Tourism guru Annemarie Meyer has enjoyed an incredible career in Swiss destination and sports marketing. She has been CEO of the Swiss national treasure The Glacier Express for almost five years and has become a predominant figure and worthy ambassador of Swiss tourism. At the start of her career, Annemarie was the driving force behind many launch promotions for different target communities at Switzerland Tourism for three years. She then moved on to hone her marketing expertise in ‘the beautiful game’ at ISL and FIFA. After further roles managing the relationships with Alinghi and EURO 2008 for UBS, she devoted her skill and passion to helping put Destination Klosters firmly on the map. After a short mission at Musikinsel Rheinau, in 2016 she embarked upon an incredible journey as CEO of Glacier Express AG, where her deep experience in tourism on home turf has contributed to making the Glacier Express a huge national and international success and monument of Swiss tourism.
Who better then to tell us all about the Glacier Express and how this spectacular train has fared during the pandemic?
Mountain hikes are becoming increasingly popular: There were 258,000 visitors in 2019 – the second-highest number of guests in the history of the Glacier Express. How might that number change over the next couple of years?
The great outdoors are generally attracting more and more nature lovers. This increased popularity could be due to a longing for a contrast to urban life or people simply looking for a source of inspiration or perhaps it is prompted by a sense of nostalgia or driven by the menace of climate change. For all those reasons, at least until early 2020, the Alps enjoyed a surge in visitors. Then COVID triggered a sharp decline and we counted just a quarter as many guests in 2020 compared to 2019. There’s no way of knowing at the moment how long it will take for our business to recover but we’ll do everything in our power to ensure that alpine tours continue to attract visitors in the future. In 2019, for example, we introduced the new “Excellence Class” to provide our guests with a more luxurious experience during the trip.
Which country did most of your guests hail from before the coronavirus pandemic? Were Swiss tourists able to offset the deficit over the past year?
The number of visitors riding the Glacier Express rose sharply when the Furka tunnel first opened in the early 1980s, with the vast majority of guests coming from Germany, North America, England and Japan as well as from other European countries. We’ve seen a particular increase in guests from Asia, Australia and South America in the last few years. Swiss visitors account for around 20% in ‘normal’ years. Although we’ve seen an increase in the number of domestic visitors during the pandemic, they still haven’t been able to offset the loss of international guests. That’s also partly attributable to the fact that we were operating at full capacity in 2019 but cannot fully utilize our trains at present due to COVID restrictions.
Which insights has Glacier Express gained through the pandemic and how do you plan to take these into consideration?
Our most important insights are that nothing is certain, everything can change radically in a flash and there isn’t much we can do to prepare for future pandemics. The realization that COVID will be with us for quite a while prompted us to step up our efforts to protect our guests and adapt to the new travel rules or, in other words, the way people travel in today’s new reality.
At Glacier Express, we’ve seen demand shift toward more individual travelers. In fact, nearly all passengers on the Glacier Express in 2020 were individual travelers. This trend was already visible before the pandemic and we expect it to persist, albeit less radically than in 2020. That’s why it’s important for us to adapt our occupancy management strategy, have a presence in as many distribution channels as possible and gear both our marketing and our communications to the new conditions. Having a well-known brand, a well-positioned offering and an above-average Net Promoter Score are important in this regard. Plus, experience shows that the declines we saw in the Excellence Class, which was introduced in 2019, were not as high as in the two traditional classes. That’s good news considering the higher added value of the Excellence Class. It fits in with the general trend of people looking to treat themselves to a really special experience when traveling.
Is digitalization an important topic at Glacier Express? Are there any projects in this area?
Both digitalization as well as the changes in the way guests research and book their trips have triggered a large number of changes in the tourism industry over the past few years and the pandemic has accelerated those changes under a different set of circumstances. The tourism business is highly complex and involves many players from airlines, tour operators and agents to digital distribution systems. It is still unclear whether the protective measures will incite travelers to book more of their trips through agents, what will happen next with respect to operators and airlines or when guests from overseas will start traveling again. There’s also no way of knowing just how the economic repercussions of the pandemic and the new rules will affect travel behavior. Right now, we expect the individual travel segment to recover more quickly, so we will need to focus on them but without neglecting the group population. In terms of occupancy management, the shift will bring major challenges and risk considerations simply because booking timelines will be vastly different.
Why should Generation Y book a trip with the Glacier Express instead of jetting off to Ibiza?
I regularly go walking or cycling and have noticed more young people wherever I go. Many of them are starting to enjoy the new-found serenity that nature offers. The Glacier Express slows everything down a notch, offering breathtaking views of the extraordinary landscapes hidden away in corners of Switzerland that lie between the Matterhorn and the Engadin valley and lakes. The trip is rounded off by regional culinary experiences from the on-board kitchen and the protection regulations currently in place mean that everyone enjoys more space in our renovated carriages. The train passes over 291 bridges/viaducts and winds through 91 tunnels, many of which marked the dawn of a new era when they were built. As a society, we now have to launch the dawn of our own new era in order to tackle the challenges of both the pandemic and climate change. We are already seeing a shift in mentality, slowly but surely. Generation Y isn’t the only one paying closer attention to their individual environmental footprint. More people are questioning how long and valuable an experience or stay should be, as opposed to simply jetting off to their next destination, as they may have done in the past.
I’d like to finish up with a personal question: In a previous position, you used to be involved in sailing regattas like the America’s Cup. What do you like better – the sea or the mountains?
Nature has always been and will always be an important source of energy and inspiration for me. It really doesn’t matter whether I’m on the coast or up in the mountains, but because I live closer to the mountains than to the sea, I choose the mountains. I love visiting mountain lakes, but also the glaciers, which thankfully still exist. I always find mountain peaks open up new perspectives and offer us a glimpse of new horizons.
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