loving the product and what we offer, and so many trade partners who are happy to sell our product, that we need something somewhere else to showcase.

“This would help us bring back a lot more people.

“We are currently at the front-end of a five-year strategic plan, so our goal is to have something for sale in the next five years.

“It is a long-term thing, we are looking close to home, but we are also scouring the earth, looking abroad to find something – it is important to get the product right, to find something that will appeal to our core market, to our guests.

“We will do our research, and even then, when you have determined where it is, there is a lot of work to be done creating partnerships with whoever owns the rail lines, agents on the ground.”

With Canada also booming, Rocky Mountaineer is well set for a bright future.

Sammut concludes: “Canada as tourism destination has been very attractive over the past few years, especially with our 150th anniversary last year.

“Overall, there has been a lot of recognition that Canada is a great place to visit for some many reasons; it is a beautiful country, the size means there are a lot of different things happening and Canadian people are very welcoming, accommodating.

“In today’s world, you find more people who are not welcoming to visitors, whereas in Canada we are happy when people come to visit – we love to share our history and what our country has to offer.”

More Information

Rocky Mountaineer offers over 65 unique Canadian vacation packages and four distinctive rail routes through British Columbia, Alberta and the Pacific Northwest.

The world-renowned, luxury train travels by daylight through the wild beauty of Canada’s West and is the best way to experience the majestic Canadian Rockies.

Rocky Mountaineer is a former winner of the World’s Leading Travel Experience by Train title at the World Travel Awards.

Find out more on the official website.

Chris O’Toole