Amtrak has opened up a new can of worms, and it appears the fish are biting.
By now, you’ve likely heard of the #AmtrakResidency program the company plans to offer writers.
Amtrak literally is rewriting new rules to telecommuting – breaking from the home office and your local coffee shop and placing the workplace squarely on the long-distance rails that zigzag the country.
In case you missed this story, it began Dec. 23 on the PEN America site. Author Alexander Chee casually mentioned his favorite place to write was on the train. He said he wished “Amtrak had residencies for writers.”
That’s all it took. The conversation landed on Twitter, and Amtrak captured it.
In fact, #AmtrakResidency garnered 21,000 mentions in just six days. To put that into perspective, Amtrak typically sees 25,000 to 30,000 mentions within a 90-day period. Also as a result of this campaign, Amtrak’s Twitter following grew 10 percent.
“Every brand is looking for the next viral campaign,” said Julia Quinn, Amtrak director of social media and head of the #AmtrakResidency program. “This was born through social media. The number of people who raised their hands to participate was huge. It would be writing powered by Amtrak, and hopefully it will be an inspirational experience to get their creative juices flowing.”
In January, Amtrak took the first step by choosing a writer – freelancer Jessica Gross – to test this concept. Gross took the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago and back. By all measures, it was a success.
But Amtrak recognizes it must tread lightly in these waters. When choosing a guinea pig, Amtrak didn’t want to cause any ethical conflicts between a journalist and his/her employer. It also made sure not to cross any pay-for-play lines: There’s no required number of tweets or shares about Amtrak and no contract. In fact, any writing that occurs in transit doesn’t even have to mention Amtrak.
The company has been working fast to formalize the program: What it will look like, who gets to ride, and how writers are selected. Amtrak also hasn’t officially ruled out a possible cost associated with it.
Amtrak’s long distance travel is popular in the summer. So, officials are working with revenue management to ensure they’re not putting residents in high-value spots.
But it also doesn’t mean Amtrak plans to plant writers on the train to Chicago in the dead of winter either, Quinn said.
“We don’t want to send people somewhere they don’t want to go,” she said. “This is a program that could become a staple at Amtrak. The sky’s the limit right now, but we don’t want to get lost in the excitement. We want to make sure we’re still making good decisions for our brand.”
Quinn says she’s confident writers will have a positive experience and feel compelled to share it with their audience, creating organic buzz.
And honestly, what’s not to love about immersing yourself in writing while traveling long distances, complete with sleeping accommodations, dining and observations cars, and watching the countryside?
The next writer to participate will be author Chee, who will be riding a variety of trains from New York to Portland, Ore. in May. Some of the scenery will include Glacier National Park in Montana.
The idea of a residency program isn’t new to the hospitality industry. Boutique hotels, for example, sometimes will take on sponsored residents. But Amtrak recognizes it’s uniquely cut out to do something special here.
“A residency is not a couple hours,” Quinn said. “Some of our long distance train travel is a couple days. It’s unplugged, immersed, and putting pen to paper. This is really exciting for us.”
As far as selection, there will be an entry form.
Forms then will pass through a panel to possibly include Amtrak executives and folks from the literary and arts communities.
“We don’t want this to be totally self-serving,” Quinn said. “We want to engage the community to help us bring this to fruition.”
Coincidentally, as #AmtrakResidency was carving its conversation into Twitter, Amtrak already was planning its first-ever #AmtrakLive event, hosting more than 30 digital leaders and innovators to live tweet and blog on the Texas Eagle from Los Angeles to Austin, March 5-7.
The idea was to select social media influencers to collaborate and share the southwest scenic views from an observation car. Participants will provide updates via Twitter and Instagram.
Christine Cube is a media relations manager with PR Newswire and freelance writer. She thinks the #AmtrakResidency program kinda rocks. Follow her @cpcube or give her a shout on PR Newswire’s Google+.