On Politics, Religion, Sex & Shutting Up Already

Blitz Magazine, November 2003

Remember the rule of the dinner party? ‘In polite conversation, one does not discuss politics, religion and/or sex.’

Who canceled that rule? When? And why? Because now, we not only discuss the above-mentioned, but everybody evidently feels compelled to beat each other over the head with their politics, religion and sexuality.

straight1In BC, magazines and newspapers are PST-exempt. We don’t collect it, and we don’t pay it. If we happen to pay it in the course of producing our publications, we get it back. And the BC Liberal government was hired, by the people of BC, to dig the province out of a desperate financial situation created by the left-wing New Democratic Party. And part of that administration’s duty is to efficiently collect taxes owing to the people of BC.

The Georgia Straight is a 36 year-old Vancouver newspaper. It’s unbound, on newsprint, available free at public outlets, and serves as an advertising vehicle for Vancouver retailers. It consists of pages of stacked ads, and a little editorial. Presumably, someone at the tax office saw this and said ‘Hey! The Georgia Straight is not a newspaper or magazine, because it has more advertising than editorial. So it’s not exempt.’

The tax office told the newspaper to pay $1 million in un-remitted Provincial Sales Tax.

Although it lists itself in Canadian Advertising Rates & Data’s community newspaper section, the Straight’s masthead says it’s ‘Vancouver’s News & Entertainment Magazine’. Either way, it claims that it has enough editorial to qualify as a magazine, because it prints free events listings, which its publisher says is “one of the ways in which the Straight serves the community.”

The tax guys claim that those listings are advertising.

I pick up the October 9th edition. It is 108 pages, including 21 pages of editorial and 7 of events listings. But the cover is a letter from Straight publisher Dan McLeod, in which he complains of the tax request, calling it “harassment, a “threat”, a “bizarre misuse of power”, and a “witch-hunt”.

MacLeod would have us believe that, because the Straight is left-wing, it is a target—that Liberals gathered one day and someone said: ‘OK, how can we shut down this paper!’ After evoking Richard Nixon (?!?!), MacLeod calls the tax request a “direct attack on all the arts and cultural and business life of the city,” [sic] and urges members of these groups to swear out affidavits in support of the Straight.

(Actually, money is what arts and cultural groups need, and they’d get more from the government if profitable businesses paid their taxes.)

I digress. Inside this issue, there is a 2/3-page editorial headed ‘Q&A About the BC Liberals’ Plan to Terminate the Straight.’ There is a cartoon of Premier Gordon Campbell with a screw emanating from his groin. There’s no by-line, so I assume that MacLeod wrote it. He refers to his paper as being threatened by politics and, believe it or not, mentions the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms, announces a conspiracy between the BC Liberals and CanWest Global, and erroneously (way) claims that the Straight is the only independent journalistic enterprise in Vancouver.

What irks me is that MacLeod is saving his own political flag in our faces. He might as well be saying “I’m a Socialist and you have to join me in my fight against a government that is not Socialist so I can get out of paying my taxes!’

MacLeod runs a profitable enterprise. His paper sometimes covers issues that other papers might not, but it is, in fact, more of a lucrative business than a tool for social support, and people don’t need to hear about his politics or his conspiracy theories. He repeatedly mentions the Straight’s journalism awards, and refers to its ‘journalistic duty’ to fight the government, but appealing to left-wingers’ sensibilities in order to avoid paying taxes is journalistic abuse.

Also this week, a representative of the Catholic Church, irate about same-sex marriage, used the media to tell the Canadian Prime Minister that he ‘will burn in hell’. Who does he think he is? After what the Catholic Church has to answer for concerning the sexual practices of its representatives, condemnation of anyone’s sexual behaviour is hardly appropriate.

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Then I’m watching the ball game and the doorbell rings. A man stands at my door, clutching a copy of the Watch Tower. I don’t answer. Back to the game. A week earlier, I’d noticed that almost every member of the Florida Marlins crossed himself when he stepped up to the plate or makes a play. Now, the Sox are doing it. And the Cubs. They hit the ball and point to the sky. They make it to base and pull garish gold crosses out of their jerseys to kiss and flash. After one guy hits a game-saving home run, he tells a reporter: “I didn’t hit the ball. Our Lord Jesus Christ hit the ball.” (No, millionaire moron, you hit the ball.)

So now we have to tolerate spiritual exhibitionism in baseball? Didn’t Jesus purportedly say that we should keep our religious beliefs to ourselves and that proselytizing is a bad thing?

In the southern US states, there are Christian groups claiming to be planning to take over Israel and kill the Jews. There are Muslim nuts who want to kill all non-Muslims. American television is saturated with programming where members of the Religious Right tell people how to live their lives—and that if they don’t it right, in all senses of the word, they’ll be damned.

All of a sudden, people just have to go public with their beliefs. Why do they assume that others care what they believe? Or that we should care? Or that they have the right to insist that we care? In spite of all of our education and worldliness, and our knowledge of history, we’ve degenerated into a culture of spouters of the worst kind of rhetoric, all of which boils down to: ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us.’ ‘If you don’t practice what we practice, you’re on the wrong side.’ ‘If you don’t love correctly, we will oppress you.’ ‘If you don’t believe what we believe, we will kill you.’

Religion is about intangibility. Belief in the intangible requires that faith trump reality. Government is about facts, figures and stark reality. Ergo religion has nothing to do with governing. When people claim otherwise, I remind them of what happens when religion permeates government—Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and, increasingly, the USA. Religion is for the faithful only. It has no place in the practical reality of everyday life and it has no business trying to foist itself on society at large.

This same-sex marriage thing also puzzles me. I’ve been surprised at my friends—even the most liberal are appalled at the idea. As one friend put it: ‘Marriage is taken. Let them have their civil contracts.’ But, in this country, not allowing ‘them’ to marry has been deemed discrimination. And the law is the law—in a perfect example of the beauty of Separation of Church and State.

straight5I admit that watching two men or women making out can be off-putting—maybe gays and lesbians feel squeamish when they see heterosexual couples kissing. I don’t know. And I don’t care. I don’t care who consenting adults sleep with and I’m sick of hearing about it. From gays, from lesbians, or from anyone else.

Pierre Trudeau said that the State has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. But that goes further. The Church also has no place in the bedrooms of any nation, or in the government of any nation. And publishers are not supposed to use their products to launch groundless accusations of conspiracy against governments who want them to pay their taxes. The same Charter of Rights & Freedoms that MacLeod leans on also allows gays and lesbians to marry and religions to freely operate.

Conversation and debate are healthy, and essential, to a free society. Trying to appeal to the worst elements of human nature, and trying to drag an agenda through a situation in hopes that people’s ignorance will stick to it, is extremely unhelpful. In a time of mass communication, it’s also dangerous.

I wish people would go back to the etiquette books. Practice their religions. Practice their politics. Practice their sexuality. Run their businesses. Live their lives. But quit using the media, and mendacious and intimidating tactics, to frighten others into joining their teams.

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Religion on TV: It Has to be a Choice

Blitz Magazine, May 2002

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I’m watching a murder mystery on 48 Hours. Suddenly, the show is interrupted by a sickly-looking man in a grey suit telling me that I should read the Bible. Then he reads a passage from the Bible, which explains why I’m supposed to read the Bible.

I realize that I’m watching 48 Hours on NowTV, a newly-created Canadian ‘family values’ station. I check the listings and find that 48 Hours is also on the American channel. I switch to the CBS channel; same signal. The grey man is still there, telling viewers to read the Bible.

I change the channel. Get NBC. Dateline. The subject is the latest sex abuse scandal to hit the Catholic Church. I watch a woman state that, for 10 years, she complained to her diocese executives about a priest who, she knew, was abusing boys. When asked why she simply didn’t call the police, she said that the priests told her not to.

I change the channel. I get a re-run of a recent news conference held by the local Anglican archdiocese. The British Columbia government is currently conducting a referendum to allow the public to voice its opinion on how aboriginal land treaties should be settled. The Anglican Church, which has much to answer for as far as treatment of aboriginals is concerned (and knows it), has told its flock to vote ‘no’ on all of the referendum questions.

The maxim that there absolutely must be a clear separation between Church and State is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago, when it was first enshrined in democratic processes. Religions are not supposed to tell us what to do. They are based on philosophy, faith, superstition and folklore. The priests, ministers, pastors etc., are supposed to present the ideals of their religious affiliations to accepting members of their congregations, and use those mores to offer guidance, when it is requested.

Politics, while also ideological, is fact-based. It follows the laws of economics and geography, and the facts of history. It reacts to reality. It creates reality. It provides reasonably workable frameworks within which we co-exist. And the people put in office to make the decisions which form these frameworks are elected by independent, free-thinking individuals.

What politicians and clergy do share is power over society—power that is granted to them by those they serve. It is, therefore, essential that there be reportage on how their actions affect us. The two institutions should be completely open to journalistic scrutiny, but neither institution can be allowed to fill the airways with dogma. I may have been watching some mindless ‘news’ show, which will in no way enhance my intellectual or spiritual life, but that’s my business. I am allowed to watch anything I like, and at no time did I consent to be interrupted by some guy spouting scriptural samplings.

Religion has caused must distress and bloodshed over the centuries. In my lifetime, it’s been Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, the American Religious Right, Muslim Fanaticism. When religion ceases to offer solace and guidance and begins to dictate the thoughts and actions of its adherents, it can do tremendous damage to society as a whole. Ferocious, irrevocable harm.

I’ve always been relieved that Canadians, while being free to practice any religion of their choosing, have also always been able to keep religion in perspective. That religion has never been allowed to force its way into our homes. That if we didn’t feel like being preached at, or hit up for money in the name of God, we could just change the channel.

Religious programming has always been there, always freely available to anyone who wants it. But, much more importantly, it has always been avoidable by those who wish to conduct their spiritual practices in the privacy of their own heads. In has to stay that way.

 

On the End of the American Auto Industry

Blitz Magazine, March 2006

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The other day, I was sitting in a long line of traffic. I was at the top of a hill and could see all the cars below. I noticed that, out of 50 or 60 vehicles, only three were not Japanese or German. The US was represented only by a Hummer, a big lump of a Cadillac and an ancient Buick. All the rest were foreign. As I continued to drive around Vancouver that day, I kept an eye out and saw the same thing on every street, in every parking lot. Japanese, German, some Swedish. Lots of Jaguars. And everywhere, SmartCars. Nary an American vehicle in sight.

Meanwhile, the news on the radio was about how Ford and GM are on the brink, and I’m thinking “Well, duh.”

The mantra for big marketing is all about knowing consumers, knowing what they want, and giving it to them. This is nothing new. But American car-makers—who rank among the largest retailers in the world—have never done this. The American auto industry has always given consumers what it wants them to have. Consumer research may have been conducted, but it was ignored. Ditto all research into what the competition was doing. The message from American auto-makers has always been the same: “Here’s what we’ve built. Buy it.”

If I were the president of, say, General Motors, I would have looked at Great Britain, whose citizens pay some of the highest fuel prices in the world and have never wanted anything but the small and zippy. I would have seen the same thing across Europe and thought ‘Hmmm. Maybe the big car is about to do the way of the dodo.’ I would have listened to trend analysts—not American auto trend analysts, but energy trend analysts. I would have seen what the Japanese saw long ago: a growing need for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars with all of the options and comforts. I would have said to myself: ‘Look at how successful those Japanese manufacturers are. Maybe we should do the same thing.’

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead of giving consumers what they really wanted out of a vehicle—fuel-efficiency, safety, reliability etc., American car-makers said: ‘Oh forget the reality. Let’s look at consumers’ cultural aspirations, create vehicles that fit with their idealized self-images and appeal to their egos, and then market the hell out of them.’

So, at a time when roads are true danger zones, and when most couples wouldn’t dream of having more than two children, American car makers produced SUVs—gas-guzzling vehicles that everyone knows are unsafe. Then they marketed them as family essentials. At a time when drivers are increasingly distracted by cell phones and fast food, American consumers got vehicles with entertainment systems. In an era where commuting time can run up to three hours, Americans produce longer vehicles (longer vehicles increase commuting time for everyone).

Did consumers ever indicate that they wanted this? No. But the marketing worked. Until reality sunk in. Those vehicles are no longer desirable. There are millions of them out there, and no one wants them.

auto1Pick-up trucks are only needed by tradesmen. Yet we’re now seeing massive pick-up trucks driven by executives who happened to respond well to hearing Bob Seeger sing ‘Like a Rock.’ For the under-endowed, there’s the Hummer. Meanwhile, the US government is so desperate to find sources of oil that it has gone to war and is ready to plunder a northern nature preserve for a three-year supply. Chop logic.

If you look at the advertising for German cars, the emphasis is on performance and status. If you look at the advertising for Japanese cars, the emphasis is on reliability, safety, stability, comfort—and fun. If you look at the advertising for American cars, the emphasis is on all the snappy things you can fiddle with inside vans—to create toy bins and space for baby carriages. Please.

And speed—we’re still stuck with those tired old commercials showing cars driving very fast along twisting roads. Meanwhile, public tolerance for speeding is at an all-time low. Fines are way up, California drag-racers are going to jail—a Vancouver man was recently deported as a result of a fatal speed-crazed crash. Speed and recklessness are, like, totally yesterday.

The major shareholders of American auto manufacturers have never done anything to remove board members or CEOs. Now all’s lost. And you have to wait in a very long line to buy a SmartCar or a Prius; and a 2002 Toyota Echo costs $17,000—if you can find one.

Big Auto wasn’t paying attention. The lesson that everyone can learn from that is that communicators have to be smarter and make more of an effort to predict the future. We have to watch, listen and learn. We have to hear the ideas in our own heads, and listen to those of others. And we have to be better communicators.

We are in the Age of the Internet. And the Age of the Entrepreneur. Long-term success now depends on communicating, fulfilling needs, listening, providing great products and services at fair prices, and giving clients and consumers what they want and need. Otherwise, adios.

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

On Automobiles, Advertising & Talking to Americans

Blitz Magazine, January 2003

suv

I’m sitting in traffic, in my Mustang. We’re not going anywhere and I have no idea why. Because I can’t see a thing. I am surrounded by SUVs. And I start to think about how gullible people are. We know that, in an accident, an SUV is 30% more likely to roll and 25% more likely to kill the other driver. We know that, by virtue of their size, SUVs increase traffic volume, thereby increasing the amount of time vehicles are on the road, thus the amount of fuel burned. We know that SUVs burn more fuel individually, and that they cost more to insure. Yet people keep buying them.

I prefer the European attitude toward automobiles. They’re mere appliances, made of steel and plastic and rubber and fibre. Their purpose is to get people from point A to point B, in a safe and efficient manner, with some speed and a little fun thrown in. If you look at any European street, it’s clear that people there don’t care about dents and scratches, or dust and mud. I have an English friend who drives an old Bentley. It makes strange sounds, smells of cigars and is usually full of damp dogs, but it’s fuel-efficient and there’s no point in fixing something that ain’t broke. Over there, people like nice cars, but cars are by no means the status symbols that they are on this side of the pond.

In North America, automobile advertising has people believing that, without an SUV, people might not be able to drive up mountains—as many of us so often have to. Worse, advertising has people believing that SUVs are safe, and that they’re essential for good parenting. That a huge van with a built-in entertainment system is a must for childhood happiness, or that the ability to reconfigure seating will keep kids from fighting. I spend $80 a month on gas, which is barely enough to get the average SUV-wielding soccer mom to and from Wal-Mart. In fact, the money that parents spend on these contraptions each year far exceeds the annual tuition at most private schools.

The other message being swallowed is speed. (I should admit here that speed has always been a problem for me. In fact, I flunked my first driving test by going over the speed limit.) But, in Vancouver as, I’m sure, in other cities, speed has become an increasingly deadly problem.

On the one hand, there’s a huge population of recent yuppies who are too busy to drive their teen-agers anywhere. It’s a lot easier just to buy them their own high-performance cars—and trust them. On the other hand, Vancouver has a huge population of Asian immigrants. These people work hard and prosper in their new county, and they want to give their kids (especially their sons) everything their hearts desire. And they’re new to the culture, so they’re finding their way through that culture’s media.

In both cases, if the family prize wants the newest, fastest car on the lot? No problem! ‘Course, he could end up blind, paralyzed, dead or in jail… Recently, in a Vancouver suburb, road-racing teens snuffed out the life of a 30 year-old RCMP officer. This week, the officer’s parents (also Asian immigrants) were on the news—he was their only child and the item was on how they’re working with local government to stop road racing. The broadcast then went to commercial—it was a spot from Subaru, about its newest, fastest car. It’s ‘rally-proven!’

So now the question is, how socially responsible will advertisers be forced to become? We can’t advertise tobacco. We can’t show anyone drinking liquor. There are strict rules governing promotion of those products and only hypocrites can support those rules while claiming that the Zoom Zoom Zoom commercials don’t contribute to dangerous behaviour.

Obesity is a huge problem among North America’s youth, with a thoroughly preventable disorder saddling millions of kids with diabetes and heart disease. What’s this going to do to the rules of advertising for McDonald’s? Coca Cola? Chips, pop, doughnuts? Candy, chocolate bars? Pizza? Or those fat-packed, salt-soaked pre-made meals people keep buying?

We know that one cause of obesity is a sedentary lifestyle. What’s going to happen to the marketing of video games? Computers? And now Canada has ratified the Kyoto Accord and we are committed to reducing greenhouse gases. What’s going to happen to that automobile advertising? I have no answers here—but I do know that the future of marketing is going to be very interesting.

The whole Kyoto storm was another amusement. There’s Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, touting the oil industry line that cutting greenhouse gases is going to cost thousands of jobs and all kinds of money. Meanwhile, the precious Alberta beef industry depends (duh) on climate. Following the worst drought in the memory of every farming community on the Canadian prairies (the ‘bread-basket of the world’), Alberta farmers were shipping their cows to slaughter and entering lotteries in which the prizes were rail car-loads of moldy hay.

BC Premier Gordon Campbell took the same position as Klein. But Vancouver and its environs are now legally committed to bidding on the 2010 Winter Olympics. I’m writing this on December 16th. Vancouver’s famed winter rain arrived last week—two months late. I have a garden full of flowers, and the local mountains have yet to see a snowflake. Let’s hope that Whistler/Blackcomb can make enough snow by the time the Olympic Selection Committee gets here.

In the US, it’s ‘Global warming? What global warming?’ Rising sea levels are causing the United States to physically, and rapidly, shrink. Inestimable damage is done every year by increasingly intense storms, and American farmers are no happier than Canadian farmers. Cross-border smog has created an epidemic of asthma among Ontario children; in summer, from the sky, Toronto is barely visible. There are pockets of Texas where up to 40% of the population suffers from respiratory ailments and cancer is rampant. Ah, yes, Texas. Home of the World’s Most Dangerous Man.

There’s little doubt that, when Jean Chretien’s communications director called George Bush a ‘moron’, it was one helluva PR gaff—even though she was telling the truth. But it made me recall a famous quote by Barbara Bush. It took place at a party celebrating Dubya’s first Texas gubernatorial election. Babs, not realizing that there was a journalist behind her, reportedly turned to her daughter and said: “Can you believe this?”

If a guy’s mother doesn’t think he should be in public office, he shouldn’t be in public office. But Babs raised Dubya to do what he’s told, and he’s doing it. Texas industry put him in power and the result if now evident there. American industry put him in national power and the damage is evident everywhere else. Two years of this guy and the world is a disaster. Last night, Al Gore announced that he won’t run in the next presidential election; I get the feeling that he thinks he might not be able to fix things. On the same broadcast of 60 Minutes, Donald Rumsfeld was shown telling Steve Croft that the war on Iraq has ‘Nothing to do with oil. Nothing whatsoever’.

He’s lying. And everyone knows he’s lying. Senior US cabinet officials are popping up all over the place, doing as many interviews as they possibly can, trying to sell a war that has no credible basis. It’s gone past the point of ridiculousness to the point of comedy. Every day, there are reports that UN weapons inspectors have found nothing, and that they have unfettered access to suspected sites. And, almost every day, the British or American PR machines come out with a ‘new’ piece of ‘evidence’. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘We’ve had this evidence for years—we just didn’t tell anyone.’ Who do they think they’re kidding?

Anyway, what set me off on this tangent is a 60-minute re-run of Rick Mercer’s Talking to Americans. At one time one of the funniest concepts on TV, watching it became one depressing experience. As you’ll recall, Mercer would ask Americans to comment on outrageously stupid ideas. So we see Americans congratulating Canada on legalizing insulin and staplers, the completion of 800 miles of paved road, getting a second area code and becoming part of North America. ‘Hysterically funny.

Then a professor at Columbia University signs a petition against placing Canadian senior citizens adrift on ice floes. A professor at Harvard, after proudly proclaiming that he received tenure in 1965, agrees that Irish-Canadians should be allowed to vote. A professor at Boston College considers the merits of Canada’s honouring of its treaty with Chief Gordon Lightfoot and allowing an annual rhino hunt. A professor at Stanford concurs with the notion of sending ground troops into Saskatchewan. And the governor of Arkansas congratulates Canada on getting FM radio. And they’re all serious.

When these spots first aired, Bill Clinton was president of the United States. If the American media had been less obsessed with his sex life, the world may be in better shape today; he recently told David Letterman that all of ‘that’ definitely distracted his administration from the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which began in the early ‘90s.

There was never any doubt about Clinton’s intellect. The guy is probably a genius. And when someone that sharp is running the show, other types of ignorance can be funny.

Now, ignorance is as deadly as any other weapon. And the Leader of the Free World (shudder here) is a dimwit. His ignorance is a staple on Saturday Night Live. It is commonly discussed on the late night talk shows. It’s now mentioned by mainstream journalists, as if it’s OK. But it’s not OK. While one can occasionally see a dim flicker of understanding in those tiny little eyes, there’s little doubt that he’s not the one running show. He’s being handled. Who by? Who knows? PR experts certainly, but who are they and what agenda do they have?

 My thoughts return, again, to how gullible people are. Americans in particular. There should have been massive protest, even civil disobedience, when Bush was elected in the shadiest of shady elections. There wasn’t. Texans voted for the guy because he likes to talk tough—they love that ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ mantra. Just a few months ago, Americans had a chance to reduce the number of Republicans in office, reduce Bush’s power and damage his chances for re-election. Yet barely 25% of them turned out to vote.

My conclusion is that North Americans have adopted the mentality of sheep. If it’s advertised, buy it. If a politician says it, it must be true. If it’s in the papers, it’s gotta’ be real. Perhaps this mentality is not new, but it’s never been more unhealthy, more damaging, or more dangerous. And what we all want—what we all absolutely need—is for everyone to start telling the truth.

 

Sierra Nevada: The Heart of the World

sierraBlitz Magazine, November 2002

According to Colombian legend, the snow-capped mountain known as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was created at the centre of the world, and at the beginning of time, by Shibalauneuman (the Mother of All Things).

Located at the northwestern tip of South America, in the Republic of Colombia, only 42 km from the shore, the peak of the Sierra Nevada reaches 5,775 meters (18, 948 feet) above sea level, making it the highest coastal mountain in the world.

Centuries ago, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was a place where diverse human groups flourished; one of them, the Tayrona civilization, reached the highest level of development without deteriorating its environment. The European conquest destroyed that nation; today, all that remains of the Tayrona peoples are some gold, stone and shell carvings, and the intricate lithic (rock) pathways they carved into the landscape to link hundreds of their ancient towns and city-sites to terraced farms and water sources. The mountain is now inhabited by aboriginal communities that proudly preserve their complex religious, social and political societies.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is one of the world’s most important ethnic, ecological, archaeological and cultural patrimonies, and is internationally recognized as a ‘Man & Biosphere Reserve’. Its environs are typical of tropical America, containing an extraordinary variety of climates and habitats with great biological diversity. Its fauna and flora are abundant and several of its species are to date still unknown to science.

Vancouver-based Colombian photographer, naturalist and educator Diego Samper, who has lived in the Sierra Nevada, has worked with the Museum of Anthropology to create an exhibit, and unique public programming, focused on the living cultures of ancient lands, issues of sustainability and the complex continuing relationship of indigenous peoples to the land. The 26-panel exhibit of images, words and soundscapes offers rare insight into aspects of a country so often overshadowed by news reports focusing on drugs, corruption and social decay. It also gives us an opportunity to learn more about the crucial role of the photographer as cultural and historical documentarian.