Double decks take Sightline Tours to new levels

A fleet of Van Hools and GeoGenius enhance sightseeing in Vancouver.

When Rocky Mountaineer Vacations shut down its Gray Line West operation in Vancouver, BC, Canada in 2007, the move created a significant void in sightseeing options for this area. Gray Line was the only large bus sightseeing operation in Vancouver and had been running for years.

Seeing it as a new opportunity for his company, Darren Berg, owner and president of the Seattle-based motorcoach company MTR Western, elected to step up and capture the residual traffic. He branded the newest sightseeing company in Vancouver as a separate division under the name Sightline Tours.

“Sightseeing in and around Vancouver area is spectacular and inviting,” says Berg. “But with only so many attractions, most tour operations go to the same places.”

He says with that in mind the mission has been to present a tremendously enhanced per capita sightseeing product that would compare favorably to the five-star level of service delivered on the cruise ships arriving and departing from Vancouver.

Enter Fisher

Terry Fisher, former owner of the Alberta-based charter bus company, Traxx, joined MTR Western in May 2008 to help develop and run Sightline Tours.

Where wholesale tour operators typically work one year in advance, Fisher says MTR Western settled on a soft opening in the spring when most foreign independent travelers (FITs) had already made their reservations.

“Sightline Tours differentiates through its product presentation, and by how it manages the experience of getting customers to and from the various tour destinations,” he says. A soft opening gave the new company time to work out the process, train and get the processes down pat.”

To get Sightline Tours up and running, Berg initially followed the playbook of the former Gray Line operation, but quickly began making the refinements to the product and presentation that would further distinguish it as a premium sightseeing company throughout British Columbia.

A number of experienced drivers transitioned to Sightline from the former Gray Line operation who Fisher says represent a very carefully chosen group of professionals.

“The difference is they now enjoy playing a more important role in a high quality operation,” he says. “Driving for Sightline Tours, they receive greater support for the skills and experience they bring to the job.”

The makeover includes the purchase of new motorcoaches. The Sightline fleet is exclusively Van Hool from ABC Companies — six 2008 T2145s and two double deck TD925s.

Clint Guth, regional vice president and general manager for ABC Companies Service Center, Garden Grove, CA, says outfitting the T2145s and the TD925s for service in Canada has been a detail-oriented process.

“To meet Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standards specifications, we have to present all interior instructions and signage in both English and French,” he says. “We converted mile markings on the odometer to kilometers and made changes in the multiplex system to allow the lights to shine anytime the vehicle is running.”

Modifications and GeoGenius

Berg had his own list of amenities and modifications.  Refitted for a high-quality presentation, the coaches feature customized leather and fabric seating, and wheel wells painted silver — an MTR Western trademark that accentuates the chrome rims.

Berg says he is particularly pleased that the Cummins engines allow a grade of biodiesel fuel closer to B-20, which is advantageous to the eco-conscious organization. Seating up to 81 sightseers on a bus also goes a long way to offset the carbon footprint.

Two more TD925s scheduled for delivery in 1Q 2009 will feature glass rooftops and further refinements to the interior appointments.

GeoGenius is the signature amenity, the proprietary GPS-triggered audio/video tour information system Berg has developed for MTR Western. Historical and travel-related content presented on large flat screen monitors augment the tour itineraries with what are essentially mini-documentary features on the various sites and attractions.

Lorayne Deceour, who oversees the development of GeoGenius for MTR Western, says  this amenity brings greater brand consistency to the tour product.

“It certainly does not replace the tour guide or the opportunity for added commentary from the driver,” she says. “It does ensure delivery of the same valuable highlights and information from coach to coach, driver to driver.”

Sightline itinerary

The Sightline itinerary includes the Vancouver City Tour that takes in Chinatown and Gastown, the birthplace of Vancouver, as well as Stanley Park, one of North America’s largest city parks, with a scenic photo stop at the Totem Poles. Granville Island offers a cultural mixture of galleries, shops and restaurants.

Sightline differentiates further by repackaging the attractions closer to customer preferences for more convenient schedules and itineraries.

“We listened to our customers’ comments and responded with a variety of combination packages with more options of mixing and matching attractions within a tour,” he says. “We have learned to make our products more accommodating.”

The coaches load on to the BC Ferries for a 90-minute lift across the Straight of Georgia and past the Gulf Islands Vancouver Island and the Butchart Gardens, and into the provincial capital city of Victoria.

Traveling toward the north shore, the Capilano and Grouse Mountain Tour takes guests across Lions Gate Bridge and into the Coastal Mountain Range and Grouse Mountain with stops at the Capilano Salmon Hatchery and Capilano Suspension Bridge and Treetop Adventure, Vancouver’s oldest attraction.

A day trip along the Sea to Sky Highway to the European style mountain resort of Whistler, site of the upcoming 2010 Olympic Games. The tour includes stops at Howe Sound and Britannia Beach, once the largest producing copper mine in the British Empire, and optional connections for a return trip aboard the Whistler Mountaineer train.

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