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 Post subject: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam trip
PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2018 10:16 am 

Joined: Tue Jan 25, 2005 4:03 pm
Posts: 772
This year, we're returning to Chicago with Nickel Plate Road 765 and once again operating four roundtrip excursions called The Joliet Rocket. These events will take place on Metra's Rock Island District between Joliet, Illinois and downtown Chicago.

Tickets and details are here: http://fortwaynerailroad.org/the-joliet-rocket-2018/

I'm preparing a detailed summary of these trips for our newsletter, but felt this was appropriate for RYPN as well, given how important customer data and customer feedback was to these operations.

Our relationship with Metra has provided the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society with an extremely valuable opportunity and great teamwork, but also some unusual logistical and marketing challenges:

- Chicago is a massive market, but one with demands for your dollar are everywhere.

- Throughout the region, you can ride a train just about 24/7 at any time of the year.

- The available railroad that Metra owns is limited compared to their entire network, which is shared with BNSF and Union Pacific.

While our 2016 Varsity trips north of Chicago were well attended, it was an eight-hour slog with an hour of really fantastic, high-speed running in the suburbs and the rest in Wisconsin with speed restrictions. There was no destination or layover and the boxed lunches left some to be desired. The passenger experience overall was just fair. Open vestibules were a plus.

But, when you're operating a regal mainline time machine with some of the best vintage cars in the country, fair may is not the standard you work for. Fair doesn't win repeat customers. Fair does not provide full value.

The only other line we could conceivably operate on was the Rock Island District. The problem? The route is just 46 miles and there's no way logistically feasible way turn the train. At 60-70MPH, the trip is over relatively quickly.

The solution? Turn LaSalle Street Station into an event venue destination and make the entire operation an experience unto itself - ask customers to dress for the period, fire up the band, populate the train with WWII re-enactors and include craft cocktails and appetizers in the ticket price. Steam engines and passenger cars are pricey endeavors whether you're going ten miles or 100, which meant we had to operate several trips during the weekend to make a profit.

In doing research, the Rock Island's Rocket trains were marketed as some of the premiere first class trains of their kind. While they were all diesel powered, the idea of taking passengers on a Rocket train to the same stomping grounds of the 21st Century Limited had a lot of appeal. It was the perfect excuse to highlight the fact that the railroads invented the red-carpet experience. And that's how The Joliet Rocket was born.

Our first step was to take the customer zip codes from The Varsity and a cancelled Galesburg Amtrak trip which had been mothballed due to the small window for ticket sales. Using the zip codes, we mapped out where each customer for the Chicago based operations came from. 40% of those customers were from the immediate Chicago region and the rest were from the tri-state area and beyond. Capturing 40% or greater of that audience, with months and months of lead time (versus 90 or 40 days) improved the operating prospects immeasurably.

Our next step was to target each city along the Rock Island District and specific ones in the greater Chicago region with Facebook video ads. Between the Facebook ads and email newsletter, we were able to generate a consistent average of $10-14,000 in ticket sales every week until the event sold out two weeks prior. If the average dipped or wavered, we'd generate a new ad, new copy and revise the advertising. If there were more ticket buyers from say, Tinley Park than Naperville, we'd increase our advertising in Tinley Park. Video was crucial to this and probably amounted for 95% of our paid, boosted or promoted content.

Working with Metra, we were able to carve out a 150 x 80 foot portion of their LaSalle Street Station pavilion and get the necessary clearances for security, food and alcohol sales and more-or-less segment the area off for passengers only.

The trips went off extremely well. Railroad wise, the only downside was scrubbing three of the four photo runbys due to the tight commuter train schedule we had to keep. We made up for this by creating "dramatic entrances" on the fly by pulling the 765 out of the station and marching in and making plenty of noise. There was audible applause each time. A big kudos to Metra for immediately seeing the value in our proposition for replacing the photo runby with something a little different.

The biggest drawbacks were how the food and beverage vendors prepared to serve 500-600 people at a time. While there had been numerous meetings, on-site visits and discussions, they weren't quite ready to handle the deluge (and I guess when booze is free, everyone wants their money's worth in a two drink maximum.) We'll be investing more in personnel and the event budget this year to make it seamless and increasing the layover times to give people more time to eat, drink and be merry.

Given that the Rocket was the first of its kind and a vast departure from typical mainline excursion offerings, there was some risk on top of the other challenges in the Chicago market. Over the past few years, we've been doing more aggressive customer feedback surveys. Here are some results specifically from The Joliet Rocket trips in 2017.

53% of passengers identified themselves as "diehard train people." While we always see "we don't do it for the railfans," I believe it's possible to cater to that overlap between train people and customers seeking a unique experience. It's ours and the 765's job to make people into train fans.

22.8% of passengers said "they had never done anything like this before."

Our weighted average, customers rated their experience on a scale of 0-10 at 8.53. 88% said they would take the trip again next year.

We asked customers to rate a variety of factors, including length of trip, communications, event staff, etc. We were very aggressive in communicating with customers prior to the trip (we probably sent no less than 7 emails from start to finish) to make sure that the details, offerings, etc were all understood. I never wanted to hear "well I didn't know that..." or "I never got that email..." ever again.

The highest rated items were pre-trip communication (81.72%) and event staff (81.25%), ticketing website (77.24%) and customer service (74.05%). 55% said it was "great" for the value of their money. 39% said it was good. Only 10% said it was "fair." Our lowest rated item was the photo runby, for reasons explained above.

Something we also revamped was how we talked about the trips. There are so many details (which is why there were so many emails) and so much to share about the offerings, but I absolutely hated how our industry marketing their mainline trips. If the event was to be so stellar, the process of learning about the event and buying tickets should be an extension of that experience and importantly, an extension of our brand.

We created a spanking new web page for the event to help evoke the essence of the trips instead of offering a wall-of-text. I covered that topic here in: http://rypn.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f= ... 17e321c1c1 under "Excursion website marketing is pretty miserable."

87% said it was extremely easy to purchase tickets. 12% said it was somewhat easy. 1 person said it was not at all easy. (I know exactly who it was.) We also asked about website navigation (80% easy and 19% easy).

We also asked whether passengers would have taken the trip if it had originated in downtown Chicago. 62% said yes. 37% said no. Even though the percentage was high, it wasn't satisfactory. It also added additional burdens to passengers - mainly parking costs and transportation into a city with occasionally questionable traffic patterns. While it was possible to create a venue at Joliet Union Station, it would have also removed the 765 from the layover (being that historic Union Station and the new Metra platform are no longer one in the same), which, to us, was out of the question.

While I don't have numbers (and should have asked), I would say about 40-50% of each train had passengers that dressed the part - and they looked fantastic. We held a photo contest and offered passengers free portraits if they dressed up or rode in first class or dome.

88% of passengers said they would take a trip like this the following year.

We hope to see a few of those numbers in 2018. Ticket purchases are up 188% in the first 48 hours.

With all the swirling turmoil around Amtrak charters and the ever mounting challenges for mainline steam, we hope you can join us and at the very least, support your local steam locomotive.


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Kelly Lynch
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Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, Inc
http://www.fwrhs.org
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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2018 10:47 am 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 5:19 pm
Posts: 1725
Location: Pottstown,Pa.
Thanks much Kelly for your tutorial and for all the excellent work you and your team do. You're so right that there's a WHOLE lot more that goes into making a mainline steam excursion successful beyond "just" the operation itself.

Also, hearty thanks to the Metra team that has given you the canvas upon which to paint your well done portrait.

Best wishes for a safe, on time, sold out performance.

Ross Rowland


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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2018 11:32 am 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 1:51 pm
Posts: 8822
Location: Somewhere north of Prescott, AZ on the Santa Fe "Peavine"
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53% of passengers identified themselves as "diehard train people." While we always see "we don't do it for the railfans," I believe it's possible to cater to that overlap between train people and customers seeking a unique experience. It's ours and the 765's job to make people into train fans.


This is actually important. These "diehard train people" aren't necessarily on our radar.

In my experience, I've found that, on average, about one person in a thousand in the U.S. and Canada would count as some kind of "rail enthusiast"--they like trains, have a model railroad, prefer Light Rail over the bus, know rail history, collect builder's plates, etc.--but of those, only one in perhaps twenty or thirty would qualify as "card-carrying" in any way--belongs to a rail museum or NRHS Chapter, subscribes to Trains or R&R, belongs to a passenger train advocacy group, etc.

That gap is your critical target market--not just for the Joliet Rocket, but for all of us.

We keep using the outdated image of the "diehard train fan" as the overweight Asperger's victim with a patch-covered vest, a scanner sticking out of the pocket, and two cameras around his neck; I literally cannot remember the last time I actually laid eyes on that stereotype, save for one retired guy that hangs out regularly at one noted railfan spot in the Northeast. The young guys that will inherit all we're doing are out there with their smartphones posting to Facebook and Instagram and tracking entire divisions via websites or web programs--and they're too broke to afford $300 steam excursion tickets yet, or they're eating ramen noodles for three weeks in order to afford to do so, because they've heard our warnings that this could all end completely any day now. And I know from personal experience that they want a closer friendship or kinship with the industry and hobby, but they're blocked by both the obstinate, impersonal, hostile "No Trespassing" attitude of the major railroads AND the occasional "members only" clique-ish attitude of many rail museums and excursion operations.

We need to stop saying "railfans don't ride/pay." They do--just not the slobbering foamers you notice. And that attitude may be doing all of us more harm than good.


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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2018 11:37 am 

Joined: Fri Nov 16, 2007 10:21 pm
Posts: 89
Kelly,

You mentioned the lack of turning facilities. So, does the excursion run steam first one way and get towed by a diesel the other?

BTW, Kudos for thinking 'Out of the Box'. Very inspirational for operations looking to develop new markets.

Eric


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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2018 11:51 am 

Joined: Tue Jan 25, 2005 4:03 pm
Posts: 772
Yes, a Metra unit rides the trail of the inbound run and pulls the train back to Joliet.

There are scenarios and areas to turn, but all of which would take up hours of the day and involve half a dozen other entities.

And thank you!

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Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, Inc
http://www.fwrhs.org


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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2018 1:47 pm 

Joined: Thu Nov 04, 2004 10:28 pm
Posts: 212
Alexander D. Mitchell IV wrote:
Quote:
53% of passengers identified themselves as "diehard train people." While we always see "we don't do it for the railfans," I believe it's possible to cater to that overlap between train people and customers seeking a unique experience. It's ours and the 765's job to make people into train fans.


This is actually important. These "diehard train people" aren't necessarily on our radar.

In my experience, I've found that, on average, about one person in a thousand in the U.S. and Canada would count as some kind of "rail enthusiast"--they like trains, have a model railroad, prefer Light Rail over the bus, know rail history, collect builder's plates, etc.--but of those, only one in perhaps twenty or thirty would qualify as "card-carrying" in any way--belongs to a rail museum or NRHS Chapter, subscribes to Trains or R&R, belongs to a passenger train advocacy group, etc.

That gap is your critical target market--not just for the Joliet Rocket, but for all of us.

We keep using the outdated image of the "diehard train fan" as the overweight Asperger's victim with a patch-covered vest, a scanner sticking out of the pocket, and two cameras around his neck; I literally cannot remember the last time I actually laid eyes on that stereotype, save for one retired guy that hangs out regularly at one noted railfan spot in the Northeast. The young guys that will inherit all we're doing are out there with their smartphones posting to Facebook and Instagram and tracking entire divisions via websites or web programs--and they're too broke to afford $300 steam excursion tickets yet, or they're eating ramen noodles for three weeks in order to afford to do so, because they've heard our warnings that this could all end completely any day now. And I know from personal experience that they want a closer friendship or kinship with the industry and hobby, but they're blocked by both the obstinate, impersonal, hostile "No Trespassing" attitude of the major railroads AND the occasional "members only" clique-ish attitude of many rail museums and excursion operations.

We need to stop saying "railfans don't ride/pay." They do--just not the slobbering foamers you notice. And that attitude may be doing all of us more harm than good.



They definitely exist. A lot of them either have families or lives, or just don't see the point in paying to be part of a mostly dead group that only meets one a month or so to show train pictures and movies. The active groups are thriving, and keep these people who have an interest but not time on a mailing list, or have found other ways to reach them. The key is marketing and offering a product that appeals to them.

Insurance, fear of lawsuits and all sorts of other pesky stuff has dramatically changed the excursion landscape to what it was in the 80s/early 90s. The key through all of this is getting the word out to your audience. Marketing and the internet has changed tremendously. Now, it's not just being interested in the Southern Railway, for example. You now have the resources to be interested in the Southern in Asheville, NC in the fall of 1945. A lot of these local railroad historical societies are thriving and the publications are as good, if not better, than anything you'll find on the national level, and it doesn't matter where you live, you have access to this information. Same with excursions. I can remember sending out a bunch of SASE to event operators in the 90s just trying to get on a mailing list so that you know when an excursion will operate. Now, with a click, we can find the full operating schedule for the 765. Marketing should be easier now....but it's not. The other extraneous things that tie up time and money are still there, but they have always been there in some form or another. Concerts, events, hanging out with girlfriend, etc. Nothing has really changed. It's just that we as a community have done a poor job at reaching the target audience, or we're offering them something that they don't want.

Now, success does happen. The Watauga Valley group in eastern Tennessee recently operated a sold out bus excursion of about 500 people from Johnson City, TN (and a few other intermediate stops) to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in western NC (about a 2hr highway drive). There, passengers transferred to train for a one-way ride over the full length of the railroad, where busses picked them up for the return to their starting point. That prompted a second trip that sold out in 36 hours, and now a 3rd trip is available. Now, this is a diesel trip (not steam) on a railroad you can ride any day of the week (although riding the full length would require two trips and not one) to a very regional destination that would be easily doable in a day-trip. Yet there were people who signed up who needed an airplane flight to be able to attend. The people who want to ride are out there--it's just getting the information to them and selling them a product that they want to pay for.

Speaking thereof, and getting back on the younger generation for a minute....it's been my experience that these people will pay for trips, but you have to convince them that it's worthwhile to do so. What are they getting out of the deal? A "train ride" doesn't cut it--you can do that for far cheaper at a multitude of sites. It's not necessarily money either. A decent percentage of the younger guys are into model trains, and anyone who has looked at this hobby recently knows that it isn't cheap by any standard. The problem is that you aren't offering the product that they want.

Here's the big thing and the elephant in the room, so to speak....too often these days, the "steam experience" is lost for almost everyone who rides the train except those in the first few cars. If you aren't there, you don't hardly see or hear the engine, and far too often, access is restricted at layover points because of either logistics, safety concerns or both. When your option is to ride in car 15 on a regular Amtrak route that you can ride any day for 1/3 the price, there isn't a lot of difference other than saying you "rode behind steam"--even though you can't see it and can't hear it. I understand the rationale behind putting the first class cars up front, but then again, you're cutting the market that wants to ride on the train and putting them far enough back that they can't see anything. Ticket prices are far up, but maybe that's a necessary evil, but if the steam experience isn't bringing the steam experience except for maybe 200 people out of an 800 person train, is it any surprise that you hear people complaining about ticket sales and that the younger generation just wants to chase and not ride? Stand at a crossing as the train goes blasting by, and you are getting that steam experience firsthand....and probably better than almost anyone onboard the train.

However big the market is for those who would ride one day and chase the next is basically gone because of the sealed vestibules on a lot of these trips. I don't know how big that market is, but I constantly hear that complaint from all age groups that they would ride one day and chase the next if it offered them something they couldn't get by chasing. When you seal the train, the decision is made easier, especially for anyone who is cash-strapped. On a sealed train, unless you are in the first car (at ~$500 a ticket since it's probably a dome or a limited capacity first class car), the better steam experience by far is trackside.

The Joliet idea is interesting because it's targeting a market that really hasn't been catered to in many years. Short trips, very fast speeds for steam (almost unheard of on the east coast) and it's basically not chaseable. You either ride or you might as well not go. I'd love to see the statistics for the people who bought a ticket for one trip and went out to see one or more trips go by the rest of the weekend compared to the people who simply went up to photograph it without buying a ticket. Add in open vestibules and an open baggage car this year, and the layover in Chicago, no one on the train should complain about not having access to the steam engine. That "steam experience" which we are all trying to market exists in spades.

Kudos to the Fort Wayne group for being proactive and trying something new, and it seems to be working out well for them. Repeating the past failures and hoping for a different outcome is the definition of insanity, yet we as a community continually try that exact thing over and over and over again.
Kevin


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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2018 2:22 pm 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 1:51 pm
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Location: Somewhere north of Prescott, AZ on the Santa Fe "Peavine"
Kevin Gilliam wrote:
A lot of them either have families or lives, or just don't see the point in paying to be part of a mostly dead group that only meets one a month or so to show train pictures and movies.

The flip side of this, of course, is volunteering for a museum where all you get to do is sit around in a chair and wait for the rare person to have a question you can answer aside from "Which way is the bathroom?", or sit at a cashier's window all day.

And there exist NRHS Chapters that used to do a thriving excursion business with Amtrak, Southern/NS, Chessie, Union Pacific, the local commuter agency, or the like to garner public visibility and "do" things. We all know what happened to that.

This Saturday would have been National Train Day. Is anyone paying attention?


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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2018 2:59 pm 

Joined: Thu Nov 04, 2004 10:28 pm
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Alexander D. Mitchell IV wrote:
Kevin Gilliam wrote:
A lot of them either have families or lives, or just don't see the point in paying to be part of a mostly dead group that only meets one a month or so to show train pictures and movies.

The flip side of this, of course, is volunteering for a museum where all you get to do is sit around in a chair and wait for the rare person to have a question you can answer aside from "Which way is the bathroom?", or sit at a cashier's window all day.

And there exist NRHS Chapters that used to do a thriving excursion business with Amtrak, Southern/NS, Chessie, Union Pacific, the local commuter agency, or the like to garner public visibility and "do" things. We all know what happened to that.

This Saturday would have been National Train Day. Is anyone paying attention?


That happened to a great many groups. They had no fallback plan when the excursion business dried up. Especially on the east coast, a great many chapters existed for the sole purpose of being able to sponsor excursions on Norfolk Southern. Post-1994, it's amazing how many have failed or shriveled to a fragment of what they once were. The success stories exist, but they are far and few between.


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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2018 3:44 pm 

Joined: Thu Feb 27, 2014 10:08 am
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Kevin Gilliam wrote:
Here's the big thing and the elephant in the room, so to speak....too often these days, the "steam experience" is lost for almost everyone who rides the train except those in the first few cars.

No comparison riding behind a mainline locomotive like 765 in a heavyweight with open windows and vestibules vs a lightweight sealed-window car. With about 7 or 8 mainline steam locomotives now planned to come online in the next two decades or so, maybe the time has come for Mr. Macdowell's suggested creation of a design for an open-window fleet of coaches that may be batch-produced at a reduced cost.


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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Wed May 16, 2018 3:05 pm 

Joined: Sun Aug 22, 2004 11:54 pm
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"While I don't have numbers (and should have asked), I would say about 40-50% of each train had passengers that dressed the part - and they looked fantastic. We held a photo contest and offered passengers free portraits if they dressed up or rode in first class or dome."

You are onto something missing from heritage rail operations.

The Mid Atlantic Air Museum in Reading PA has an annual "World War II" weekend with vintage warbirds (B-29's, B-17's, B-24's and B-25's, P40's, P-51's, Spitfires, et al). A big part of the even is that visitors can be exhibitors with period vehicles, clothing, music, etc. Unfortunately, I understand that one of the fellows that did a remarkable take on Abbott and Costello (despite only a cursory physical resemblance) passed away a year or two ago.

Many visitors dress the part -the men in suits in fedoras, women in dresses and heels, despite the fact that it is held in Reading PA on the weekend closest

There is something "bonding" about having visitors be a part of something, rather than apart from something. There's a reason gyms have "members", rather than customers.

Steam locomotives, despite their intrinsically fascinating nature didn't exist in isolation, and the interpretation of their significance is enhanced when other aspects of the world and times they inhabited are depicted with them.


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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Wed May 16, 2018 3:05 pm 

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"While I don't have numbers (and should have asked), I would say about 40-50% of each train had passengers that dressed the part - and they looked fantastic. We held a photo contest and offered passengers free portraits if they dressed up or rode in first class or dome."

You are onto something missing from heritage rail operations.

The Mid Atlantic Air Museum in Reading PA has an annual "World War II" weekend with vintage warbirds (B-29's, B-17's, B-24's and B-25's, P40's, P-51's, Spitfires, et al). A big part of the even is that visitors can be exhibitors with period vehicles, clothing, music, etc. Unfortunately, I understand that one of the fellows that did a remarkable take on Abbott and Costello (despite only a cursory physical resemblance) passed away a year or two ago.

Many visitors dress the part -the men in suits in fedoras, women in dresses and heels, despite the fact that it is held in Reading PA on the weekend closest to the Normandy invasion anniversary, and tarmacs in the June sun tend to bake.

There is something "bonding" about having visitors be a part of something, rather than apart from something. There's a reason gyms have "members", rather than customers.

Steam locomotives, despite their intrinsically fascinating nature didn't exist in isolation, and the interpretation of their significance is enhanced when other aspects of the world and times they inhabited are depicted with them.


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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Wed May 16, 2018 6:45 pm 

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That's not a post, that's an article.

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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Thu May 17, 2018 12:42 am 

Joined: Tue Aug 24, 2004 10:34 pm
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Very interesting thread. Seems like everything the #765 does is done right. Maybe we need to be paying attention eh? Seriously thank you for this thread. "Create the market" seems to be how it is done in most of the real world.

Regards, John.


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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Thu May 17, 2018 6:55 am 

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Fresh off hearing Kelly present some of these learnings to a group of preservationists, I don’t think I can underscore enough the service Kelly is doing for the whole community. Not only is he applying digital marketing strategies to a sector with a more “analog” set of norms, he is open to sharing the results and isn’t too proud to discuss what hasn’t worked out.

It’s not always easy to convince a BOD that modern marketing is worth the effort. If that’s a situation familiar to you, Kelly just provided some great ammunition.

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 Post subject: Re: The importance of data and feedback for mainline steam t
PostPosted: Thu May 17, 2018 9:48 am 

Joined: Wed Aug 25, 2004 4:18 pm
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Kelly, did FWRHS ever consider running trips over another Metra line, such as the one to Elgin/Big Timber? That would draw from a different market than trips from Joliet.

Chris Jacks


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