Why Amtrak Enlisted an Entertainment-Marketing Agency

National Train Day, Other Efforts Designed to Raise Awareness as Well as Ridership, Revenue

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The railroad, long thought of as a form of transportation that emerged in tandem with the horse-drawn buggy, seems like a far-fetched candidate to indulge in the relatively nascent practice of branded entertainment. And yet Amtrak is (pardon the pun) chugging along into the modern day.

National Train Day launched in 2008 to help raise awareness of rail travel and its part in U.S transportation.
National Train Day launched in 2008 to help raise awareness of rail travel and its part in U.S transportation.
Matter, the Edelman sports-and-entertainment-marketing unit, has been named Amtrak's entertainment-marketing agency of record as part of a three-year pact. Matter will develop, manage and execute Amtrak's National Train Day, which launched in 2008 to help raise awareness of rail travel and its part in U.S transportation.

"Why is Amtrak doing this? It's not any different than the rest of the world, which has been changing in terms of how people consume information and messaging," said Amtrak Chief Marketing Officer David Lim. The Train Day event gets potential customers and what he calls "traniacs" to visit train stations, and therefore can help boost ridership and revenue in ways perhaps traditional promotions could not (that said, Amtrak does run TV ads).

But Amtrak has other reasons for employing an entertainment-marketing firm. It is regularly approached for use in movie and TV scripts, Mr. Lim said, and often has its trains wrapped in promotional messages from marketers. Matter has "the relationships with screenwriters and producers. They can proactively bring us the right opportunities," Mr. Lim said. "We get a fair amount of requests, where we don't have the time or resources to evaluate and figure out, 'Gee, does this make sense? And if it does, at what level? What's the right way to approach this?'"

'Very sensitive'
At Matter, there's a recognition that Amtrak needn't go from government train service to glitzy ad star. "They are being very careful about how they are adopting this model, and it's something they are very sensitive about," said David Freeman, general manager of Matter. "We are really trying to make sure this is more about a celebration of trains and not some silly entertainment spectacle," he said, referring to National Train Day.

Amtrak has been plagued for years by criticism that its trains are late and its infrastructure outdated and its business not managed well, and the Bush administration acted to cut its federal subsidies. But Amtrak is expected to benefit from the Obama administration's stimulus plan, Mr. Lim said, as $1.3 billion goes toward upgrades of infrastructure as well as security. Mr. Lim said Amtrak finished its fiscal year 2008, which ended in September, with 28.7 million riders, up 11% from the previous fiscal year, and revenue of $1.7 billion, an increase of 14%.

There's more down the track. Both Mr. Lim and Mr. Freeman hinted at a six-month partnership between Amtrak and what Mr. Lim called a "major media company" that will last from May to November. A formal announcement is due in the next few weeks, Mr. Lim said.

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