9 questions with… Steve Sammut, Rocky Mountaineer

LATTE chats with the President and CEO of Canada's iconic rail service

This week LATTE communicated from afar with Steve Sammut, President and CEO of Rocky Mountaineer.

Steve provided us with an exclusive update on how the coronavirus has impacted the Canadian travel company’s seasonal operation and runs us through some of the new health and safety protocols and procedures that will be rolled out when the iconic rail service recommences.

He also discusses the rebooking trends of guests impacted by Rocky Mountaineer’s forced pause and lets us know about the new promotion to kick-start reservations for 2021.

Steve Sammut, President and CEO of Rocky Mountaineer

In a nutshell Steve, can you describe Rocky Mountaineer’s 2020 season? How was the season looking pre-COVID-19 travel restrictions and now?

Prior to the pandemic, we were ramping up to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Rocky Mountaineer. Our sales were tracking extremely well and our team was excited to kick off the new season. Unfortunately, due to the widespread impact of the pandemic and associated global travel restrictions, we were forced to suspend the start of the season. So far, all departures up to 30 August have been suspended and we continue to monitor the situation to determine the further impact on the remainder of our season.

What has happened with Rocky Mountaineer’s trains during this period of pause? (maintenance, servicing, etc?)

Our trains are in our railyard in Kamloops, British Columbia, which is the overnight destination on both of our two-day routes between Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies. The team has been working on a variety of projects that typically happen in the off-season to prepare the equipment for service. One example is the recently built GoldLeaf Service rail cars. Over the past few years, we added 10 of these, so the team has been incorporating these into our fleet and becoming more familiar with the new technology and equipment on board.

I continue to be impressed with how the teams across the company continue to push forward and work to make us better during these challenging times.

Castle Mountain, Banff National Park, Canada

What has happened with Rocky Mountaineer’s workforce over the peak season? (upskilling, layoffs, alternative work arrangements?)

The pandemic has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on Rocky Mountaineer and, like many in the tourism and hospitality industry, we anticipate a lengthy recovery for our business. We were in the difficult position of having to temporarily layoff close to half of our year-round team in March, with 20% of our year-round team members moved to permanent layoff earlier this month. Many who remain are on reduced wages or work weeks. We also delayed hiring close to 450 seasonal team members we typically hire to work on the trains and in the destinations.

Those who have continued to work over the past four months have shown incredible resolve and determination to do whatever they can to support the business in getting through this challenging time. I am incredibly proud of our team and humbled to work alongside such an amazing and committed group of people.

What health and safety protocols are being implemented for the return of service, and will these protocols be ongoing into 2021?

The safety and wellbeing of our guests and team members is always a top priority, so we have made a number of modifications across our operations. This will continue to evolve as government guidelines and industry best practices continue to develop around the prevention of COVID-19 and other viruses and illnesses.

Plans include all guests being screened at check-in and prior to boarding each day. Given the current recommendations, they will be asked to wear a protective face covering while transferring to and from the train, and while moving around the rail car. During our boarding procedures, we may limit the number of guests travelling on each motorcoach and in each rail car and alter our boarding procedures to ensure ample personal space between travel parties.

Onboard the train, our cars are equipped with air filtration systems that ensure a constant intake and circulation of fresh air, and use filters that capture 99.9% of airborne particles. The train interiors will be thoroughly sanitised using an electrostatic disinfectant sprayer and every train seat and tray table is sanitised prior to each travel day.

All high-touch and common areas onboard are disinfected throughout the travel day and again during the overnight cleaning and maintenance period. We also have anti-bacterial soap and fresh water available in the onboard restrooms, and hand sanitiser is readily available throughout the train coach.

There are other modifications in development for when we do operate again, but these are a few that we have planned to exceed both the recommendations of government health authorities and the expectations of our guests.

GoldLeaf carriage on the Rocky Mountaineer

What percentage of Rocky Mountaineer guests cancelled versus suspended their bookings for 2020 to 2021, or beyond?

Close to 40% of guests on suspended departures have rebooked for 2021, and the majority of those who haven’t yet done so are still considering their future travel plans, given the pandemic and associated travel restrictions.

Guests on suspended departures received a future travel credit of 110% of monies paid, which can be used for travel in 2021 or 2022, and they have until 30 November 2021 to select their new travel date. We wanted to ensure guests have both the time and flexibility they need to make their future plans, so I expect we will see more rebooking activity confirmed as the global situation normalises and we, as a tourism industry, can restore people’s confidence in returning to travel.

How is the 2021 season looking right now?

It is early to say given the steady rate of change regarding the pandemic but we have seen some positive momentum. I think people are starting to think about future travel, and when they do, they are interested in safety first and foremost but also nature, wildlife, open spaces and fresh air – for all of which Rocky Mountaineer is renowned.

Our guests join us on the train for the day and then spend their evenings in hotels. Once off the train, guests can explore the destinations on their own or as part of smaller tour groups, so I think we offer a great balance of full-service and independence for our guests. We are also holding our rail prices consistent at 2020 levels and, for a limited time, guests can secure their 2021 booking for a refundable deposit of CA$25, so we are hopeful this will support a strong 2021 season.

Has the pandemic provided Rocky Mountaineer with the impetus to expand its operation into other markets and products?

While we have always embraced the idea of growing our business and expanding, we are currently most focused on our existing business and getting through to the other side of the pandemic. As travel begins to reopen worldwide, we will be ready to meet the interest of our core markets and will work closely with our trade partners to once again grow our business.

What are you most optimistic about for the future?

I think Canada continues to be viewed as a safe, desirable travel destination, and I believe Rocky Mountaineer is the ideal way to view some of the best scenery in Western Canada. We have an amazing team that is focused on providing our guests with an incredible experience, and coupled with our prioritised focus on safety, I am optimistic our trade partners will continue to connect their clients with our unique train journeys.

And do you have a message for the travel trade and your partners?

The main message I have is, “thank you.” Over the 30-year history of Rocky Mountaineer, our trade partners in Australia have been integral to our growth. We are grateful for their ongoing support and look forward to working with them to support the travel and tourism industry through its recovery.

Learn more about the product at rockymountaineer.com/

All images used with permission.

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