Todd Powell, CEO and Co-Founder of Vacations By Rail, fell in love with the art of rail travel studying abroad, and has extensive experience traveling through Europe, the USA, and Canada by rail. With the support of the Vacations By Rail staff, Todd evaluates rail journeys based on an array of things including personal experience and extensive customer feedback. Todd Powell worked in many different areas of the travel industry, from management to marketing, before the creation of Vacations By Rail in 2004 which has since become one of the United States’ largest producers of rail vacations and trail tours throughout the world.
Travel Research Online (TRO): You fell in love with rail travel when studying abroad in Rome, Italy and in 2004 co-founded Vacations By Rail which has become one of the United States’ largest producers of rail vacations. When you helped start the company did you ever imagine it getting as big and sought-out as it has?
Todd Powell (TP): When we started the business, we understood that rail vacations were undeserved and there was a better way to sell rail vacations. Our goal was not to be one of the largest, but rather to be the best in customer service, product selection and traveler experience; these objectives are what set us apart and drove the growth of Vacations By Rail.
TRO: Before Vacations By Rail you held management and executive team appointments in and out of the travel industry. Was there anything you learned during this time that you have carried with you when it comes to operations at Vacations By Rail?
TP: I found that always bringing the business back to the customer experience is critical to the success of the business. Particularly in travel, because the travel experience and people’s vacation time is so valuable, not only in terms of the cost, but from a life experience. We are constantly asking “is what we are doing enhancing the customer’s experience?”
TRO: What does your day-to-day look like? What are some of your responsibilities and duties? Does each day’s task differ from the previous?
Every day is different which makes my role challenging and rewarding. I see my primary responsibility as ensuring our customers receive the best service and experience and giving our staff the tools to provide that level of service. I constantly think about how we can improve our customers’ experience and how we can make our work environment better.
I keep a list on my desk of tasks I need to complete and initiatives that I need to follow-up on. Some days are completely administration, while other days may be strategy or problem-solving. We have an open office environment, so all levels of the organization are interacting. We try to keep meetings to a minimum. I am heavily involved in customer service and sit in on the customer relations team, which meets weekly at a minimum. The customer relations team is the best place to learn, almost real-time, what we are doing well and where we can improve.
TRO: You evaluate rail journeys based on customer reviews and feedback, as well as your own personal experience and the experience of your staff. What are some of the credentials of what you would consider the best rail journey? The worst?
TP: I view each rail journey as an adventure that reveals itself over the miles of track that it travels. The easy case for a specular rail journey is to focus on the scenery, so you would tend to look at mountains, lakes, coastlines. People cannot go wrong with journeys through the Rocky Mountains or Switzerland. For me there is something soothing about the plains and prairies; the expansive landscape marked by the lonely sound of a train’s horn as it journeys through the night. I have taken journeys that would not have made any top ten list of spectacular train journeys, but the passengers I met on board, the staff or even the rolling-stock created a journey even more memorable than an awe-inspiring view.
I would always suggest that a traveler take an overnight rail journey at least once. Enjoy walking through the train to the dining car, spending time in a lounge car or observation car. Or simply retiring to your private cabin for some alone time. One of my favorite times on an overnight train is waking up and heading to the dining car for an early breakfast. As the fresh day begins, the scenery changes out the windows while you enjoy coffee and breakfast, it is magical.
TRO: Of the many different rail journeys you have participated in and traveled on, do you have a favorite route and destination? Why?
TP: Because of the excitement that goes along with any recent trip, I always feel like it is the last journey I took that is my new favorite, particularly if it’s my first time experiencing the route or train. I recently experienced VIA Rail’s Ocean service between Halifax, Nova Scotia and Montreal, Quebec. It was perfect one-night on the train as the fall colors were popping. The Ocean is one of the oldest routes in North America and its book ends are fabulous Nova Scotia with its South Shore and French Canada.
Prior to that, I traveled from Munich to Chur, Switzerland to take the Bernina Express to Tirano, Italy. The Bernina Express, at just four hours, is simply breathtaking from start to finish; glaciers, mountains, rivers, snow, Brusio spiral viaduct and so much more. From there I took a local train along Lake Como to Milan . The next morning I took the TGV to Paris where I stood in the café car for almost the entire trip people watching, talking with fellow passengers and looking out the window. It was four very different trains over two spectacular days.
I cannot disagree with Paul Theroux’s first paragraph of The Great Railway Bazaar, “…I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”
TRO: How has your experience with marketing and communications benefited the growth and development of Vacations By Rail?
TP: My personal experience in marketing and communication has been a benefit to the growth of Vacations By Rail, but the true success of Vacations By Rail is credited to the amazing team that we have developed over the years. My experience only allows me to ask the questions and help connect the dots. I rely on empowering the staff to generate ideas and develop and execute plans.
TRO: You have worked within many different fields of the travel industry, and among those positions learned a multitude of things. Is there any advice you can give anyone looking to break into the rail travel industry? What about advice to travelers looking to take their first rail vacation?
TP: I think it is important for anyone interested in the travel industry, whether rail or another area, to start your career with a customer facing position such as reservations. In travel it is all about the traveler’s experience. The more you understand about your customer and the more you are committed to your customer and their experience, the more successful you will be.
I always tell people planning their first rail vacation to consider the types of train options available. Do you want to sleep on the train? Are you interested in all-day light trains? Are you interested in heritage and historic train experiences? These questions can help shape the itinerary. For example, in the Canadian Rockies, you can sleep on the train or take an all-day light train and sleep in a hotel; two very different experiences.
First-time travelers could also think about the destinations and then we can see what train experiences work best for those destinations. Vacations By Rail is not beholden to any specific railroad, so we truly work to find the best experience for the traveler in an unbiased way.
TRO: What can we expect to see this upcoming year from Vacations By Rail? Anything exciting you can tell us about?
TP: 2018 is an exciting year as we continue to enhance our product. We have some wonderful new escorted tours that build off the experiential nature of rail travel. Our new “Ranch, Rail and Glacier National Park” combines a wonderful hosted travel experience with the Empire Builder, spectacular Glacier National Park and 4 nights at a Montana Ranch giving travelers plenty of free time to create their own Montana adventure.
We also have expanded our offerings in Switzerland and introduced a new small group tour product called “Flavors of Switzerland.” Switzerland is an amazing rail destination and the Swiss Travel System makes it so easy to explore the country by rail, bus and boat.
The travel agent community should be on the lookout for new booking incentives and special offers through 2018, as we are becoming more and more the go to resource for rail vacations. There is not another company like Vacations By Rail that offers the breadth of product, experience and works in an unbiased way to create the itinerary that best aligns with traveler’s vision and the travel agency community is recognizing that.