For over 25 years, the team at Golden Eagle Luxury Trains has lovingly designed and operated an exciting range of fully-escorted rail tours to some of the world’s most exotic destinations. But, what exactly goes into the planning of a luxury rail tour? We ask Matt Bowling, Golden Eagle’s Product Executive, to take us behind the scenes and reveal all!
So, Matt, where does the inspiration for a new tour or destination come from?
This is entirely down to our Company Founder, Tim Littler. His passion for discovering new destinations by private train is what powers the business and has done since the very beginning. Take the Champagne Express tour for example, this was an idea that originated over dinner with Tim and his friends back in 1989 and subsequently led to Tim establishing GW Travel (now Golden Eagle Luxury Trains), so it was a great privilege for me to have worked with him to reproduce these two unique itineraries between Paris and Venice for 2018.
What are the fundamental ingredients of a Golden Eagle rail tour?
For me, my primary focus is to make each and every tour unique from any other tour available on the market. So, although the destinations we visit may be similar to what can be found elsewhere, I want to ensure that the sightseeing experiences are exclusive to us wherever possible, so that we really WOW our guests.
How do you go about creating a one-of-a-kind itinerary?
The off-train experiences are really key to this. I try hard to incorporate as many authentic and locally-influenced experiences as possible; something that really showcases what the destination is about and what makes it unique, whilst still including the major must-see sights. This is where we rely on the knowledge and experience of the local ground agents, plus it’s really important that we find agents who understand our core values and the expectations of our guests.
Designing a private rail tour must present some challenges?
Yes, of course! One of the biggest challenges I find is balancing the time we spend on the train and off the train, as travelling by private train is an experience in itself, but at the same time you want to ensure that we are maximising our time spent in each destination. We also want to make sure that any scenic railway lines are covered during daylight hours and we like to schedule a meal on board the train during this time, so that our guests have time to appreciate the passing scenery. An additional consideration is of course the train timetabling we have to work from and making sure that the content we want to include can fit in the schedule we are given. This is definitely the tricky part!
I can find the contracting element difficult at times too, especially as we operate in many remote countries where English is not widely spoken and the tourist infrastructure is not as developed as some of the major tourist destinations for example. We have strict Health and Safety guidelines that we must follow, so it can be challenging at times to align our best practices to those of another country.
When are you confident that a tour is ready to be released?
Once one of the team has sampled it for themselves! It is very different planning an itinerary in the office to actually being there and experiencing it for yourself, therefore, we will travel to the majority of the locations featured, experience the off-train excursions and inspect the hotels and restaurants before signing the tour off.
What has been your favourite itinerary to work on so far?
In the 12 months I have been at Golden Eagle, I have already been lucky enough to work on a number of new itineraries, but I would have to say that my favourite has been the Sicilian Odyssey. I found this to be an exciting challenge as Italy is of course a very well-travelled country for many of our guests, so to design an itinerary that would really stand out from the crowd took a lot of hard work and research, but I am really pleased with the result! Our Freedom of Choice touring options on this tour offer lots of variety, so guests can essentially tailor-make their experience, all at no extra cost, which is a real bonus.
Would you ever make changes to any of Golden Eagle’s classic itineraries?
Yes, we do so every year! Despite having operated our classic tours, like the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, for over 20 years, there is always room for improvement and we rely heavily on guest feedback to implement such changes, whether it be an addition or removal of a tour activity, or a suggestion for on board the train, like the introduction of Wi-Fi for example. We are continuously seeking ways to enhance and improve our offerings.
Plus, every now and again, we like to offer variations of our classic journeys. So, for example, in 2018 we are reintroducing the Trans-Siberian BAM Explorer between Vladivostok and Ulaan Baatar, which combines part of the traditional Trans-Siberian railway with a section of the Baikal-Amur Magistral line in Siberia. We operated a similar routing in 2016, which was very well received, so we are excited about operating a slightly different variation next year, which has the addition of the Naadam Festival in Mongolia.
Which new destination / tour excites you the most for 2018?
Well apart from the Sicilian Odyssey, I would say the New Year in Vienna tour. We have seen a growing demand for our Arctic Circle tour at New Year over the last few years, as I think more people are now looking for a really memorable way to welcome in the New Year and I feel confident that we have achieved this with our new itinerary. Central Europe in winter is magical anyway, so it provides the perfect backdrop for a rail tour! We have then combined all of the best-loved cities with some of the region’s hidden gems, to create an itinerary that will really impress our discerning guests.