Member Profile | Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions
Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions is a RAC member based in Stettler, Alberta and offering rail-based day excursions to its clients. Like many tourism and entertainment businesses, COVID has had a devastating impact. But Alberta Prairie perseveres. General Manager Bob Willis shares the secret to the company’s success to date.
How did COVID impact Alberta Prairie Railway and its employees?
COVID came to Canada in February 2020. By March it became clear that we were in big doodoo. Health restrictions started coming in; all of it made sense, but it also signalled that we simply wouldn’t be able to operate as we had been. We have open coaches – day coaches for the most part – which would make social separation difficult. A good part of our operations involves entertainment, and there were restrictions on singing, and so on.
Any monies we had received for the prepayment of 2020 excursion season tickets was immediately refunded.
From the get-go, it looked like we were dead in the water. We laid everyone off but a few people we needed to run our freight and rail car storage businesses. Those layoffs were with the understanding that we would bring people back as soon as we absolutely could.
It was the freight and storage business that ended up saving our bacon. If we were not going to be running on track, for who knows how long, we wondered if it could be used differently. With the oil industry also in the dumps, there were a whole bunch of excess cars that needed storage and we took what we could.
We know tourism operators across Canada and around the world have been among the hardest hit businesses. How did you manage to get through?
Empty oil tanker car storage was key. Without that, we would have had zero revenue from March 13, 2020, until two weeks ago.
Some of the way the government money was doled out didn’t make sense for smaller businesses, but the ‘keep people working program’ was very helpful. It allowed us to bring everyone who had been laid off quickly and put them to work doing coach restoration work, repairs, and developing an alternative tourist train destination that could be adapted to meet pandemic restrictions.
Entertainment and tourism businesses are in bad, bad shape. And we do both. So, we had to do something else.
In the late summer and early fall of 2020, following a series of consultation with public health officials and the development of a comprehensive COVID-19 plan, it looked like we would be able to again host. The Polar Express train in late November and throughout December 2020. Unfortunately, the third wave of COVID hit and, three days before the start of POLAR, we were again shutdown. That started a second round of refunds to our customers – this time eve more aggressively – as we felt that it was important that refunds be returned in time for Christmas.
After Christmas, it really started looking like 2021 wasn’t going to happen at all. But we started planning then for what we could or needed to do differently when we could finally reopen.
We built a completely new destination to accommodate as many as 250 guests at a time – complete with kitchen and dining facilities, bathrooms, support buildings and structures, including bridges. It was a massive undertaking. To do it in a matter of months was quite an accomplishment.
Really, ours is a good news story about the power of ingenuity, enterprise, heart, and putting people first.
What did you do as a company to pivot?
Beyond car storage, we’ve changed our entire offering.
Our driving concern was that we wouldn’t do anything that could contaminate folks – either in the community we’re based in, nor in the one we go to – just to make a buck. We also wanted to support people here in town.
In April 2020, we built a barrel train, hired a clown to drive it, filled it with stuffed animals, and drove it through town blaring to buoy spirits in the community. Kids loved that.
In December 2020 after POLAR was cancelled, we decorated our hayride wagons for Christmas, hired a Santa and drove around playing Christmas music.
What have the early stages of recovery looked like for Alberta Prairie?
We had to get everybody rehired and retrained. We aimed for the first part of September. Then Alberta suddenly decided to remove their COVID-19 restrictions in time for the Calgary Stampede in early July. And it was back to the drawing for an earlier opening in August 2021. It will take several months for our freight customers to move all their cars to new storage locations, which means that we are not able to travel to the Village of Big Valley as usual. So, we dusted off the plans from last year and are offering new packages to a new location. We’re selling out. It’s a huge success.
We’re carrying on with our basic philosophy of providing entertainment and respecting the history of passenger train travel in this part of the world.
What can people look forward to on a day trip with your company?
Normally, we take up 400 or so people to a former Canadian Northern rail community that has a roundhouse and all kinds of amenities from a pioneer-era village, including a restored main street, hand-tool museum, and even a blue pioneer church. There’s singing, interaction, moving around in the coaches, and the Lone Star Saloon on board the train.
Right now, we’re doing shorter trips, with a lot less people, to a totally new destination where people can play carnival games, take hayrides, enjoy a petting zoo, ride in the barrel train and a speeder, and a lot more activities. We’ve moved from buffets to cafeteria-style service, with rotisserie and BBQ food. And our entertainment is currently outdoors and socially distanced.
Most of our customers, if not all, are lapping it up. They love the new experiences.
Alberta has been among the first jurisdictions in Canada to lift several public health restrictions. How has that been received by your customers? What COVID protocols have you implemented to ensure the safety of your team and passengers?
The province has removed almost all the restrictions. But we’ve kept several protocols in place.
All employees are double vaccinated, and anyone handling food works gloved and masked. We do health checks on all employees and send them for testing if there is any indication health issues, and masking is encouraged for any employee working in close contact with client and other staff.
Passengers can mask if they choose. They can also ask to be socially separated from other passengers, and to the extent we can, we do. Hand sanitizers are still in place.
So far, passengers haven’t expressed any fears at all to us; our pax would usually tell us if there was something they weren’t fine with. They know the situation. Most aren’t moving about. We’re selling out, so we are clearly doing something right.
What has RAC membership meant for you and your business over this very difficult period?
Right from early on, we felt the association was interested in our plight and was going to bat for us with government. Having someone do that felt great. It was comforting. We appreciate that.
What is the outlook for tourism rail in Alberta/Canada/North America, given the events of the last 18 months
It’s going to be awhile yet. It will take probably a couple of years to recover.
There are two tourisms, of course: Canadian tourism (Canadians touring Canada) and international tourism. International tourism is going to be slow, slow, slow. The local/provincial tourism will be faster to recover and that is our bedrock anyway.
You lose one it hurts. You lose both, you’re sunk. But for us, the interprovincial travel piece is our base.
The rest is cream.
It’s going to be a long time before the cream comes back. But we’re getting by through…for now.