Two years ago, when Amtrak entertained the idea of a writers’ residency program on its cross-country trains, the message went viral.
#AmtrakResidency garnered 21,000 Twitter mentions in just six days; Amtrak’s following there immediately grew 10 percent.
So the company went with it, launching the program March 2014.
Amtrak pulled together some judges, accepted 16,000 submissions, selected 24 writers for its first class, and sent them to travel and write.
Starting this month, two writers a month will travel round trip on pre-selected trains, covering all 15 of Amtrak’s long-distance routes.
“The initial launch of the program really shined a romantic light on cross-country train travel,” says Julia Quinn, Amtrak director of social media and head of the #AmtrakResidency program. “From a brand perspective, it helps to have highly eloquent people say beautiful things about your [product]. It’s good, old fashioned word-of-mouth marketing.”
The Second Class
Amtrak received roughly 1,000 submissions for this round, which is markedly fewer than the start of the program.
Officials chalk this up to realistic expectations and submissions that no longer are caught up in the fanfare.
This year, applications were reviewed by a panel that included writers and former Amtrak residents Lindsay Moran and Jeffrey Stanley, Amtrak Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Corporate Communications Joe McHugh, and writer and teacher Jessica Gross.
“It’s extremely flattering,” Quinn says. “We’re not in the literary business – 1,000 submissions is still a lot for us. We’re hopeful that we’ll keep this program moving forward.”
Quinn says the company is open to improving and streamlining the process.
Already, Amtrak works closely with residents to make sure they’re not traveling during peak times. This helps keep program costs down.
Quinn says the company would like to get into a predictable rhythm. If everything continues as expected, a new application process could start by early 2017.
A Different Lens on American Culture
Scott Berkun took his trip Oct. 2015 and wrote 5 Things I Learned From My Amtrak Writer’s Residency.
Berkun, a bestselling author and popular speaker on creativity, philosophy, culture, and business, traveled for roughly a week from Atlanta to Seattle.
“I had a great experience,” Berkun says. “Part of the fun is meeting people, seeing the country the way you can’t see from a car, and stopping in small towns – the whole experience was a different lens on American culture.”
Berkun kept a journal and plans to write a book that’s partially based on it.
For future participants in the Amtrak writers’ residency, Berkun offers this advice: “After doing the happy dance, take the longest trip you can and take a break in the middle. Don’t eat alone in your sleeper car. Go talk to people. Everybody’s got a story on the train.”
A complete list of selected writers and bios can be found on the Amtrak blog.