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Luxury on track

Luxurious journeys on trains is a niche tourism product that has always found takers among the well travelled cognoscenti across the world. The luxury trains of India are an excellent showcase of the country’s glorious culture, but focused efforts are needed by industry stakeholders to promote this segment

The tourism industry is constantly evolving and the market needs to stay up to date with the products and services it has to offer to the new age travellers. The growing demand for expereintial travel is leading to an interesting new development – luxury train travels are coming to the fore, in India and across the world, and are here to stay.

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Luxury trains are no longer viewed as only opulent carriers that take one to various renowned locations but an all-inclusive destination in itself that offers unique set of experiences. It has become an ultra-comfortable stay at exquisite suites, personalised service, world-renowned and authentic delicacies along with a host of activities onboard that make the train journey so exclusive and special.

Diverse itineraries

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Rajni Hasija

Highlighting the various travel itineraries planned for guests on board the Maharaja Express, Rajni Hasija, director, Tourism and Marketing, IRCTC says, “IRCTC took over the management of Maharajas’ Express in 2012. At present there are seven itineraries with a mix of seven nights/ eight days and three nights/ four days. One of the famous ones which Indian and international tourists prefer is the Indian Splendour which takes them around Delhi – Agra – Ranthambore – Jaipur – Bikaner- Jodhpur – Udaipur – Balasinor and Mumbai. There are also others like the Heritage of India, Southern Jewels and Treasures of India.”

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H Guite

When one speaks about Rajasthan and its rich heritage, one cannot forget the splendid glory of the Palace on Wheels.  Starting all the way back in 1862, the aesthetics and interiors of the train remind travellers of the royal past. “The seven days’ journey embarks on a route to the seven beautiful cities of Rajasthan like Jaipur, Ranthambhore, Udaipur, Jaipur, etc,” states H Guite, MD, Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC) about the itineraries the luxury train offers.

 

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Arup Sen

The Deccan Odyssey was launched in 2004 by Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) with the Indian Railways. In 2014, MTDC appointed Cox & Kings to operate and manage full on-board and off-board services, sales, marketing and operational activities. Arup Sen, special advisor, Cox & Kings elaborates on the scenic destinations the train covers like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, Rajasthan, Telangana, Goa and Karnataka. “Guests are escorted to some of the most charming destinations in India including iconic Hampi, Ellora Caves, Sasan Gir, Rann of Kutch, Udaipur and many more. Some of the itineraries include the Maharashtra Splendor which covers Mumbai – Nashik – Aurangabad – Ajanta – Kolhapur – Goa – Sindhudurg and the Maharashtra Wild trail where travellers can explore Mumbai – Aurangabad – Pench (Ramtek) – Tadoba –Ajanta and Nashik among others,” mentions Sen.

With an excellent network of luxury trains running across the country, tourism boards, tour operators and travel agents have cashed on this unique travel experience attracting tourists from all over the world.

Changing trends

For the Deccan Odyssey, majority of foreign customers are from UK, Germany, South Africa and the US. “Domestically, metro cities remain our source markets including Mumbai, Delhi, Surat, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Bengaluru among others,” mentions Sen.

Giving his views on changing trends in the luxury train segment and how this can affect the market in a huge way, he shares, “Rail journeys find itself on the bucket list of many across the world. The popularity is an outcome of the unique travel experience it offers and also its speed and swiftness in traversing through tourist destinations while you stay completely comfortable. The millennials are the new luxury admirers on the block. The experience of the Deccan Odyssey is fast catching up among youngsters (25-35 years), especially in the western nations, contrary to the belief that only the ardent train-journey lovers belonging to a senior age category opt for it.”

Also breaking through these stereotypes is the Palace on Wheels and internationally the train has recorded high tourist arrivals from Britain, America, Australia and New Zealand. RTDC is more focussed on enhancing the experience of the travellers inside the train and leaving them with a train vacation that is novel, bringing them back for more.

The Maharajas’ Express is also predominantly booked by international travellers including NRIs. “We host a number of nationalities on the train, with the highest number originating from USA, UK and Australia. The top five countries in the last five years (season wise – Sept-Oct to March-April) are USA, UK, Australia, Russia, Japan and Canada,” mentions Hasija.

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Weddings onboard luxury trains is an interesting new trend. Sen states, “Being one of the most significant ceremonies of life, would-be couples have been looking out for creative ways that can make their special occasion truly memorable. Deccan Odyssey opens its doors to the bride and groom to let them into the epitome of luxury and exchange their wedding vows with service that can be best described as regal.”

Apart from marriages, the concept of meetings onboard is also becoming an appealing option against the conventional methods of meetings and incentive programmes of corporates. Companies are taking interest in luxury trains by looking to organise their important meetings in a royal setting onboard as the attendees are gifted with a lifetime experience of travelling in a luxury train.

After taking over the Maharajas’ Express, IRCTC has experienced several changes over the years. Hasija discusses these changes and the impact it is having on the number of tourist occupancies on the train, “One of the foremost changes that we have observed is the short horizon to book i.e. earlier guests used to book several months in advance which has now changed. We are seeing more bookings coming at short notice sometimes even a week before the scheduled departure. I believe that the liberal visa norms have a role to play in this.“

One more aspect observed is that guests are wanting to have real experiences like visiting a primary school in a village or interacting with the local habitants on the streets in addition to the usual sightseeing programmes and this has encouraged IRCTC to include such experiences in the itineraries.

International market

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Nayaz Noor

India outbound is also signing up for train journeys across the world and experience luxury in different cultures and traditions. The Ghan train offers the Indian traveller a different way to see and experience the central part of Australian outback and its vast stretches of landscape that is completely different from the rest of the continent. Melbourne based Safir Tours, a bespoke DMC, is promoting Great Australian Rail Journeys for 2018-2019 in the Indian market. Speaking about the experiences the train has to offer, Nayaz Noor, CEO, Safir Tours states, “The train offers a unique journey that is unmatched. It combines luxury with the rugged scenic beauty of the Australian red soil terrain. Most of all it offers the Indian traveller bragging rights to have done a journey in Australia that is once in a life time and so different from the others. With a continent as large as the USA, train travel on the Ghan and Indian Pacific gives a different perspective to the experience one encounters.”

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Valentin Waldman

The Eastern & Oriental Express is one such luxury train that never stops to fascinate travellers. It was built in Japan in 1970, and was previously operated in New Zealand as the Silver Star. James B Sherwood (founder and chairman Emeritus) bought the train in 1991 and shipped it over to Singapore, to become Belmond’s third luxury sleeper train. Valentin Waldman, general manager, Eastern & Oriental Express emphasises the train’s long history, “This train made history on its launch in September 1993 as the first train to travel the whole length of the 1,943 km from Singapore to Bangkok, linking the railway systems of both Malaysia and Thailand.”

Belmond’s Eastern & Oriental Express largest client base comes from the UK and US with the Asian market growing steadily. “As our brand continues to build traction, awareness of Belmond’s unique travel portfolfio is increasing worldwide. And the recent trends in the industry has pushed us to innovate and come up with new products. Overall, luxury travellers are seeking perfect service, great food and unique experiences, for which Belmond’s Eastern & Oriental Express is renowned. Passengers want to make sure they experience the authenticity of the destinations they travel to, so our journeys are tailored to this, from the food we offer to the experiences on and off the train,” says Waldman.He further stresses on how guests are invited to embark on journeys of discovery, adventure and excitement and the train experience offers them the chance to disconnect from the mundane world.

Exclusive experiences

The Ghan train makes sure that the F&B offerings are not just met but are beyond expectations to accommodate and make people of all cultures feel at home. The train has Platinum and Gold Class services each with their own lounges and restaurant area for the guests. Three course meals for Gold Class and five course for Platinum. All beverages including wines and spirits are included.  Noor remarks, “Taking the overnight journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs, breaking journey to see the West MacDonnell Ranges and then continuing to Uluru for a few days to see Ayers Rock and Kata Tjuta rounds up the itinerary that is a total contrast to visiting just the cities in Australia. Travellers also learn about the indigenous culture in the off-train excursions allowing one to become a part of it in some ways.”

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The Eastern & Oriental Express recently celebrated 25 years of iconic rail journeys and to mark the occasion, Belmond launched Art & Fashion in Motion 2018 – a collaboration with local artists to bring guests closer to contemporary Asian culture. “We are also currently working on the new grand suite and spa car for the Eastern & Oriental Express, following the success of this addition to its sister train, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, earlier this year. We have also enhanced the guest experience on board and improved the Wi-Fi as well as updated the excursions to include a wider range of options from immersive travel experiences to active and wellbeing activities,” mentions Waldman. Last year, the company launched South America’s first ever luxury sleeper train in Peru, the Belmond Andean Explorer.

Focus on promotion

Luxury trains as an experience needs to be promoted extensively to not only attract the family travellers but also the solo experiential millennials. IRCTC has thus chalked out several strategies for promoting the Maharajas’ Express to various consumers and travel agencies, nationally and on a global level. Hasija explains how the company has been consistently participating in international travel trade fairs to promote the train. “In addition to the routine exercise, this year there are planned to focus on the Russian and Japanese market and efforts are underway to promote the train through popular travel marts in these countries. Maharajas’ Express has also been inviting journalists/ TV crews from the world over to travel on the train and share their experience through their magazines/ journals/ news articles/ TV programmes/ blogs etc,” she adds.

With an aim to diversify its offering, the Deccan Odyssey has welcomed corporates to host their meetings and incentive programmes onboard the award-winning luxury train. It has even announced redesigned compact journeys of five days to tap the domestic market. The Susegado Goa, its shorter journey received phenomenal response in 2017. Sen further explains how these recent additions help in keeping up with the evolving change, “The majestic train can now also host weddings with its special capability of organising medium scaled lavish events.  The train also wears a new look with the authentic Warli art which is one of the most cherished art forms of
Maharashtra.  Many design and interior modifications have been carried out to reflect the erstwhile history and culture of Maharashtra.”

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The international market is huge and it requires concise and consistent campaigns to maintain the brand recall. The national luxury trains also want to reach out to masses which can considerably increase the footfall and at the same time tap potential agent networks. “Thorough message percolation can be achieved through ground-agents. This applies for both domestic as well as international markets. Price play and experimenting with itineraries can also help achieve an appealing product-mix. While luxury is demanded by a certain market, there is a segment that shall come onboard on availability of discounted trips,” affirms Sen.

Apart from road shows, RTDC also participates in international tourism events. Guite says, “This is done so as to raise awareness about the experiences the train has to offer especially in Spain, UK and USA. Regular meetings are also held with the GSAs to make sure the target audience is achieved and have had a great story to go back and tell in their home countries for more people to come visit.”

Luxury train travel is the best way to explore diverse cultures, landscapes and experiences like no other travel package can. With concerted and integrated efforts of various stakeholders including central and state governments, tour operators and the hotel industry, India can emerge not just as a leading destination for train travel but rather for luxury train experiences.

(With inputs from Steena Joy)

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