Polar Express Article

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Polar Express Article in the Smoky Mountain Times

‘Polar Express' stays on track through the national economic fog
Tuesday, November 25, 2008 4:22 PM EST

By Aaron Morgan

"The Polar Express" idles on Friday evening just before the 6:30 p.m. trip to the "North Pole." The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s general manager says ridership on the Express has held steady from last year. (Aaron Morgan)

  

  

Times Staff

Even though the economy has been plagued with bad news lately, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR) General Manager Kim Albritton said the holidays are going to be good for GSMR. "The Polar Express" train excursion has already sold 30,000 pre-booked tickets this year.

"We're at the same place we were this time last year," Albritton said. "We're right on track."

She said GSMR has been successfully operating holiday excursions for 15 years. But the "Polar Express" excursion, which began in 2004, has far exceeded its predecessors. Last year, more than 46,000 people rode "The Polar Express."

Before 2004, GSMR ran "Santa's Express" out of the Dillsboro depot. Albritton said ticket sales for the previous holiday trains averaged between 6,000 to 8,000. Most of those tickets where for school children on field trips from the classroom.

The success of "The Polar Express," she said, is largely due to the Warner Brothers film version of the popular Christmas book of the same name. The animated movie was released in theaters across the country in 2004, the same year GSMR changed the name of its holiday train excursion.

"We always read the (‘Polar Express') book on the holiday trains. But when the movie came out, the title received national attention. It was a huge national event."

Given all the recent bad news for the economy, Albritton said she is "shocked that it (ticket sales) are holding."

Ticket prices for "The Polar Express" are $38 for an adult and $26 for a child. Train riders can also opt for a "first class" upgrade, which adds $15 for an adult and $10 for a child. Albritton said the first class car, which includes amenities such as a souvenir mug and holiday snacks, has been filling up fast.

"The first-class car has been selling out, people are paying for the upgrade."

Marketing

This year, GSMR adopted a new marketing strategy. Instead of spending money for advertising in surrounding states, Albritton said the company opted to spend its entire marketing budget in North Carolina. That move may have helped keep the holiday business strong.

The effort included television and radio ads, brochures and the purchase of a mailing list. GSMR mailed 75,000 brochures to North Carolina addresses this year. And Albritton said the effort is paying off.

"As long as we do a good job, they're going to keep coming back."

From Dillsboro to Bryson City

Citing rumors that GSMR was running out of money, and despite of them, Albritton said the company is not closing. She said the 2009 brochure and rates are ready.

The rumors, she said, date back to the summer when GSMR halted all train excursions from Dillsboro to Bryson City.

At the time, the reasons given for Dillsboro shutdown were a drop-off in ridership and the soaring cost of diesel fuel. However, Albritton said moving all train excursions to Bryson City "was always part of the master plan." She said economic circumstances forced GSMR to make the move sooner than management had hoped.

The Times reported that as many as 40 employees faced layoffs or a move from Dillsboro to Bryson City in July. But Albritton said on Monday that less than 20 jobs were lost. She said at least six of the Dillsboro employees are now working in Bryson City.

In retrospect, Albritton said the move was "ahead of the curve." "If we were still Dillsboro," she said, "we'd be in big trouble now."

Current Business

Although ticket sales are high, there is still room for improvement. Albritton said most of the Friday and Saturday trains are sold out, there are still a lot of tickets available for weekday trips.

GSMR has also recently added the "Take Santa Back" after-Christmas version of "The Polar Express." The new excursion is scheduled for 2 trips a day, at 5:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. There are 5,800 tickets available.

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