All Aboard: Tourists Flock to BC for Rocky Mountaineer Railtours

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British Columbians are spoiled. Most of us live with mountains, spend our days unavoidably looking at mountains. Mountains and lakes, mountains and rivers, mountains and mountains. We’re used to seeing wildlife, and a trip to Calgary is no big deal.

But for people from Kansas City or Manhattan, Liverpool or Cairo, a trip through the Canadian Rockies is an awe-inspiring, once-in-a-lifetime experience. And this is why Rocky Mountaineer Railtours is one of the world’s most coveted of train trips.

The Rocky Mountaineer story goes back to 1988, when VIA Rail, Canada’s national passenger train, started running a service called ‘Canadian Rockies by Daylight’. The service was heavily subsidized and, after two years without profit, the federal government put it up for auction. Twenty bids were received; the rights were awarded to Vancouver’s Great Canadian Railtour Company (GCRC), a team of former railroad executives led by one-time Gray Line Tours president Peter Armstrong. Rail is no longer a cheap, efficient way of transporting people over long distances, but the GCRC people knew that if the trip became an experience, it could be successfully marketed.

They were right. This was long before terrorism hit the travel industry but, even then, North Americans were looking for different types of vacations, especially those that didn’t involve leaving the continent. And tourists from all points of the globe want experiences—not just a couple of weeks sitting on a beach. They want an understanding of the places they visit; to experience the culture, history and geography of unique places.

GCRC purchased the VIA routes and equipment, bought and refurbished the old VIA coaches and, in April 1990, began operating a 500-passenger train service between Vancouver and Jasper, and Vancouver and Banff/Calgary. By the following May, capacity had increased to 600 passengers and departures were up by 50%. GCRC employed 50 people and received 11,000 guests.

Today, Rocky Mountaineer Railtours (RMR) is the largest private passenger rail operator in North America. It employs 350 people, owns 65 pieces of rolling stock and, in 2001, welcomed 73,000 guests. And the whole success story boils down to terrific service, excellent guest relations and targeted marketing.

rocky8The Rocky Mountaineer experience is a two-day, all-daylight journey that follows the historic train route constructed over 100 years ago through BC and the Canadian Rockies. (The high season is April to October, but there are also winter tours.) It’s not just a trip from Vancouver to Calgary; from Calgary, guests can do the return trip, drive out of Calgary, fly out of Calgary, or keep heading east on VIA. If they return to Vancouver, they can hook up with a cruise to Alaska, head to Whistler, Seattle, home, whatever. There’s a Calgary Stampede Tour, a Christmas in Victoria tour, various wildlife tours, skiing tours—RMR markets 40 different packages.

For the rail portion, guests choose from two levels of service: Gold Leaf, which is first class, and Red Leaf, which is first class-ish. Red Leaf is classic rail travel on 50 year-old reconditioned Pullman coaches. There are reclining seats, large picture windows, open-air vestibules and in-seat dining. Gold Leaf coaches are $3.5 million, state-of-the-art, two-tier cars with glass ceilings, observation platforms and dining rooms.

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Either way, guests are wined and dined with BC Salmon, Alberta beef and BC wines accompanied by white linen and fresh flowers. On-board attendants speak English, French, German, Japanese and Mandarin, and give passengers plenty of notice when the train is about to slow for key photo ops. Guests carry detailed maps and follow the line’s history with the Rocky Mountaineer newspaper.

The two-day journey travels 918 miles through the UNESCO Rocky Mountain World Heritage Site, which is Mount Revelstoke National Park, Glacier National Park, Yoho National Park, then Banff and Jasper. The average pace is 75 k/hr and passengers do not disembark, but they can gape away at bears, bighorn sheep, moose, deer and elk. Along the way, they take in seven mountain ranges, plus tons of bridges, tunnels, waterfalls, canyons, lakes and rivers. And in the middle, they spend the night in Kamloops, where they have the option of attending the RMR-owned Two River Junction Dinner & Musical Review.

The cost of the trip depends on passenger choices. The minimum is $499 for Red Leaf, $999 for Gold Leaf (the split of choice is 50/50). When people order and book directly from the RMR brochure, they can spend up to $6000 per person; the average is $1300. But if they want to rent a car and drive back from Calgary, or head back to Vancouver via limousine, then stay at the Four Seasons before spending a week at Whistler, it can all be booked as an RMR custom tour and the sky’s the limit.

rocky6RMR houses a group travel department that arranges customized itineraries for groups—in the incentive and leisure travel sectors, plus the pre- and post-conference sector (many companies have their conferences right on the train).

Outside North America, RMR has sales reps in 18 countries, plus five sales managers who work out of the Vancouver office but travel the world making sure that tour operators, travel wholesalers and travel agencies are aware of the company’s offerings. The company supports the European market through a London office, PR firms are active in Los Angeles and London, and the company works very hard at maintaining a positive relationship with the international media.

As RMR’s VP Marketing, Graham Gilley, explains: “Our PR people pitch the international media with many different editorial angles. In 2001, we hosted 75 groups of media—we want those photographers and cameramen on board. We’ve been on Chef at Large, on the BCC, on CNN’s Hot Spots. And we work very closely with Tourism BC, Tourism Vancouver and Travel Alberta to get the most out of the media and make sure that Rocky Mountaineer is part of the story.”

This coverage not only helps sales, but it has helped the company build an excellent reputation. Its trade-marked slogan ‘The Most Spectacular Train Trip in the World’ was actually a comment made by former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark. Rocky Mountaineer is only one of seven rail journeys to twice make the 20 Best Rail Experiences list issued by the prestigious International Railway Traveler magazine. In 1998, it was voted Best Attraction by the North American Association of Travel Writers. Fodor’s listed RMR’s winter tours on its list of Top-Ten Most Overlooked & Under-Rated Winter Tours.

This sort of thing goes over very well with the RMR market, which is people 55+, mostly couples and empty-nesters who can afford to be discriminating. About 40% come from the US; 25% from Britain, 20% from other parts of Canada, the rest from Europe, Asia and Australia.

rocky1“People come to Canada because they want to see its natural beauty,” says Gilley. “We’re the centrepiece of that Canadian vacation and a big draw to Western Canada. For train buffs, the fact that passengers have their own train [no cargo attached] is a big deal, but only about 15% of our guests have a real interest in trains.”

There are two groups of customers: tour operators and FITs, or Fully Independent Travelers, who either call to book directly, or ask their travel agents to book.

The Internet is a big part of the marketing effort. RMR has three sites: rockymountaineer.com, which has been up for four years; winterrailtours.com and spectacularmeetings.com have been up for two years. Gilley notes that rockymountaineer.com receives 2,500 unique visits every day, making it one of the most visited of Canadian travel sites. The sites are extremely thorough, offering detailed information packages, streamed video and 360-degree Ipix tours, plus scheduling and pricing information. But you can’t book on-line. You have to call.

When someone has chosen his trip from the website, he calls the 800 number; in Vancouver, there there’s a 24/7, 24-operator call centre that fields 1000 calls a day. The call is answered by a well-trained RMR salesperson, who starts with the caller’s immediate choice, then helps with the ‘vacation design’, then books it all. RMR has strategic alliances with Hertz, Laidlaw Motor Coaches and Fairmont Hotels, so the up-sell angle is very important. But it’s a win-win situation. With one phone call, RMR makes a profit, the consumer gets a fabulous, custom-designed vacation. And the one-stop-shop approach makes life easier, and costs lower, for travel agents.

There’s another, equally important kind of caller. Those are people who want the all-important, 56-page RMR brochure, 800,000 of which are distributed every year. The brochure is an even more important planning tool than the Internet information and is most likely to lead to the booking.

While the sales managers and overseas agents take care of their areas, in North America, advertising encourages people to make that call. A print campaign targets the FITs from January to June, with ads in Readers Digest, Canadian Living, Conde Nast Traveler, Smithsonian and regional lifestyle magazines. Gilley says that newspaper and radio ads do not work for RMR. “We’ve tested radio; we went heavily into newspaper three years ago, but we weren’t pleased about getting stuck in the clutter of seat-sale ads. We don’t sell on price point—we’re an experience and that’s difficult to communicate with newspaper and radio. We’re a very visual product and need to be seen in full-colour.”

rocky4Gilley’s print advertising budget is around $850,000. Aside from bringing in those phone calls, the advertising provides very strong brand awareness. The ads tell people to call their travel agents, or the 800 number. This helps to drive business to the travel agents, who are also very important to RMR’s success.

“We support travel agents very strongly,” says Gilley. “It’s important that people deal with travel specialists. We’re happy to take bookings over the phone, but we don’t want to cut off the travel companies—about 60% of our business comes from travel agents. And unlike other travel-industry companies, we have not cut or capped commission rates.

“This business is similar to any manufacturing business. We design and manufacture the product. We sell it to the wholesaler, who sells to the retailer, who sells to the consumer. And then we have to secure distribution to get our product on the shelf. We have to build relationships, maintain them, and build new ones.

rocky7“That’s how we get listings and co-op deals for promotions and marketing. We forge relationships by having a unique product which complements what those in the travel business are trying to do with their companies. It has to be worth their while. We’ve made it worth their while by gaining the reputation of providing a superior product—whether it’s the end product or part of a package. We have excellent worldwide distribution—since September, we’ve gained 10 new American tour operators who previously weren’t selling Canada. We already deal with most of the large operators, but we like to have distributors of all sizes.”

Gilley joined RMR in 1997. At that time, the company’s marketing was very much grass-roots. There was no database, no print advertising. And the marketing budget was only 2%.Well, now the marketing budget is only 4%.

“It’s not a large budget, but that’s the nature of this business,” explains Gilley. This is a very labour- and capital-intensive business. To make a train move 10 feet, it takes literally every employee we have—350 people in sales, operations, reservations, guest services, maintenance. That’s why there’s a tremendous reliance on the travel and tourism network.”

RMR has come a long way, however. Its marketing strategy was set up in four stages, with each stage taking one year to implement and all four eventually running concurrently. The four stages are Response, Anticipation, Experience and Referral.

Gilley explains: “Response involved retaining an advertising agency [Vancouver’s Bryant Fulton & Shee], then ensuring that our brand was in place, and that our ads were ready to go, so we had a way of generating response from potential guests. And we provided our PR people with the messages required to generate exposure for the brand.

“Phase two was Anticipation. The best part of any trip is the anticipation of it—the ability to say ‘I’m going on this vacation and this is what I’m going to do’. If we wanted people to say ‘I’m going on an incredible rail tour in an awesome part of the world’, we needed to capture those elements in our materials. So we re-did our letterhead, our corporate identity, our brochures, vouchers, itineraries, travel guides—everything down to the travel wallets. We built a presence in the hotels and started to get into response marketing.

“The Experience component begins when you arrive at the train station to board. We created a product department which is a group of people dedicated to designing itineraries and improving the on-board experience. We own 28 motor coaches, so we branded those and changed the colour of our trains—to red, white, blue and gold. And we looked at all our souvenirs, to make sure that there was consistent branding and delivery throughout.

rocky3“That leads to the Referral stage. This is very important, as 26% of our guests are referred by friends and relatives. This is why service is such an important element in the branding of Rocky Mountaineer. It has always worked without prompting, but we decided to formalize that relationship and make our clients our ambassadors. So if they want to refer a friend or relative, we’ll send personalized referral materials. And this year, we gave all of our guests a three-minute commemorative video to take home and show their friends and relatives.”

RMR also sells full-length souvenir videos for $18.95. Gilley wouldn’t give any precise figures relating to profits, but did note that annual souvenir sales are well over $1 million.

In 1999, RMR started conducting direct response campaigns, all of which have been very successful. Last fall, it spent $37,000 on mailing a win-a-trip package to 20,000 people who had previously requested brochures. The result was 203 bookings, 511 guests and $1 million in sales. Another campaign was simply a questionnaire sent to 20,000 US households; it received 13% response.

The company does some market research, though not much. Focus groups are the communication check for creative and there has been telephone research. But the best research is done on the trains. Four hours before the end of each trip, guests are given reply cards. They have the time and the motivation to fill them out, and about 32,000 cards are received each year. The cards are checked every two weeks; if adjustments are indicated, they are immediately made.

“This is the best way to know how we’re doing,” continues Gilley. “But it also allows us to build relationships with our customers. We employ three people who do nothing but look after responses to guest comments. If someone says his coffee was cold, we send him a letter. If someone says that he wanted to buy a sweatshirt and they were all gone, we’ll send him a letter. If there’s something a little more serious, we’ll send an appropriate refund. We send out 10,000 personal letters annually in response to comments. rocky2

“Our market is people who are older—they love to be communicated with. They’re not used to getting acknowledgements of their comments from travel companies. So this practice, in addition to creating referrals, creates lots of goodwill and improves their overall experience. We aim to please and the follow-up makes the entire Rocky Mountaineer experience that much more satisfying.”

 

Blitz Magazine, March 2002

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The BC Film Commission: Location, Location, Location

Blitz Magazine, May 2000

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was rare for a Hollywood producer to consider British Columbia when choosing locations. If they wanted a mountain, a bear, a Mountie, a Mountie on a bear on a mountain, only then BC was the obvious choice. A few well-known films were made here—McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Carnal Knowledge. The skill was here; Canadian broadcasting and film talent has always had an excellent reputation. But, by 1975, although there was a lot of television production going on, BC had gone five years without seeing a complete Hollywood feature shot here and the province’s craftsmen were leaving to work elsewhere. Finally, in 1978, the Social Credit government stepped in and created the British Columbia Film Commission.

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With that came people who were actively marketing BC as a location. By the end of that year, BC went from having no business to enjoying production spending of $38 million. In 1979, it was $55 million. Producers, directors and production designers started to talk to their peers about BC, and there were people here following up. This meant cold-calling producers who, often, had to consult a map to find Vancouver. It was sometimes a tough sell, but the commission staff concentrated on building relationships and providing ever-better service.

While the cost of shooting in Los Angeles continued to escalate, BC was enjoying watershed moments. There was Year of Rambo (1979). 21 Jump Street showed producers that you could happily shoot an episodic series here. Then came MacGyver, and Wise Guy. In 1987, after the provincial government made a substantial investment to up-grade the Bridge Studios, Stephen J. Cannell and Paul Bronfman teamed up to build Lions Gate Studios (now North Shore Studios). The list of hit features continued to grow. The Canadian dollar stayed low, the tax advantages piled up.

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So has the work. In 1998, 28 features, 26 TV series, 15 animation projects, 59 documentaries and 43 MOWs, mini-series and pilots were produced in BC, for a total value of $808 million (CAD). In 1999, there were 54 features, 30 TV series, 6 animated projects, 48 documentaries and 60 MOWs, mini-series and pilots, for a total value of $1.7 billion. That doesn’t include the $500 million non-theatrical ‘broadcaster bucks’ and television commercial expenditures. And conservative estimates place the spin-off economic impact at $3 billion.

The BC Film Commission (BCFC) is a branch of the Ministry of Small Business, Tourism & Culture and relies on the government for all of its funds. It employs just 10 people and has seen its budget regularly slashed in recent years, to the point where it currently operates on a stunningly low annual budget of $875,000. (This, while Montreal just received a $300,000. injection to its promotional budget alone.)

The BCFC mandate is to market, promote and facilitate film and television production in BC, and to market the services of BC production, post-product and ancillary service companies to the international film and television industry. It has four tasks: international marketing, location scouting, location services and community relations.

These days, the marketing function is restricted, to say the least. “Seven years ago, I had a $250,000 print advertising budget,” says marketing manager Alice To. “It’s now $50,000, including creative. We’ve gone from placing 45 ads a year to placing five. Those five are saved for when there’s a BC production that needs to be congratulated in the trade press. Now, we don’t have campaigns, we have reminders. We stand out by using illustrations—other film commissions run location shots. We used to advertise to the European and Asian markets, we used to publish a newsletter for schools and libraries, and we used to do a lot of media relations. But we don’t have the resources for that any more.”

The commission used to have an advertising agency (Campaign Communications, now Saatchi & Saatchi). It also used to host the extremely successful Friends of BC reception in Los Angeles—a party to thank people for filming in BC. The commission still goes to Cannes and is hosting a Business in BC conference in London this year, but the once all-important trade shows are now also a thing of the past.

“We used to do Location EXPO,” continues To. “You’d have all the film commissions under one roof and everyone competed to attract people to their jurisdictions—we’d pass out BC apples, water, salmon. And we used to exhibit at Sundance and the Toronto Film Festival. Now we don’t do that, not so much because of budget cuts, but because people aren’t interested in trade shows any more. They know about the commissions and they can get the information they need off the Internet.”

For the past two years, the BCFC has had a very effective web site (www.bcfilmcommission.com). It’s strictly for information dissemination and doesn’t carry advertising, but it is well-visited to the point of the occasional crash. On it, visitors find film lists, statistics, quick facts, news items, maps and information on customs, taxes, unions, equipment rental, studios and services.

To, who compares her job to doing the limbo under an ever-lower budget bar, maintains a large photo library and has managed to produce excellent location brochures showing various BC locations—not just deer in the woods, but alleyways, warehouses, docks, residential areas. There’s the occasional marketing project with BC Film (the non-profit society responsible for marketing completed made-in-BC projects) and, twice a year, the commission’s director, location and production services managers go down to Los Angeles to meet with film industry executives and engage in some good, old-fashioned product touting.

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The product is a region which has evolved from being a location to being a production centre. BC’s craftspeople are as good as, if not better, than those anywhere else in the world. We have 67 state-of-the-art sound stages, the best post-production facilities in the business, and we’re capable of having 35 A-list crews working simultaneously. All facilities and amenities are here; producers don’t have to bring anything with them. BC has architectural diversity, ethnic diversity and geographic diversity (it has nine of the globe’s 12 climates, lacking only arctic, tropic and sub-tropic).

“We used to just market locations, now we market Vancouver as a production centre,” says acting BCFC director Mark DesRochers. “We have the complete package now—the pitch to the popcorn. People have put a lot of money back into the business here, so everything’s up to date and the quality of the facilities here has been well attested to by the most grizzled of Hollywood veterans.”

But if there’s no marketing budget, no events budget and no media relations budget, how has the BC Film Commission succeeded?

Strategy, service and more service.

“The second part of our mandate—location scouting—can be challenging,” continues DesRochers. “If someone needs the Texas panhandle, we’ve got a problem. But maybe we can get that script rewritten for Montana. Double Jeopardy was originally supposed to take place in Boston. Then Bruce Beresford thought ‘Why am I trying to cheat this for Boston, when I can rewrite it to take place in the Pacific Northwest?’

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“We have to get in at the contract-signing stage. After that, there’s not much we can do to change their minds. So we look at the trades, track production, call people up. The key is to get producers to think of BC first. A producer will send a script to a dozen locations and his concerns are budget and what a location offers. They come up here and I show them around and say, ‘We can do it for this much here and it’s going to look good. But then I may take them to the Okanagan and show them the perfect location for the script and say ‘If we do it here, for this much, it will look fabulous’. Then they’ll go back and fight for that location. It may cost them a little more to go up to the Okanagan, but they’re still saving money by filming in BC, and they don’t have to compromise on the creative side.

“Also, since 1995, we’ve had the Regional Film Commission of BC, a network of regional film offices that helps us give people exactly the location they want. Production budgets are shrinking and it’s expensive to send location scouts everywhere, especially in a region the size of BC.

“We know how thin the margins are on these shows and we have to service that margin. If a producer needs a mountain and he can get great shots on Grouse Mountain, we’re not going to have him drag his crew over to Mount Robson. If he wants the Queen Charlotte Islands and we know he can’t afford it, we’ll find the alternative.

“We learned a long time ago to never bullshit the customer. If someone needs tundra and musk ox, I’m going to tell we don’t have it. We don’t want to screw up or disappoint our customers, because some of our customers are people who would go out of their way to tell their friends what a bunch of wankers we are. If you market yourselves as being something, that’s what you have to deliver.”

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Once a project has been landed, the third part of the BCFC’s job— location services—kicks in. The BCFC takes a hands-on approach, walking producers through the hoops and ladders of immigration, customs, tax credits, Canadian content issues and union agreements.

The latter, as has been well publicized, used to be a major bugaboo. “People want to come here and make movies, not learn labour law,” explains DesRochers. “There was a time when people considered the possibility of union problems if they came to BC. That may or may not have cost us business—and it did get to the point where the whole thing could have gone down the toilet. But out of that came the opportunity to figure out how to make it work. And we did. Now, unlike any other jurisdiction in North America, all of the unions and guilds have long-term agreements with the employers, and the union agreements are much more straightforward than they used to be. We now have labour peace.”

More recently, there was the issue of unrest among members of the Los Angeles film industry, many of whom were furious at the amount of business coming up here.

“This is a cyclical business, and the growth in production in LA has been more rampant than any other place on the planet,” says DesRochers. “But if there are impracticalities which cost money, and producers want to make a profit, they’ll go where they can get the biggest bang for their buck. Anyway, we haven’t heard much from them lately—the guy leading the charge had to resign to go work on a feature in Toronto.”

Delivering that bigger bang also means competing with 260 other North American film commissions—and with Toronto, Vancouver’s main competitor, whose film commission also gets way more support from its provincial government. Toronto also has location advantages that BC doesn’t have.

“The competition has to do with location-driven pictures,” explains DesRochers. “Toronto is always on the producers’ shopping lists. If you want that eastern city look—if you want New York, Toronto is more logical. But there’s the weather to consider. And we are chameleons.”

The BCFC’s final mandate component is community relations. This area is absolutely essential, given that, not too long ago, the goodwill and hospitality of British Columbians—Vancouverites in particular—was starting to run a little low.

“Vancouverites are easy to get along with, considering the amount of production going on in a relatively small inner city,” remarks DesRochers. “But we had to start spending more time making sure the neighbours were not going to lynch the next show. Now, the municipal and city fathers are educated on what all of this filming means to the economy. People get advance letters, friendly production people knock on their doors and answer questions. It may just be a courtesy or—if you want to land a helicopter on someone’s street at 2:00 a.m.—it may be crucial.

“Like any business, once you’ve done your marketing and landed the business, your future success lies in how efficient you are at servicing that business. We have a multi-tiered client base and we don’t want anyone to feel used and abused.”

In 1995, the BCFC needed someone to deal only with community relations. It didn’t have the money to pay that salary, so it went to those with a vested interest—lawyers, accountants, post-production facilities, unions etc., and had them each chip in $4000. to pay 75% of the salary for a community relations person, something which most film centres don’t have.

The BCFC’s community affairs manager, Gordon Hardwick, is responsible for working with production companies and helping them deal with municipal administrators, Crown corporations and the private sector—helping them cut the red tape.

“I’m currently trying to organize municipal administrators to discuss ways of standardizing things,” he says. “The Greater Vancouver Regional District has 21 municipalities, all with different application and permit processes. Each year, filmmakers make 1,250 applications to the City of Vancouver, which has 400 files open at any one time. So things can become quite complex.”

Hardwick is also working on a marketing plan aimed at raising public awareness of the industry’s fiscal benefits.

“The film community supports a lot of charitable and service organizations, and there are many good-news stories to be told. We have a very low complaint level, but sometimes people get this idea that they’re being exploited by Big American Film Companies. Once they realize that a lot of the productions are Canadian, and that the guy next door makes his living this way, they understand. So the goal of the marketing plan will be to get the good news stories and the economic information out on as localized a level as possible.

“My job is to find ways to accommodate everyone and communicate with businesses and residents so that they can plan their lives around what’s going to be happening. Without that communication, communities would get fed up with the road blocks and noise and racing vehicles and say ‘forget it’. That’s what happened in some communities in the Los Angeles basin, which simply no longer allowing filming. Collectively, our locations are a resource that needs to be managed, with an eye to preservation for the future, just as the fishery or forestry resource does. This is a resource that needs to be both promoted and protected.

“The film industry here grew as a location-based industry—it was never about studios and back lots. We’ve always needed public support and understanding and the willingness to accept inconvenience once in a while. This industry employs 25,000 people—you don’t want it to go away just because it occasionally blocks your driveway.”

Perhaps the human element complicates things more than in this industry than in other sectors. But the other key to the BC Film Commission’s success is that it has been very good at forging solid, long-lasting relationships.

“We’ve developed a great rapport with the decision-makers in this industry,” says DesRochers. “When I go down to LA, I meet with people and find out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. We stay abreast of their desires and wishes and respond quickly. People there know we’re open to suggestions and that we’re committed to delivering the goods. That confidence is better than any advertising you could run.

“This is show business—a mix of creativity and fiscal responsibility. You can’t separate money from the other benefits. You can’t put a dollar value on knowing that you’re going to get the product you want, on time and on budget. And those relationships may save money in the long run, even if the up-front cost is a little higher. So you’ll get producers who come here again and again, no matter what company they’re working for.

“Sure, there’s the exchange rate and the tax advantages, but it’s also the people. Producers know they can depend on our people. We’ve earned the respect of our community on both sides of the border—from studio guys, to unions, to composers, to the guys renting cell phones. We’ve done a good job in forging relationships and keeping those warm and fuzzy feelings about us.”

 

On Dicks & Democracy

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Blitz Magazine, May 2001

I used to spend a lot of time with a political strategist. I’ll call him Dick. I can’t say I knew him well, because it was his goal to not be known well. Once, he had too much to drink and let slip his mother’s name. The only time I got a direct answer from him was when I asked the time.

I thought of Dick while watching the ‘debate’ during the run-up to the recent provincial election. There were four candidates, facing four seasoned journalists. The journalists asked questions. Their questions were not answered, not even indirectly. The robots spouted scripted statements vaguely relating to the subject. No one was challenged; there was no debate of any kind. Later, the media discussed who won.

There were only three notable things about the session: the incumbent’s response to every question was a tired deflection against Gordon Campbell; Campbell’s constant repetition of the words ‘British Columbia’, as if to remind himself what province we’re in. And Green Party leader Adrienne Carr’s statement that she “truly believes” that private sector businesses would “find a way”, on their own, to establish wage parity. Sure. Have another joint.

I’ve had several conversations with Premier-Elect Campbell over the years. Ordinary, interactive conversations. But for this election, he’d clearly put himself thoroughly in the hands of a Dick. So had the others. I could hear the conversation, applicable to any one of them.

“You said we weren’t supposed to speak to the public.”

“Correct.”

“Then why am I doing this debate?”

“Just recite one of the responses you’ve memorized.”

“What if the response doesn’t match the question?”

“Immaterial.”

“What if the journalists notice?”

“They’ll be drunk.”

“And later, when journalists gather around me to scram-”

“Scrum. Say nothing. Be in a hurry.”

“But what about democratic principles? What about my obligation to be open, honest, forthwith—”

“Forthright.”

“That too.”

“Forget democratic principles. This is an election.”

BC politics has always been unusual. But this election was extraordinary. I’ve never seen an election, anywhere, where the Dicks so obviously orchestrated everything. No attempt was made to hide that fact that Dicks had total control. Over every movement, every syllable spoken. No one got a direct response to any question, from any candidate, at any time. No citizen was able to spontaneously communicate with any candidate: when a candidate arrived somewhere, the grassroots members that everyone’s always gushing about were unable to get near him without literally muscling through the pre-arranged barrier of placard-waving supporters.

Thomas Paine is often misquoted. He didn’t say that ‘power corrupts’. He said that ‘authority corrupts’. The difference is evident here. Those who have attained power ceded the authority to acquire that power to highly-paid Dicks, Who are faceless, invisible, simultaneously paid by many differing interests, accountable to no one.

Who loses? Any pre-existing good intentions on the part of prospective politicians are smothered, which must make politics torture for the well-meaning. Governments vanish behind a fog that we can’t rely on journalists to dispel, because centralized media ownership dictates their positions. And the man on the street? What man on the street?

When Dicks run the show, we lose, Dicks win. The Dicks gotta’ go.


 

Frederick Varley: Visions of Paradise

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Group of Seven founding member Frederick Horsman Varley, who lived in Vancouver from 1926 to 1936, saw British Columbia as Paradise on Earth.

In BC, the Post-Impressionist was inspired to apply colour, composition and Buddhist theory to landscapes and individuals in new, wondrous forms. BC was Varley’s muse; once he left, he never again experienced such exciting and sustained creativity.

Varley was a romantic and sensualist who loved the ideal of the freedom found in nature, and the spiritual and physical beauty of women. Though not a devotee of any one religious or philosophical code, a curiosity in mysticism and Asian philosophies evolved from his anxiety toward modern life—he regarded Eastern notions as an antidote to the Western focus on mechanization and moral conservatism. During his time in Vancouver, he believed that objects and individuals emanated an aura and he developed a theory attributing specific psychological means to each colour, casting his paintings around one or two specific hues.

An Englishman who emigrated to Canada in 1912, Varley began his career in Toronto as a commercial designer, working with most of his future Group colleagues. After completing his commission as a war artist, he returned to the Group and, upon its triumph, became known as one of Canada’s leading portrait and landscape artists. But his restless nature, and his desire to escape debtors and crossed friendships, prevailed. He moved to Vancouver in search of a new life and fresh ideas.

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He became a teacher at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Art (now Emily Carr University), where he was adored by his students. But when the Depression hit, he received the highest pay cut. He indignantly resigned and, with Jock Macdonald, opened the BC College of Arts, taking half the student body with him.

Although the school was regarded as being at the forefront of progressive art and his creativity was prodigious, Varley was forever in debt. His family had been twice evicted; they had no furniture, no food. Varley, who had fallen in love with one of his students, left his wife and four children and moved to North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley. Then the school went out of business, it was time to get outa’ Dodge and he moved to Ottawa.

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When he died near Toronto in 1969, Varley left behind 500 oils, watercolours and sketches—a stunning body of work, and now a cherished part of Canada’s national heritage.

Blitz Magazine, November 1999