Dream Team: Architect Arthur Erickson & Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

Landscape, June 1994

Among its many blessings and advantages, Vancouver has two national treasures who have steadily worked to define the first standard of Canadian landscape architecture.

arthurThe first is Arthur Erickson, now one of Canada’s most famous architects. While not a landscaper, per se, the Vancouver native knows more about it than most. When he was growing up in Vancouver, no one in his family had much of an interest in gardening but, from boyhood, roses were a hobby and he held a deep interest in botany and biology.

He decided, though, to become an engineer. After studying at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Erickson spent two years in the army. He was posted in India, Malaysia and Nepal, fell in love with travel and decided to go into the diplomatic service. Then he happened to pick up a copy of Fortune magazine. “I saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s Desert House and thought ‘If an architect can do that, I want to be an architect’.”

Erickson headed to McGill University then, after graduating in 1950, he spent three years in Europe, observing its buildings and landscaping.

In 1953, he returned to Vancouver but found that his unorthodox approach didn’t fit with that of his conservative colleagues, so he took a teaching job at the University of Oregon. In 1957, UBC offered him a position, and he spent the next seven years teaching and working on residential projects.

As a professor of architecture, Erickson didn’t specifically teach landscaping, but he always stressed its importance. “I taught that it was crucial to design the whole site. I’ll never know to what extent this concept got through to my students—many architects aren’t interested in landscape. But when I was teaching students to sketch, I would take them outside and have them draw blades of grass—that had to have some influence.”

In 1963, Erickson won the competition to design Simon Fraser University (SFU). Unable to teach and build, he gave up teaching and never looked back.

SFU covers 900 acres, but Erickson only landscaped the central quadrangle, leaving the rest for playing fields and meadow. Much thought, however, was put into the landscaping of that quadrangle.

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“I wanted the garden to keep the viewer interested by changing with each viewpoint,” he recalls. “You can’t understand it by standing in one place—you spot something different from each vantage point and have to investigate. I like to hide things for people to discover.”

erickson2From the entry of this garden, or the top of the stairs, you see a long, formal pool featuring an enormous block of Fraser River jade. Three long stepped-up hedges of Rhododendron and Pyrus partially hide a pyramid structure in which people can sit and study, and Locust trees enclose a small playground. Silver Maples provide shade, and there are Dogwood and Hawthorn trees—loose forms contrasted with thin forms. The overall design, and the use of hedges, gives the illusion of greater distance.

Erickson is particular about what goes into his landscapes. He enjoys scented gardens, walled gardens and Japanese gardens, but feels they’re inappropriate for BC. He uses lots of rock and moss and, although he loves flowers, he avoids anything fancy. “I prefer things like single roses. Gladiolus is too stiff, Dahlias are too showy, Carnations look like pompoms.”

He always uses water, but never fountains. “Water is very important—it reflects the sky and brings light to a garden on dark days. But an upward spray is awkwardly artificial.”

The garden at Erickson’s own home has become famous due to admirers’ efforts to have it declared a Heritage Site. It reflects his opinion of how a private garden should be. “I like natural, underground gardens. Over-designed landscapes feel contrived. I want everything flowing together and messed up.

erickson6“When I bought my house, the garden was all grass. By the third year, it was weeds with a few struggling flowers. So I bulldozed the lawn into one great mound. I made a pond, which I’ve never cleaned, and I planted Pine trees and grasses taken from beside the Fraser River. For colour, I use pots of flowers. The rest grows wild.

“Thirty years later, I have a meadow surrounded by forest. And it changes every year as different plants seed themselves. I now have a Persimmon tree, a new Arbutus and tropical grasses.”

Erickson also believes that one of the most important things for any landscape is for all elements to belong. His preoccupation with a connection between the nature of a site, and what is planted in it, or built on it, comes from growing up in BC.

“When you live here, you spend much time experiencing nature. The landscape becomes an influence. That explains Wright’s influence on me as an architect. His buildings interpreted landscape experiences—the edge of a cliff overlooking a valley, or a forest at the top of a mountain. I’ve always been excited by the design adventure offered by the physicality of a site.

“I also think that this is the important difference between eastern Canadian architecture and western Canadian architecture. In Ontario, you can place the same building anywhere. Here, we never have flat sites, so every structure has to be site-specific.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve never thought of architecture as being separate from the landscape, and why I study the character of a site before I do the building. The land is always part of the building.”

This approach appeals to those who wish to build homes on difficult sites and there are several prominent Erickson houses and gardens in the Vancouver area.

“I recall one site that was a former dump; there was a stream beside it. Rather than landscape the dump and put the house beside it, I put the house on the dump and tapped the stream to make a lake. In another case, the garden was seen through a low window, like in a Japanese teahouse. I concentrated on the ground plane, added dry rock and rearranged the existing plant material to allow the garden to be viewed properly.

erickson7“Another client had a huge sloping lawn that was so over-planted, the flowers were blocking enjoyment of the wonderful lawn and the view beyond. So I removed most of the fussy garden to feature the lawn. When you do things like this, you bring the home and the garden together. When you bring the home and garden together, it makes living in the home more comfortable.”

For commercial projects, Erickson prefers an orderly landscape with touches of wildness.

“Even in the city, I try to bring landscape into the building, and every one of my designs must enhance its site and fit its character.”

One of Erickson’s most difficult sites was one of his most recent, and famous, projects—the new Canadian chancery in Washington.

My instructions from the Canadian government were to express neighbourliness, openness and friendship,” recalls Erickson. “But Washington’s regulations are severe—there are 20 committees overseeing style, shape, height. I had to use those restrictions in my design.

“I studied the street and the site, which is on Pennsylvania Avenue, opposite the US National Gallery and its new I.M. Pei wing. I was captivated by the neo-Classicism of Washington’s buildings and the consistency with which that style appears in the lines and heights of these buildings. So I chose the idiom of the southern plantation house with the grand columns and large front porch. But I put the porch inside the building and kept to the Classical order of base, body and top. Then, to echo a nearby building, I made a rotunda as a means of support. The overall effect is one great sweep which, I feel, is the character of the Canadian landscape—one enormous expanse and sense of space.

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“Through the columns, and into the courtyard, the landscaping begins. It looks like the slope of a mountain, planted with white flowers, Azalea, Hawthorn, roses. I wanted Mountain Laurel, which I felt were in keeping with the north, but we couldn’t get them in the right growth patterns.”

Naturally, there is water at the embassy. “The basin of water in the courtyard also represents the Canadian landscape, and in it we placed the massive ‘Spirit of Haida Gwaii’, which is the Bill Reid sculpture of the spirit canoe in which the shaman takes initiates to find their spirit guide. This is not only very Canadian, but could remind some of the famous paintings of Washington crossing the Delaware.”

The fact that he couldn’t get the Mountain Laurel annoyed Erickson and, though he realizes he can’t plant everything, he wishes that Canadian growers would expand their selection. “Our nurseries are getting better but too often we have to outside of Canada for what we want.”

It also annoys him that people won’t leave his landscapes alone. “The meadow at SFU was supposed to remain wild, in contrast to the groomed landscape, but they keep moving it. And we had planted Canadian columnar Juniper trees at the embassy but one ambassador removed them. I have no idea why. It’s very frustrating.” erickson10

Erickson never deals directly with nurseries or gardeners. That is left to his long-time collaborator, and Canada’s premier landscape architect, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.

“Cornelia knows how things should be done,” says Erickson. “Most landscape architects don’t take her intellectual approach or do her research. She has a wonderful knowledge of plant materials. I tell her what I want to do conceptually and she finds the plants to achieve the design.”

Cornelia Hahn was born in Germany and grew up in the U.S.  After studying history, art and botany at Smith College, she went to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she studied architecture, planting and landscape design, graduating as a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture.

Also at Harvard, Hahn met her Canadian architect/city planner husband, Peter Oberlander. In 1953, he accepted a professorship at UBC (where Erickson would later join him on staff).

“When we first moved to Vancouver, I saw Canada as a new country with untouched spaces and limitless potential and challenges for my profession,” recalls Oberlander whose first projects were the grounds of the UBC Faculty Club and UBC’s Rose Garden. But she was also raising three children, and became interested in playgrounds. She designed the playground for the Children’s Creative Centre at the Canadian Federal Pavilion at Montreal’s EXPO ’67. She also became a member of the National Task Force on Children’s Play, and co-founded Vancouver’s Children’s Resource Centre. In addition, she is Past-President of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects, and its former Environmental Chairman, and she remains a Fellow of both the American and Canadian Societies of Landscape Architects.

erickson11Much of Oberlander’s work is well-known. For Vancouver’s Expo ’86, she was the landscape architect of Canada Place, the Pan-Pacific Hotel, the World Trade Centre and the Ontario Pavilion. She was awarded the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects’ National Award for her work on the Ottawa National Gallery, and she designed the grounds of the Environmental Science Building and the Ward Environmental Garden at Peterborough’s Trent University. In Vancouver, the exquisite Cathedral Place Renaissance Garden is Oberlander’s, and she worked with Bing Thom on BC’s Chan Shun Performing Arts Centre, and with Matsuzaki Wright Architects on UBC’s Institute of Asian Research.

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In 1990, Oberlander received the Order of Canada. In his citation, Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn said: “She is known for integrating her designs with the natural environment, yet always adds a unique new vision and dimension. Her expert technical knowledge is coupled with her concern for expressing cultural, social and environmental concepts in her work.”

Oberlander’s philosophy toward landscape design stems from her days at Harvard, where she enjoyed helping architects ensure that their buildings related to the landscape. To this day, her projects are always based on architects’ design concepts, but she infuses those with the result of her own studies of the social, cultural and physical features of each site.

Her trademarks are simplicity of form, sculpted earthen mounds and a ‘less is more’ palette. Her gardens consist of solid areas of flowers in pink, blue, grey or white, with lots of grasses and shrubs. She uses her mounds to screen out traffic, to provide an element of surprise and for the burial of building scrap. And she never uses anything exotic.

“Why be exotic?” she asks. “The history and ecology of each site dictates its use. It’s not appropriate to plant unnatural plants. I use common plants—what’s available, what suits the climate, the client, the budget.”

She does not do rockery, topiary or fountains, although she does use water to reflect the landscape. She prefers simplicity, makes sure that her landscapes require minimal maintenance and she has never exceeded a quote.

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Her approach is direct. She won’t take a job unless she is guaranteed supervision. She looks at the architect’s design, researches the site, quickly designs the landscape, then goes back to the architect and client and works with them to compose the palette before working out the grading and drainage. She takes time to educate the architect, contractors and maintenance people, and she stays on after each project’s completion to see that everything goes as planned.

Oberlander first worked with Arthur Erickson in 1974, when she joined the landscaping team for his famed Robson Square. They have since done three dozen projects together.

erickson5“It’s unusual for an architect and landscape architect to work so well together,” she says. “The relationship is often a struggle. Arthur and I have a very smooth relationship—we don’t even have to talk much. I know what he likes, I see his concept and I know what I have to do.

“One of the wonderful things about working with Arthur is that be believes in considering the landscape when he’s devising the building’s concept. Many architects believe that you must finish the building before the landscape can be designed. Arthur and I compose landscapes together and agree that the outdoor space should be dramatic without being fancy.

“For Robson Square, we worked out the garden before he did the drawings. Then we worked on the final drawings together, deciding on the grading and drainage—once the grading and drainage are right, the planting falls into place.

“Robson Square takes up three city blocks and we wanted to import nature into the city to create an attractive urban forest,” continues Oberlander. “Arthur changed my approach on that project. My first thought was to go with masses of evergreens. Then he said something that is so simple: ‘But there are many greens.’ I began to pay more attention to variations and now I use a wider variety of plants, especially different types of rhododendron, for a richer tapestry.”

“Cornelia wanted to keep Robson Square simple and I agreed,” recalls Erickson. “Since the design is stepped up, I suggested that we use alpine materials at the higher levels and mix Pine, Japanese maple, Magnolias and Rhododendron in planter boxes. The long rows of Memorial Roses and Laurel were her idea. But everything is there because of her exhaustive research into growing mediums.”

Another famous Erickson-Oberlander project is UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (recently featured in the film Intersection; Erickson was the model for Richard Gere’s architect).

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The purpose of the museum is to house Pacific Northwest Native artifacts, so Oberlander felt that its landscape should simulate that of the Queen Charlotte Islands, home of the Haida Nation. She showed Erickson pictures of this landscape, with the totem poles standing on mounds covered with wild grasses and surrounded by forest. With help from seed expert Angus Richardson, the concept was realized.

Erickson’s concrete and glass building sits on a promontory facing the ocean and mountains. Rocks, shells and logs accent the landscape, which consists of meadows and mounds seeded with indigenous grasses and flowers—wild roses among Scotch Broom, Hemlock over tall wild grasses, purple, pink, yellow and white Vetches, ferns amid Oregon Grape—all of the plants used in the Haida lifestyle. A grey gravel pond reflects the mountains, and grassy mounds shield the museum from traffic and create a sense of hills rolling to the ocean, as they do in the Queen Charlottes.

Erickson and Oberlander did not get their way in all design aspects of the museum. They wanted the site covered with all plants used by Pacific Northwest natives, to create an outdoor museum, but funding problems arose. Most frustratingly, Oberlander recalls, the university kept mowing the grass. “I said: ‘Native people didn’t have lawn movers, why are you cutting the grass?’”.

An even more famous Erickson-Oberlander project is the aforementioned Canadian embassy, which Oberlander calls one of the most exciting projects she’s working on. And for it, she was presented with the National Landscape Award for the Beautification of America.

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“The chancery is important as a Canadian presence in the heart of Washington, and I was able to work as I like to—from the beginning, as part of a team aiming to integrate the building and landscape. It was also a chance to show what landscaping will be like in the 21st century, when we’ll no longer have space around buildings for our designs.

“We had no room on the ground for a garden, and only 0.25% of the building’s budget was allotted for landscaping. So it had to be economical, low-maintenance, beautiful and functional. And I had to work within their building constraints. It was a challenge.”

Erickson’s U-Shaped chancery takes up two thirds of the site and there is a pool in the paved courtyard. So Oberlander had to go up; her landscape is attached to each floor’s balconies with planter boxes, giving each office its own cascading garden of Memorial roses, Gumpo White Azalea, Delaware Valley White Azalea, and Cockspur Hawthorn. “Like cascading trees growing out of Canada’s rough mountain ledges,” she explains.

Other plants used for the chancery were Scarlet Oak, Red Oak, Eastern Red Cedar and Boxleaf Holly. To allow growth in the boxes, she created a support system of a light-weight growing medium, a low-water consumption irrigation system, slow-release non-toxic fertilizers and safety devices for maintenance workers.

The Mountain Laurel issue bothered Erickson; it didn’t faze Oberlander. She’s used to it. “I often have trouble getting what I want because I don’t mix things, I use large plants, and I need huge quantities. At the moment, I’m looking for 20 Gingko trees. Last summer, I had to find 4,000 Kinnikinnick for the National Gallery ground cover. I do, however, wish that growers would realize the importance of offering native and low-maintenance plant material, rather than focusing on fancy shrubs and flowers.”

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Oberlander has just completed work on Ottawa’s Peace-Keeping Monument and is now working on the new Ottawa City Hall, plus the landscape of the new Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly building in Yellowknife, which will be landscaped with plants that are genetically true to the region.

Meanwhile, Erickson is designing a new cultural centre in Malaysia. So we don’t know when they’ll collaborate again. But we’ll be looking forward to it.

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High Flyers in History: Women in Aviation

Arts Alive, March 1998

aviation5Quick, name a famous female pilot. You said ‘Amelia Earhart’. Name another. Specifically, name a Canadian. Drawing a blank?

Well, Canada has a rich tradition of female aviators. A traveling exhibit from the National Museum of Aviation in Ottawa, High Flyers, illustrates the role women have played in Canada’s aviation history. The hope is that sharing this important history may spur young women to follow in these pioneers’ steps, and to look at aviation as a field that can provide many opportunities.

The exhibit celebrates this group of strong-willed pioneers and pays tribute to Canadian women in aviation from before World War II through to today.

There are numerous interesting characters introduced, and stories told. For example, in 1919, Madge Graham, who was married to Canada’s first bush pilot, Stuart Graham, served as navigator on a five-day voyage in which Madge, Graham and a mechanic flew a water-logged wooden flying boat, at tree level, from Dartmouth Nova Scotia to Grand’Mere Quebec (750 kilometres). The escapade elicited this from the American Rear Admiral Byrd, who specialized in feats of exploration: “Flying seaplanes over land is suicide, and taking a woman along is criminal!”

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Back then, female aviators were a novelty—the press called them ‘Flying Flappers’, ‘Angels’ and ‘Sweethearts of the Air’. Normally, pilots wore heavy gear as protection from fumes, noise and the elements. But when photographers were around, famous female aviators such as Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochran wore blouses, scarves, make-up and tailored slacks. Their worry was that figure-veiling suits would repel non-flying women, and it was believed that if women looked fresh and glamorous after a flight, it would show other women that flying was safe and restful.

By the 1930s, women pilots were attracting more attention. In 1936, the Vancouver-based Flying Seven became Canada’ first women’s flying club. (It was this group that conducted the 1939 ‘bomphlet raid’ on Vancouver, dropping 100,000 pamphlets pleading for “dimes or dollars to buy our boys more planes”.)

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World War II should have been a boon for female aviators. Instead, the Canadian military deemed the job of pilot as inappropriate for women. One pilot, Helen Harrison, applied to the RCAF with an instructor’s license and a seaplane rating, multi-engine and -instrument endorsements, experience of flying civil and military craft in three countries, and 2,600 flying hours. She was turned away in favour of men with little more than 150 hours to their credit.

So women aviators worked to ‘back the attack’. Some taught flying and navigation—until the RCAF trained mail teachers. Five Canadian women headed to Britain and joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organization that ferried aircraft to squadrons, factories and storage units around Britain. Women were involved in aircraft assembly lines, and Elsie MacGill was the aeronautical engineer who supervised the Canadian production of 2,000 Hawker Hurricanes. Finally, in 1941, the RCAF began to admit women, mainly as aerial photographers. And the CWAF (the RCAF’s women’s division), carried the motto: “They serve that men may fly.”

Post-war, things didn’t get any better. Marion Orr, who was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1981, had to go all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office for approval to open her own school and airfield. Stewardesses were in demand, but interviews involved leg and teeth inspections, and marriage meant instant dismissal. Trans-Canada Airlines, Pacific Western Airlines and Canadian Pacific Airlines told Helen Harrison that she was too weak to handle the controls. Dawn Dawson made it as far as the interview—only because the receptionist had spelled her name ‘Don’.

aviation2Gradually, things improved—after a lawsuit or two. Lorna DeBlicquy, a flying instructor, bush pilot and flight-test examiner who started flying at age 15 and had 6,000 hours to her credit, sued Air Canada after two of her male students were hired and she was denied an interview, on the basis that she was too short and would require a specially-designed uniform. In 1977, DeBlicquy became Canada’s first civil aviation inspector and, in 1995, was awarded the Order of Canada.

Finally, in 1973, Trans-Air hired Rosella Bjornson as the first and only female in a field of 2,800 pilots. Then other commercial airlines began hiring women. Today, although some still face prejudice and even hostility, increasing numbers of female pilots are working in military and civil aviation, and still more are air-traffic controllers and engineers.

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So it’s been a bumpy ride. But every female aviator believed the struggle was worthwhile. As Amelia Earhart said: “If enough of us keep trying, we’ll get someplace.”

On Toronto Not Being the Centre of the Universe

Blitz Magazine, September 2002

torontoWhen I started this magazine five years ago, I got a lot of comments and advice from people, but one particular set of comments still sticks in my mind. It came from an agency guy in Toronto, who said: “What? You’re going to start a national B2B magazine from Vancouver? Are you nuts? Even with national distribution, you’ll have a helluva time getting the national advertisers in. Nobody wants to advertise B2B to western Canada. No one in Toronto gives a shit about western Canada.”

Blitz doesn’t just go to western Canada, of course. It goes to 5,000 in the east, 5,000 in the west. This guy’s point, though, was that, to national advertisers, the latter 5,000 doesn’t matter.

I thought he was being silly—just another sufferer of Toronto-is-the-Centre-of-the-Universe Syndrome. The spread of the disease, however, continues apace. Just the other day, a national publisher told me that he had met a young man who was an excellent writer, but whose career was certainly going to go nowhere because he’d never been anywhere but Toronto—and, worse, had no interest in leaving Toronto, or in anything not related to Toronto.

I recently spoke with the creative director of a Toronto advertising agency who said that he was having difficulty figuring out how to tweak his client’s creative for a particular BC demographic. When I suggested that he consult with a Vancouver agency (duh), the line went quiet—I think he may have temporarily blacked out. (Then he asked me to send him a list of agencies.)

Magazine editors aren’t supposed to sell advertising. But I’m also the publisher and have to do it. Unfortunately, a lot of people forget that I’m likely to write about what I hear and learn, so they drop things into conversations which they may not otherwise say to a journalist. Things that make me feel a little sick.

The media buyer for Microsoft actually silenced me with the idiocy of this remark: “Microsoft doesn’t advertise in business publications which have a large BC circulation. At the B2B level, Microsoft is only interested in advertising to companies with more than 400 employees. BC doesn’t have any companies that large.”

This comment: “We’re not interested in Blitz because it has editorial relating to western Canada,” came from the marketing director of the Canadian Press.

The media buyers—indeed, the marketing people, for ‘Canada’s national newspaper’, the Globe & Mail, don’t bother returning calls. How often does the National Post advertise to western media buyers and marketers? What about the CBC? Never and never.

I could go on for an hour, naming company after company which, rather than advertising to the media communications community in all of the Canada, prefer to spend large sums of money on advertising to the same people in Toronto, over and over, year after year.  Reminder advertising is necessary but, in this case, it’s at the expense of untold amounts of potential new business.

While it’s true that the size of this country has always made it hard for Canadians to achieve the sense of ‘oneness’ which binds other nations, none of this makes any sense. Vancouver is Canada’s second-largest market. ‘Neglect of the West’ has been a political/economic complaint since Confederation, but it never occurred to me that corporate Canada could be so incredibly short-sighted as to think that businesses in BC (and Alberta) don’t need to be advertised to—that they somehow suffer from inferior spending habits, or aren’t savvy marketers, or don’t know how to compete.

It is a conundrum. A psychological puzzle that needs to be solved. If anyone out there has any solutions, ideas, explanations, I’m sure that all of those Canadians who live outside of Ontario’s borders would love to hear them.

Sing it Like it Is: The Star-Spangled Banner & O Canada

Blitz Magazine, September 2001

anthem2‘Tis the season. Baseball season. And, as is the case before every game, I sit and listen to the American national anthem. And, as always, I want to throw something at the TV.

A national anthem is a song of praise. It is meant to stir the soul, to remind people of the love and pride they share for their country. And it’s a song written in such a way that all members of a country can sing it. Together. All citizens, regardless of their location or circumstances of vocal capability, should be able to sing their anthem, along with their fellow citizens.

There’s nothing wrong with the US anthem—aside from the reference to rockets and bombs. (Actually, I think they should ditch the Star-Spangled Banner and go with America the Beautiful, but if I suggested it down there, someone would probably shoot me.)

What is wrong is that Americans have let their anthem be hi-jacked. While some Americans must mind, no one complains when, instead of having the anthem led by an able-voiced person who gets up and sings it the way it was written, the performer turns the US national song into a version of gospel entertainment, complete with vocal somersaults and senseless variations, always with excruciating effect. Instead of eagerly waiting to watch the Yankees dust Tampa Bay, you’re searching for the remote so you can mute the noise.

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The reason that Americans should mind is that, whether they’re at a stadium, in a pub, or in their homes, they should be able to sing along. It’s everybody’s anthem; everyone should be able to sing it, and share it.

This hasn’t been a problem with the Canadian anthem—so far. Our problem is that we have to quickly figure out if the occasion calls for the French version, and when we’re supposed to lapse into French. We end up blurring our words a little; it’s like singing Happy Birthday to triplets.

Enter David Foster, one of the many proud Canadians who call California home. Foster, one of the most successful music producers around, intends to run for the job of Premier of British Columbia and, to that end, is studying political science and economics at Pepperdine. (He needs a tutor—he told the Vancouver Sun that explorer James Cook was BC’s second premier.)

In June, Foster held a press conference to promote his new (not-for-profit) CD. The CD is called O Canada. It contains six versions of the Canadian national anthem, a full-length version with French lyrics added by screamer-come-lately Lara Fabian, and four standard two-minute versions edited from the original. Foster told the Sun that he tried to up-date the anthem and “put, I don’t know, my flair to it.”

ocanadaWhat? Hello? Foster’s ‘flair’ might have made Whitney Houston a lot of money, but it also turned a sweet little Dolly Parton love song into “And I-EE-I-EE-I will always lHUUUUV you-who-OOOOooWAAAA, HUWAAA will always lHUUUUV youooooooo WHOAHAA.”

And he wants to re-work Canada’s national song? I don’t think so.

If I go to a Canucks game, I want to be able to stand up and sing O Canada, just as it was written, along with my fellow Canadians—not stand there watching some large-lunged kid from the local church make like Celine Dion with a tune that no one can hope to follow. If Foster’s celebrity allows him to gain in-roads in his bid to turn our anthem into entertainment, I hope Canadians, unlike Americans, will stand up, sing their anthem the way it was written and tell the ‘talent’ to shut up.

 

 

 

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

For the Love of Lager: Loyalty to an Old Law & Savvy Marketing Make Okanagan Spring Brewery #1

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For natives of Germany, a country where open land and big sky are at a premium, western Canada is the Land of Opportunity. In the early ‘80s, pub owner Jakob Tobler, and real estate developer Buko von Krosigk immigrated to Canada and settled in BC’s Okanagan Valley, specifically Vernon.

Their goal was to address one glaring problem with their new home: the beer was no good. The offerings of Canada’s major breweries fell short of the quality to which they were accustomed. Meanwhile, Jakob’s son Stefan had earned a degree in beer-making at a German university, and that made him one of only two certified brew-masters in western Canada. It was logical to establish a brewery and sell true German beer—but just within the valley, they thought. The partners bought a 10,000 square-foot fruit-packing house, invested in the finest equipment available, put the neighbourhood name together with that of a brewery that had operated in Vernon in the 1800s (the Vernon Spring Brewery), and Okanagan Spring Brewery was born.

There are three types of breweries. A ‘microbrewery’ produces less than 15,000 hectolitres per year (a hectolitre is 1000 litres). Okanagan Spring Brewery (OSB) is an example of a ‘regional brewery’. Then there are the mainstream, or commercial, breweries such as Labatt and Molson.

Almost all microbreweries and regional breweries are ‘craft’ breweries. Craft-brewed beer is made in accordance with the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516. This law, which is still followed by all German breweries and is the core of OSB’s operations, states that there can only be four natural ingredients in beer: hops, malted barley, yeast and purified water. (A non-craft brewery may add adjuncts or preservatives; things like rice, cornmeal, corn syrup and chemicals.)

OSB brings barley from the Canadian prairies and has it malted in the Okanagan. Hops are imported from Germany (the hop is a plant and there are two types: aromatic and bitter). The X Factor is the yeast, which is prepared to OSB’s secret recipe by an outside supplier. The already high-quality Okanagan water is purified, and that’s it.

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There are two processes which craft breweries do not use. In ‘high-gravity brewing’, water is added back to a sort of beer concentrate. It’s more efficient, and more profitable, but it makes beer taste diluted (as in American beer). The other process is pasteurization, which is when beer is heated or boiled to kill germs. Pasteurization extends shelf life, but it makes for common ‘Wonder Bread’ beer. In craft brewing, everything is ‘sterile-brewed’, so pasteurization isn’t necessary, although the shelf life of craft beer is reduced to about three months. After that, the beer is still drinkable, but may have the ‘skunky’ smell that German imports often acquire by the time they reach us.

It should be noted, however, that it is a misconception that a small brewery produces a higher-quality product. The opposite is true. A regional or mainstream brewery has employees devoted to quality control. And if a batch falls short of its standards, it’s thrown out. A microbrewery can’t afford to toss imperfect inventory.

While there are many beer brands, beer (‘baere’ is German for ‘barley’) is broken down into two categories: lager and ale. The beer-drinking population is split in half—half prefers lager, half ale. The English are the ale masters; Germans are best known for lager. So Buko and Jakob started with lager. On December 31, 1985, the first pint of Okanagan Spring Premium Lager was poured.

While Jakob and Stefan managed operations, Buko started traveling through the Okanagan Valley, selling draft beer to pubs and restaurants. Sales took off and, after a little lobbying, he was able to get the lager onto liquor store shelves. Then Expo ’86 came up and the BC government extended sales licenses to smaller provincial beverage manufacturers. Demand surged. Buko moved to Vancouver and started selling on the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. Today, Okanagan Spring Brewery is BC’s #1 craft brewery.

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“There are a couple of reasons why Buko did so well,” says Steve Pelkey, OSB’s Director of Marketing. “He promised, and delivered, consistently fantastic products, and he service customers better than the major breweries did. The key to this was having his own distribution network. The beer has always been brewed in the Okanagan, shipped to Vancouver and delivered to customers—all by OSB employees. That allows them to provide great service, including next-day delivery, rush delivery, Saturday delivery—OSB drivers even rotate kegs. Large breweries won’t do any of that.”

And how do you convince a publican to make room for your beer? “We sell premium beer,” continues Pelkey. “So licensees can charge more for it. Also, you say to the owner ‘You have all the mainstream brands. Why not give your patrons a chance to try something different?’”

Pelkey notes that, by the time Buko started selling his lager, astute pub owners already were already seeing the need for an alternative. “In the last 15 years, there has been a dramatic shift in consumer buying behaviour. As people get older, they drink less, but they drink better. Then there’s the fact that British Columbians—Vancouverites in particular, are the most knowledgeable, educated and discerning alcohol consumers in North America. The market was there. Look at Victoria—30% of beer sold there is craft beer.”

Once customers had tried OSB lager, they asked for porter. Stefan responded by creating Okanagan Spring Old English Porter, which quickly earned a loyal following. Also in response to demand, in 1988, Stefan created Extra Special Pale Ale. Now it’s winning gold medals at international beer competitions and is the most successful craft-brewed brand in BC.

Breweries are secretive—they don’t discuss sales or profits. We know that British Columbians buy 25 million cases of beer annually, and that that translates to $425 million. The government takes 60% of that in taxes. A 12-pack of an OSB product is $17.45. Pelkey estimates that the industry average profit on a 12-pack is $1.70. He will also say that, in 1986, OSB sold 3,700 hectolitres, or 20,000 cases. In 1990, it was 25,000 hectolitres and, in 1995, 75,000.

In its first years, Jakob and Buko put all OSB profits back into the company. In 1988, the brewery was revamped to increase production. A few sales people were hired. The brewery was expanded to 50,000 square feet. The focus remained on the three brands, while production increased and the company grew (it now has 150 employees, including a sales force of five retail reps and 11 licensee reps).

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The trade continued to ask for products. In 1995, to meet demand for an easy-to-drink dark ale, OSB released Cottage Nut Brown Ale. In 1997, in response to the success of the ‘honey’ category, which is lighter and more thirst-quenching, Honey Blonde Ale was launched. (There’s a direct correlation between colour, bitterness, weight and low sales, with lighter beers garnering higher sales.) In 1999, after market research showed that there was room for a different style of lager, there came Traditional Pilsner, modeled after the classic Czech Pilsen recipe. There has been just one failure—Autumn Red Ale.

Not surprisingly, after years of increased success, a suitor came calling in the form of Ontario’s Sleeman Brewing & Malting Company. Although you’ll find no mention of it on either company’s website, Sleeman now owns OSB. Buko has retired; Jakob’s two sons still work at the brewery. With that change came a marketing person—Pelkey was hired in 1997. The first thing he did was conduct an agency review and appoint Grey Advertising (Vancouver) as OSB’s Agency of Record. Ipsos-Reid handles market research; point-of-sale and packaging is managed by dossiercreative.

Last year, OSB’s packaging was up-graded, to the tune of $1.5 million, but it’s still notable for its conservative look. Just as the product names are plain and direct, there is a distinctly elegant tone to the packaging. You won’t find any zany graphics or wild colours—its labels are metallic, but that’s it for flash.

(OSB was, however, the first beverage company to use the stamped MettleTab. Now, when anyone opens an OSB can, they are reminded of the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, and the purity of OSB beers.)

“Our customers are age 25-44,” explains Pelkey. “We’re not going after the teen crowd. So our branding is more refined and traditional.”

The same is true for all OSB point-of-sale materials, which is just as well, given Liquor Control Board restrictions. There are three sales channels for a BC brewery: trade (pubs, bars, restaurants), consumer-direct through LRS (Liquor Retailer Sales; the pub-attached cold beer and wine stores), and the LDB (the government’s Liquor Distribution Branch). A brewery cannot conduct any marketing programs in the LRS trade channel unless the programs have been approved in the LDB channel. At the moment, in-store draws, contests or promotions are verboten. Danglers and shelf-talkers have to fit within strict size restrictions, and the largest allowed size was just reduced to 18” x 24”. OSB reps conduct hundreds of trade promotions every year—mostly instant gratification things like getting to keep your mug. All other promotions have to be in-case.

With in-case promotions, you open your case of beer and find a card offering a chance to win ski passes, a fishing trip, golfing trip etc. OSB consumers are off-the-couch types, so promotions are related to outdoor activities. OSB works with Golf BC and its courses, with the Oak Bay Marine Group and its fishing resorts, and with ski resorts and tour groups. But LDB regulations make for amusing situations. A brewery isn’t allowed to connect any physical activity with beer consumption. So in a recent white-water rafting promotion, the brewery was allowed to show the river, but not a raft, or anyone in a raft.

There’s another wrinkle with the LDB that may surprise some. Since all LDB stores are government stores, you would think that, once an alcohol producer has a license to sell its products in BC, its products would automatically go onto liquor store shelves. ‘Not so. When a new product is launched, it has to be approved by the LDB’s Listing Policy Committee. After that, there’s still no guaranteed distribution. Every liquor store in the province has to be sold individually. OSB’s reps have to sell and service each government liquor store manager, just as if he were a hotelier or restaurateur. And there’s hot competition for that shelf and floor space.

Fortunately, there is ‘beer category management’, which is the same sort of process used by grocery retailers. Liquor stores put premium products in the best locations, mainstream products in the intermediate locations, value products at the back.

“It’s trading people up, which is a good thing for retailers,” says Pelkey. “Putting premium products at the front lets them make more money. Our products sell very well. You multiply the margin by the volume and you get a good profit. That’s what it’s all about, particularly for the cold beer and wine stores, which don’t have to stay with the stated price—they can charge whatever they want, as can the trade establishments.”

And what accounts for high-volume sales? A combination of reputation and marketing.

“Our strategy is always to stay with the core attributes of the brand,” continues Pelkey. “The purity, the quality, the freshness, the BC-ness. The secret is to know your consumer. It sounds simple, but if you offer your consumer a great quality product, communicate the quality and don’t disappoint, that consumer will keep coming back.”

Compared to other craft breweries, OSB conducts a lot of focus-group research. There’s an annual tracking study to gauge what’s going on in the beer industry and new advertising is tested. Pelkey says there’s a lot of emphasis on brand perception.

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“The market’s always changing; consumers’ tastes and perceptions are always changing. We also need bench-marks to see how we’re doing over the long term. And research indicates how tastes will change in the future.”

In BC, 65% of liquor purchases are in the beer category. Beer, wine and spirits, however, do not compete. “We all have share of mouth,” continues Pelkey. “In the premium category, consumers leave the store with a bottle of wine and a case of our beer. At home, they’ll have spirits, wine and beer. The only real competition is with the spirit-based coolers. We haven’t addressed that, as a company or as an industry—we stay focused on communicating our attributes and keeping consumers happy.”

Grey Advertising doesn’t have a huge annual budget to work with—about $700,000. But it has used that money effectively. Most of OSB’s advertising spend is in radio, with print ads running in the summer months (there was some outdoor last year). Although some specific ads are produced for OSB’s two biggest brands—pale ale and lager, the budget doesn’t allow for each beer to be advertised separately, so the focus is always on the core brand attributes.

“We never walk away from the core values of the brand,” says Grey Creative Director Jeff Lewis. “We keep the message consistent. Okanagan Spring Beer is from the Okanagan—a region known for its purity. It’s all-natural, premium beer. More than anything else, when it comes to branding beer, consistency is key. Plus, what we say is true. And that’s one of the big reasons why OSB is so solid. When a consumer pops open a bottle, the quality is there. There’s a lot of crappy beer on the market, but consumers now know that. They’re no longer impressed by image.

“The beer business is a tough business. ‘Very competitive. And you see a lot of breweries whose advertising is extrinsic, rather than intrinsic. Mainstream breweries promote their image outside the bottle. There’s not a lot of talk about the actual liquid—because it’s not that special. Other craft breweries focus on a goofy name, or the brewery’s size. But people want to hear about the liquid—about what they’re drinking. They want to know that it’s a quality product. Okanagan Spring always talks about what’s in the bottle.”

Lewis notes that the OSB strategy has lately become a little more fun. One recent ad (which received angry calls from ex-Torontonians) was ‘Still Not Available in Toronto’, which pointed out that Toronto enjoys black flies and one tower, while BC has towering mountains and bald eagles. Another ad noted that OSB beer is what Okanagan wine-makers drink after work. Lewis used the term for the Bavarian Purity Law—Reinheitsgebot, as an attention-getter in print ads. In radio ads, it is admitted that OSB does, in fact, use a preservative—the cap.

ok6“It is not easy to advertise beer,” continues Lewis. “You have to do work that cuts through all the other beer ads. For a brand with a more conservative stance, the ads with attitude accomplished that.

“One challenge we did have was that, as OSB became increasingly successful, people started to think that it had sold out—that the beer had somehow changed. So the marketing has always made it clear that OSB is the same company it always was. For ’98 and ’99, we used people from the brewery—truck drivers, people who work on the line, Stefan. We need to show that, even though it sells a lot more beer than it used to, Okanagan Spring Brewery is still the same group of people who are passionate about making premium beer. The Still Not Available in Toronto campaign was an interesting way of saying “We Are Not A Mega-Brewery.’

“That part of the strategy remains, along with the core values. It’s pure premium beer from a natural setting. Everything emanates from that. And when people walk into a liquor stores or see the taps at a bar, they see the different brands but they know that every beer is made to the same high standard. Okanagan Spring Brewery has a solid foundation and a very good name. That’s a great thing to work with.”

Blitz Magazine, January 2002

Case Study: It’s Onward & Upward for Uniglobe Travel

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The airlines have slashed travel agent commissions; we’re supposedly in recession. ‘Tough times for travel agents? Not if they’re with Uniglobe Travel.

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You may recognize the name of U. Gary Charlwood, Chairman of the massively successful Century 21 Canada. The business philosophy of Mr. Charlwood (as everyone calls him), in a nutshell, and as his entrepreneurial history suggests, is ‘Sell, Sell, Sell, Service, Service, Service and Be Very Very Well-Organized.’ He also believes that, once you articulate your vision and give your staff the tools with which to carry it out, you should leave everyone alone to do their jobs.

After building his real estate operation into the force that it is, Mr. Charlwood knew that his philosophy, coupled with his co-operative consumer marketing methods, could be applied to other service industries; and he believed that an internationally-recognized consumer travel organization could succeed through strength in numbers of locations, and high sales volume. In 1980, he founded Uniglobe Travel International.

Today, Uniglobe is the world’s largest travel franchise company, with 1997 sales of $2.7 billion. It employs 6,000 people at 1,000 offices in 20 countries, with head office in Vancouver. It owns Uniglobe CruiseShip Centres and San Diego-based convention organizer Uniglobe Main Events. It was the only travel company recommended as a franchise buy by The Wall Street Journal’s 1998 National Business Employment Weekly Annual Listing and, in the travel industry, only American Express has higher unaided brand identification. Its first Middle East markets opened last year; it will next expand into Central and South America, the Far East, and Africa.

The reasons for Uniglobe’s success are varied, but basic.

First, it filled a niche. Any travel agency, of any size, is built on a core base of business accounts, and it used to be that only large corporations had access to the complete range of travel perks and services. Uniglobe specialized in providing big company services to small and mid-sized businesses (with 5-50 travelers). It now holds 100,000 corporate accounts; 70% of its business is corporate, but its goal is to increase its leisure business and bring the mix to 50-50.

uniglobe2Next, Uniglobe offers a superior franchisee support system. To be successful in this ultra-competitive field, travel agents need strong brand identification, technological support, access to professional training and development, back-office management controls, effective marketing plans, solid relationship with preferred suppliers and access to promotional initiatives. Uniglobe delivers it all, right down to free office automation. The high brand awareness is a big draw for potential franchisees, and Uniglobe spends $20 million annually on international brand identity, advertising, promotions, public relations and direct sales programs.

Another key to Uniglobe’s success is its commitment to a high level of customer service. Its research shows that consumers expect a professional agency to address four service categories: Cost Containment & Control, Experience & Expertise, Accessibility & Advanced Communications, and Reliability & Responsiveness. So Uniglobe gives people what they want. It guarantees the best possible value in all fares and constantly evaluates cost-management strategies, savings opportunities and spending patterns. Experience & Expertise are handled by Uniglobe’s franchise recruitment and selection process.

“We’re so well-known as a leader in both travel and franchising, that people looking at franchising automatically come across Uniglobe,” says Laurie Radloff, President of Uniglobe Travel Western Canada. “And when we’re looking at new markets, we’re careful in our recruitment. A lot of people today are dissatisfied with what they’re doing. We know that there’s great personal satisfaction in owning your own business, and we know that Uniglobe agents love what they do, so we do print and radio campaigns with the theme ‘Do What You Love’. We talk to the banks and chambers of commerce to see who’s successful in their areas; we look at existing agencies to see if there are people who we feel can represent our name. We never place a franchise for the sake of having an outlet—we want to make sure that our name and brand are handled properly and that we have the right cultural fit. There’s a very high level of trust among those using our name, so we have to have the right people.”

Who have to have money. “They do have to be properly capitalized, although we don’t cause them to buy any products,” continues Radloff. “They pay Uniglobe a royalty, starting at 10% for every dollar they earn in commission. As sales rise, that percentage declines. That royalty could be a little high, but that’s because Mr. Charlwood knows what level of support franchisees require. We often hear about franchisees of other companies who are unhappy with the level of support they’re getting from their franchisor but that’s because, financially, the franchisor can’t do more.”

Uniglobe provides professional training in sales, customer service, marketing and operations, as well as on-going support in business administration, sales development, financial controls, market research, strategic planning and supplier relations. All of this translates into better customer service, and the level of experience and expertise that customers want.

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Consumers want accessibility? No problem. The Uniglobe Customer Commitments promise that phone calls will be answered by the third ring, that callers never hold longer than 30 seconds, and that every call is returned within the hour. You find yourself trying to tell the customs officer/janitor in Novosibirsk that you’re supposed to be in Newark? Uniglobe has a 140-language interpretation service. ‘Course, that shouldn’t happen anyway, because Uniglobe guarantees error-free reservations and 100% accuracy in documentation. There is a Lost Luggage Control System, a 24-hour Rescue Line and the promise that service complaints will be resolved within 48 hours, supplier complaints within 15 business days.

Technology is another important component at Uniglobe, which has its own software: Travel Manager, and Software for Agency Management. Also, Uniglobe Net News, an extensive agent Intranet, piggy-backs Uniglobe Travel On-Line, an Internet booking and information system which was launched three years ago.

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With Uniglobe Travel On-Line, consumers can book car rentals, hotels and flights, choose seat assignments, order special meals, obtain street maps, book cruises and tours, research destinations and find restaurants, currency information, last-minute promotions and weather reports.

“The Internet travel segment is growing very quickly,” says Radloff. “Booking travel this way is a big leap of faith at first, and there’s no question that a well-trained travel consultant is the best value. But if a client’s on a plane at 2:00 a.m., and wants to make a reservation on his laptop for a 10:00 a.m. connecting flight, we have to be able to provide that service.”

Uniglobe is careful to see that this system does not exclude its agents. An income-splitting formula pays franchisees a referral fee, 10% of online revenue is distributed through a group fund, and another 10% goes into an advertising fund.

“The site is good for our agents too,” continues Radloff. “At 2:00 a.m., that client’s only other option is to call the airline to book that flight. This way, the agency gets a little commission and gets the data on the booking and can follow up with the client. The site gives clients 24-hour access; it gives agents a 24-hour office. Plus, you don’t have to be an existing Uniglobe client to use the online service, so agents gain access to new clients.”

Uniglobe Travel On-Line is a separate public company and its stock hasn’t done that well, but the site is coming along, with a booking-to-looking ratio of 1:74 and sales of $5 million to November 1998, as opposed to $1 million for all of 1997. And it’s a great system. But so is Microsoft’s Expedia, one of the web’s most popular travel sites. So, in November, Uniglobe entered into a joint-marketing agreement with Expedia. This accomplished two things—a tough competitor is now a partner, and Uniglobe has access to Expedia’s three million customers and is closer to attaining the aforementioned goal of a 50-50 leisure-business mix. (In the travel business today, leisure is the hot market—no matter how tight the economy is, seniors and Boomers will keep traveling.)

Cyber-competition is only one challenge facing travel agents. There are also increasingly complex bulk-purchasing and fare packages, frequent flyer programs and the ubiquitous fly-by-night operations which muddy the waters for reputable companies. Consumers now have so many choices that a successful travel agency has to give customers special reasons to come to it, and stay with it. Those reasons have to be brand loyalty and value-added products and services. Which have to be communicated through marketing, advertising and public relations.

The Uniglobe marketing plan is written following consultation with franchisees. Preferred supplier recommendations are then collected, and listened to. All travel agencies have preferred-supplier relationships; Radloff says that Uniglobe takes its relationships more seriously than does its competition. And these relationships are crucial to stretching the Uniglobe advertising budget. Uniglobe spends $1 million annually on straight advertising, but that budget is extended by as much as 40%, due to the fact that 75% of advertising is co-op (and most visuals are provided by suppliers).

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The plan includes four main marketing pushes per year; one or more could be on cruises, one could be the Caribbean in January, another on Europe in June—it depends on supplier input and on what key interest areas have been identified among travelers. The international quarterly campaigns come out of California; they are supplemented with regional, then local, campaigns. Most advertising is print; outdoor and telemarketing are not used. There are six to eight weeks of television each year, radio use is rising and direct mail is a constant, with 100,000 pieces mailed quarterly.

The non-Canadian markets handle their own advertising. Radloff says that, in Canada, the advertising focus is on offering holidays at destinations where the Canadian dollar will go the farthest.

“We sell on value, not on price. For example, people frequently say they want an inexpensive holiday and that they don’t care about their hotel, but that hotel becomes important when they get there. We can provide a nice hotel at a price they can afford because we use our clout and buying power to deliver quality products in a cost-effective manner. We also provide products like Rescue Line, Travel Manager and a preferred-rate hotel program called Key Cities—this is all extra value at no extra cost to the consumer.”

Uniglobe’s strategy for 1999 is to position itself as ‘The Navigator of Options’, with the goal of convincing consumers that Uniglobe agencies can best help them wade through the sea of travel options. Uniglobe’s corporate marketing uses the Uniglobe Travel Plan, a travel purchasing system which incorporates Uniglobe Travel On-Line and the Uniglobe Cruise Program. From the client’s perspective, it is a travel management and purchasing system; from the agent’s point of view, it is a sales kit with corporate proposal templates and a PowerPoint presentation.

“Our corporate marketing is mostly face-to-face,” says Radloff. “We have a professional, well-trained sales force and our salespeople are out knocking on doors, calling on clients, making presentations. No one at Uniglobe waits for the phone to ring—they’re out closing sales and getting the business.”

One very important aspect of Uniglobe’s communications activities is positioning. Not positioning as in ‘We’re A Really Good Travel Service,’ but as in ‘We’re A Really Good Travel Service and We’re On Your Side!’.

“Since its inception, our focus has been on building the Uniglobe name into the most widely-recognized name in travel—to be to travel what Campbell’s is to soup,” explains Radloff. “So while the competition advertises price, we talk about other things. People like to spend their money locally, so we talk about the fact that Uniglobe’s agencies are local but have global clout. But, to take that name recognition further, and to inspire confidence, we’ve positioned ourselves as problem-solvers and as the advocate for the traveling consumer.”

Two years ago, when Canadian Airlines had its near-death experience, Uniglobe was the only travel company that leapt into the fray, with Radloff appearing on Canada AM and various radio programs to talk about how having only one Canadian airline would not be in the best interest of consumers because of the negative impact on service, pricing and availability. While we assume that there’s no point in going to Hawaii because of the exchange rate, Uniglobe is out telling the media that the Asian market for Hawaii has withered, hoteliers are under tremendous pressure, air space has tripled and fares are down from $600 to $99. Every time a travel scam pops up, so does someone from Uniglobe, educating consumers about what to watch for. And, thought his may be stretching things a bit, after the recent Carnival Cruises on-board fire, Uniglobe became the exclusive dealer of Evacuate, a smoke-hood-in-a-can which provides 20 minutes of clean air. 

All of this is advocacy, it is brand-building, it is confidence-inspiring PR. And PR is a huge component of marketing at Uniglobe, where every message sent to the public is, quite literally, identical. This is achieved through the Agency News Media Program, a PR-Program-In-A-Box created by Uniglobe’s PR firm, Vancouver’s Verus Group.

“Uniglobe is one of the more enlightened corporations I’ve worked with, in that Mr. Charlwood has always instinctively understood that marketing and PR should be inextricably linked,” says Verus Group president Wayne Hartrick. “In some organizations, the PR and marketing functions are clearly delineated, which is a shame because there should be a coordinated strategy between them so that every dollar and every employee hour spent is leveraging their combined impact.”

To that end, Uniglobe’s four annual marketing pushes are supported by PR pushes on the same subjects. If the company is marketing cruises, Verus writes releases on cruises. It then sends the releases to national publications, then to all franchisees, who send them to their local papers. If a local paper asks a franchisee to write an article, it’s ready to go—Verus has already written it; the franchisee just changes the by-line. Promotion may be the intention, but it doesn’t carry the aroma of advertorial; publications passing it on to their readers do so because it’s useful, helpful information.

“This method has helped our agents become known in their communities as experts in their field,” says Radloff. “It is an extremely cost-effective way of achieving our marketing objectives, because it’s exposure that brings with it a credibility that you won’t get if people know you’ve paid for it.”

As mentioned, Uniglobe’s Agency News Media Program is literally in a box. It is a kit which includes articles and news releases on the subjects determined by the marketing plan, plus a 30-minute video, and a workbook that teaches franchisees how to deal with journalists and earn credibility in their communities. New franchisees come to Vancouver for PR training, then Verus Group staffers coach agency owners over the phone, encouraging them to work the program, and motivating them to build their profiles in their locations. If that sounds like a pain for both sides, it evidently was, initially.

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“The program takes patience and commitment,” says Hartrick. “It’s a challenge to get everyone to do PR because people are busy and there’s always another priority. And they get discouraged—we’ll issue a release, the franchisee can’t find an interested reporter and gives up. We encourage them to try other things, show them how they can become regular columnists and how to make presentations to corporate and community groups. This program of encouragement is crucial. Eight years ago, we just distributed the kits and had a 10% implementation rate. Now, with daily contact, we have a 62% implementation rate, and it’s climbing.

“This is all about credibility. If you’re writing in the local paper, or being quoted by your local media, your other marketing activities are met with less resistance. Uniglobe’s combined programs are generating 400,000 impressions per day from print alone, and these impressions carry the extra impact of having grass-roots credibility.

“Our research shows that most consumers see travel as a problematic experience,” concludes Hartrick. “We make sure that Uniglobe gets its name in the media for the right reasons—because it’s solving problems for people and providing useful information as well as quality, high-value products. The whole principal behind this, after all, is to do something well and get credit for it.”

 

Blitz Magazine, January 1999