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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Cathedral Place: The Salvation of a Landmark

Canadian Property Management Magazine, September 1993

In 1988, there was an uproar when it was announced that Vancouver’s much-loved, 60 year-old Georgia Medical Dental Building would be demolished. Although the building was clearly unfit for restoration, Vancouverites were concerned about the aesthetic changes to one of the city’s most high-profile intersections.

In retrospect, they needn’t have worried. Cathedral Place is now one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The 23-storey structure, the most expensive and finely-detailed building ever constructed in Vancouver, is the result of the efforts of three men: owner Ron Shon, architect Paul Merrick and Bill Rooney, vice-president of the Shon Group.

cathedralplace4Shon, Rooney and Merrick started discussing the new building in 1987. “The Georgia Medical Dental building had to go,” remembers Merrick. “The market was sluggish but Shon knew that the site was meant for a commercial property. Also, he’d had the site for a long time and it was the last thing he would have sold. He wanted a building that would generate revenue and be a source of pride to his family, and to the city. At the same time, it had to match the surrounding buildings and be an effective office building.”

Matching the local architecture was a challenge. Behind Cathedral Place, to the north, lies the luxurious (pink) Park Place high-rise office building. To the east is the equally sleek head office of the Hongkong Bank. On the southeast corner sits the majestic Vancouver Art Gallery, which was built in 1906 as Vancouver’s Courthouse. Directly to the south, is Canadian Pacific’s grand Hotel Vancouver, built in 1941. And directly to the west is Christ Church Cathedral, which was built in 1888.

Merrick met the challenge by beginning with the building’s materials.

“The Shon Group wanted a timeless stone structure appropriate to its neighbours, particularly the Hotel Vancouver. The Hotel Vancouver was built with Nelson Island granite and Haddington Sandstone and we couldn’t get either stone. So we brought in white-grey granite from Spain for the base, and did the rest of the building in Indiana Limestone. This limestone is terrific—you see it on many of Chicago’s buildings. It’s lighter than other stones and it darkens less in the rain, which is very important in Vancouver.”

One of the most upsetting aspects of the Georgia Medical Dental Building’s demolition, to heritage buffs, was the loss of its terra cotta trim, which included three terra cotta nurses. In fact, the nurses had become dangerously unstable and would have had to be removed even if the building had remained.

The Shon Group didn’t dispose of the terra cotta. The nurses and trim were donated to the Vancouver Museum, which keeps the nurses and half the trim in its collection—the other half was auctioned off to the public. Then, the nurses and trim were reproduced for the new building.

“There are two companies in North America that still do commercial terra cotta,” says Merrick. “We had to go to Philadelphia to have the nurses and trim copied. It was expensive, but it was important. It was worth it.”

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Another important aspect of matching the neighbourhood was the colour of the Cathedral Place trim—the Hotel Vancouver is famous for its peaked turquoise roof. So Merrick gave Cathedral Place blue-green windows and a blue-green peaked roof.

“The windows are meant to seem like picture windows, although they were designed to take partitioning at the standard five-foot intervals,” continues Merrick. “There are nine-foot ceilings and we thought of putting in opening windows, but that meant more aggravation and an additional $800,000. We went with non-reflective glass which cuts glare without making the day look dull, and the colour works well in this climate.

“As for the roof, I grew up in Vancouver and the Hotel Vancouver’s roof is part of the city’s image for me. So we put in a turquoise steel peaked roof, which houses the elevators and air exchangers. It’s higher than the hotel and isn’t as imposing, but it retains that famous Canadian Pacific chateau roof and adds to the effect of lasting quality and presence.”

cathedralplace3Merrick had other instructions. The interior of the building was to be appropriate to the market—centre core with a respectable core-to-wall distance, no intrusive interior columns, and a smart building with good-quality services and environmental control systems. Nothing too exotic.

This criteria was met. The building is 360,000 square feet of office space, with one floor of commercial. There is a four-storey, 360-vehicle underground parking lot, and each office is finished according to tenant specifications. The columns were integrated into the walls and the building runs on high-tech management systems.

Cathedral Place uses Johnson Controls’ Metasys computer control system, which permits the highest possible ventilation rate. The General Electric Total Lighting Control system allows for individualized energy efficiency, and the S.I.S. Pentagon 2000 security system combines on-site personnel with programmed Wiegand cards and central lock-down capabilities.

The Shon Group wanted Cathedral Place to match the Hotel Vancouver in another way—in the area of ground-floor activity.

“So many triple-A buildings have large, empty lobbies,” says Merrick. “Not Cathedral Place. We’ve created a necklace of movement to, at, and around the site, just as is the case at the Hotel Vancouver.”

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The first floor of Cathedral Place houses a jewellery store, a travel agency, a florist, House of Brussels Chocolates, a boutique, a bank, two cafes, a stationers and the Sri Lankan Gem Museum. Perhaps most importantly, there is another museum attached to it—the Canadian Craft Museum. That added a new wrinkle to the development.

“Originally, the whole property was going to be covered with office space,” says Bill Rooney. “But we wanted the highest-quality structure. So we arranged a density transfer with the city. In exchange for building the new Canadian Craft Museum to the north, we were given a density bonus—additional floors.

“The arrangement improved the whole place,” continues Rooney. “The museum is a draw to the building and we think that the final product has made leasing easier—that and the fact that we made sure that this building would present no management challenges.”

Merrick did a superb job of designing the 20,000 square-foot museum and the courtyard which separates the two buildings—there is now an elegant, classic sanctuary in the middle of Vancouver’s bustling downtown core.

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One of the more unusual things about the Cathedral Place is long gone, but it certainly raised the profile of the building: the site’s $40,000 construction hoarding. It was created by Design Works Inc., and no Canadian city had ever seen anything like it: a 3-D custom-designed architect’s board, complete with huge pencils, giant rulers and an enormous business card (with paper clip), from the leasing agent.

“The hoarding was a real attention-getter and established an image for the building before we broke ground,” says Rooney. “Cathedral Place overlooks some of the largest landscaped areas in the downtown core. It enjoys strong visual and physical links with the business and cultural life of Vancouver. It’s a unique combination of locational convenience, functional efficiency and architectural distinction—an address that any owner, property manager or tenant can point to with justifiable pride. In other words, it’s a very special building on a very special site and everything about it had to be special, from start to finish.”

Paul Merrick is definitely proud of his creation. “This was one of my best opportunities. A city’s only as good as its pieces and we had an owner who wanted the best for his city. Ron Shon went far out his way for that project, with the result that no one has had any negative feedback on the finished product. The whole city is proud of Cathedral Place.”

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.

Profile: Bing Thom, the Landscaper’s Architect

Landscape, September 1993

thom5All landscapers wish that architects were more understanding of the landscaper’s job. Well, one of Canada’s leading architects feels the same way.

Bing Thom was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver. His uncle was an engineer and when Thom was eight, he visited his uncle’s office. There, he saw architectural drawings and decided to make drawing such plans his life’s work.

At the same time, he had a feel for gardening and the landscape, a sense which he attributes to his Asian ancestry. At 17, he jumped at the chance to work as a landscaper’s helper. “I spent a summer designing gardens,’ says Thom. “Building rock walls and transplanting trees was good experience—it taught me hard work.”

In 1966, Thom graduated from the University of British Columbia (UBC) with a degree in architecture. After obtaining his Master’s in Architecture from Berkeley, he spent two years teaching at the University of Singapore, then returned to Vancouver and taught at UBC for another two years.

In 1973, famed architect Arthur Erickson asked Thom to help him on a project. “Erickson was my teacher at UBC,” explains Thom. “He, like Frank Lloyd Wright, was influenced by Oriental architecture and they shared a tendency toward the landscape. This appealed to me.”

Thom helped Erickson on the now-famous Vancouver Courthouse/Robson Square. “This project involved a lot of landscaping,” remembers Thom. “Vancouverites wanted a park. The government wanted an office building. So we put the park on top of the office building.

thom1“The courthouse was interesting—three mid-downtown blocks and we were putting a garden atop a man-made structure. The main questions were of waterproofing and finding the right soil mix. So we developed a totally new soil that is both lightweight and able to sustain nutrients.

“There were thousands of plants in that garden,” continues Thom. “We found an entire orchard of pines, magnolias and rhododendrons which we transplanted. Also, Spokane [WA] had 200 matching London Plane trees, which are used in cities all over the world. We bought those but, at planting time, the city’s chief engineer stopped us. He said they grew too fast and that the roots would interfere with sewers and water lines. So we planted 200 Sunset Maples and Victoria happily took the London Planes. Engineers don’t understand plants. They think there should be plastic everywhere.”

Thom next project was Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall which he designed in a park setting. In 1980, he again helped Erickson, this time on Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill project, which involved re-developing five mid-town blocks and adding linear parks and green space.

thom3 In 1982, Thom opened his own office and now employs a staff of 20, including nine architects and his wife, Bonnie.

It is Bonnie, not Bing, who has the green thumb. The daughter of a farmer, Bonnie is an educated landscaper and works on all of Bing’s projects.

 “I have a feel for gardening, but Bonnie has the talent. I tell her how I want to project to look and she compiles a list of the plants that will get me that look, according to their colours and textures.

 “More architects should consider the colours in the surrounding landscape. I never use red brick because only green plants match it. Instead, I keep my buildings neutral so that when plants flower, their colour takes over.”

Thom is an architect first, but he will not design a building unless he also designs the landscape. “It’s a personal thing. The building must grow from the ground, and the landscaping is the foundation. Each building must sit correctly on that setting, while relating to the landscape. So the landscape is actually more important than the building. Many architects don’t realize that landscaping is essential to architecture—that buildings and gardens are inter-related and indivisible.

“I start every design by looking at the property’s characteristics—the way the sun shines, the wind blows, the location, the view. I use plants only, never anything artificial. And I always use vegetation from the building’s locale. We must remember that we can’t fight nature. We have to work with it.”

What do Thom’s clients think about his approach?

“They appreciate it,” says Thom. “They may mind spending the extra money, but they never argue. I just remind them that’s money well-spent. Many people don’t realize thatlandscape architecture is more difficult and time-consuming than structural architecture, and that it takes more creativity to do a good landscape than it does to do a good building. I don’t have to account for growth with granite.”

Every one of Thom’s gardens also has a purpose. “I want my gardens to be places for meditation and contemplation,” he says “It’s important that people find tranquil spaces, even in the busiest of cities. That’s why we take care that my gardens are harmonious—never jarring or extreme.”

Surprisingly, Thom has no garden of his own. He and Bonnie live in a penthouse, with four balconies, and not a single plant. “I’m the barefoot shoemaker,” says Thom. “We’ve been planning a roof garden but we’ve never had the time to create it.”

This fits with a trend that Thom has seen increasing—and one that he thinks the landscape industry should be capitalizing on.

“People are living closer together and are nostalgic for gardens. I see more rockeries, solariums, and balcony and roof gardens, and there’s a demand for hobby plants, like bonsai. People want more colour in plants that take up little space.

“I advise landscapers to get into more public education. There’s a thirst for what landscapers have to offer. People are concerned about the look and health of their environment and there’s a need for professionals to go to the public with courses and lectures.”

Thom also advises the landscape industry to lobby for universities to include landscape architecture in their architecture and engineering programs.

“Most architects can’t be bothered with the extra work of landscape architecture. The problem is that no landscape courses are required to get a degree in architecture. This should change. The architect finds himself working on a project where the client wants a park or garden, and winds up in a situation where the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.

“Universities don’t require architects to take interior design courses either. That also makes no sense. It’s like medicine, where specialists come to think of the body in parts, rather than as a whole.

“People wonder why I bother with the landscape but it’s perfectly logical. The building, the interior and the landscape are inseparable, and the same creativity has to be behind all three elements. This should be taught as part of any school’s architectural program.

“The real key, though, is to teach engineers about landscape. Engineers do the most damage to the landscape. Traffic engineers do tremendous harm. They want to keep their roads straight and will mow down any number of trees to do it. They need to learn that roads don’t always have to be straight.”

Thom, now 53, still lectures at UBC and has just completed a three-year term as Chairman of the Vancouver Public Library Committee. His most recent achievement, however, was his award-winning Canadian Pavilion at EXPO ’92 in Seville.

thom4“I wanted to build a Canadian building in Spain, but I couldn’t transplant Canadian plants, so I made a garden using hard landscaping and evocative images to get the Canadian feel.”

For the first time, Thom had to use man-made materials. He created a jagged white front which looks like a snowdrift during the day but, when lit at night, looks like the Northern Lights. Inside, the pavilion’s focal point is a wall of shimmering blue/green water—it’s actually panels covered with etched aluminum foil. People were so enthralled by the effect, they waited up to 10 hours to get in a second time.

Thom has won numerous awards but his greatest compliment is seeing people enjoying his landscapes. “It’s satisfying to see people relax in my gardens. I see them become happier, friendlier.”

Still, he is never satisfied. “I wish I could redo every garden. No matter how careful we are, gardens never grow according to plan. That’s what makes it challenging—the hope is always that the next garden will be my perfect favourite.”

Jazz: It’s All That

Blitz Magazine, May 2003

Festival: n Time of festive celebration; merry-making; [periodic] series of performances.

jazz1Jazz: n Syncopated dance music, of US Negro origin, with characteristic harmony and rag-time rhythm; (slang) pretentious talk; ~ adj Discordant, loud or fantastic in colour ~ v Dance to, play, jazz; arrange (music) as jazz; arrange (pattern) in vivid or grotesque form; brighten, liven, up.

In this day and age, it’s hard to believe that our society’s cultural deep-freeze was such that jazz was something that could be enjoyed only behind closed doors. You had to be a grown-up, you had to be of a certain race or class, or you had to be slumming.

In fact, the first proper jazz festival didn’t take place until 1954. That was the famed Newport Jazz Festival, which has presented Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Billie Holiday, among many others, and has stirred a lot of controversy: riots in 1960, 1971 and 1972 caused the festival to move to New York; it didn’t return to Newport until 1991.

Luckily, the Newport idea caught on and, with the help of Newport Fest founder George Wein, festivals were initiated in London, Paris, Rome and Berlin. Today, there are jazz festivals all over the world—from Turkey to Australia to India. Each year, tiny Italian villages burst with festival visitors; the concept is huge in Japan. Canadians, of course, are always up for anything and the country now hosts some of the world’s top jazz festivals, most notably in Montreal and Vancouver.

jazz2 jazz3 

The Vancouver festival consistently presents one of the most culturally-diverse music celebrations in the world, gracing the city with what the Vancouver Sun has called “Ten Days of Heaven”.

All day, every day, inside and outside, jazz of all styles is presented at 40 venues, by 1700 musicians doing 400 shows, many of which are free. With 2002 attendance of 430,000, it is the largest cultural event in western Canada and one of the biggest musical events in the nation.

Festival co-founder John Orysik calls this festival—any jazz festival—‘a cultural lubricant’.

“The jazz festival engages people. It brings music to a large group of people in a short span of time, and it brings the music to everyone—people of all ages, races, socio-economic levels. It allows music to be introduced, and marketed, strategically and effectively, in the biggest context, and it has an event cachet that you don’t get with a one-off concert.”

Orysik explains what it is that makes jazz so popular in every corner of the globe. “It’s the spirit, the energy, the freedom. The music is…everything.”

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.

All Aboard: Tourists Flock to BC for Rocky Mountaineer Railtours

rocky3

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.

rocky2 rocky1

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