America’s Holidays: Celebrated With a Touch of Transit

America’s holidays all have strong images associated with them like Santa at Christmas, a shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day, a heart for Valentine’s Day, ghosts and goblins for Halloween, fireworks on the Fourth of July, and transit buses and trains for all of the above. Transit?

In one way or another, transit systems around the country have become intertwined with the fabric of local celebrations. For some, it’s a way to increase riders, others to enhance their reputation and for many it is both.

Major holidays and holiday eves used to make bus and train aisles look like bowling alleys. Yet over the years, innovative and fun promotions, along with solid community partnerships, have connected local transit providers to the unique characteristics each holiday presents.

Mardi Gras in Missouri
Take Mardi Gras for example. If you think it’s only for New Orleans, think again. Nearly a thousand miles upstream from Bourbon St., St. Louis, Mo., holds its own all-day version of the pre-Lenten celebration on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday. It takes the form of a street festival in and around the city’s historic Soulard Market. With several hundred thousand people crowding into that area, organizers turned to St. Louis Metro to help move people in and out of the neighborhood.

“We offer a bus shuttle between our Metrolink light rail and Soulard,” explains Patrick McLean, Metro’s vice president of marketing and communications. “We help make the event more successful and at the same time get a lot of visibility and recognition for our contribution.” It’s not bad for building ridership either claims McLean, as 10,000 to 12,000 people ride the shuttle and a good share of them transfer from the Metrolink.

Love in Transit
Affirming each other’s love is the theme of Valentine’s Day, and some couples use it as a day to get married. And then there are those couples who get married that day on a moving train. Last year, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T) and the Trinity Railway Express (TRE) that runs between the two Texas cities, teamed up with a local radio station, KLUV-FM, to sponsor a contest for one lucky couple to get a complete wedding package including having their ceremony on a TRE train.

Morgan Lyons, DART senior manager of media relations says that couples entered the contest by submitting an explanation as to why they wanted to get married on the train. Judges from the partners whittled down the entries to a group of finalists who were then able to have their stories posted on the radio station’s Web site. Then station listeners got to vote for their favorite couple.

Come Valentine’s Day, the winning couple and their entourage, boarded a regularly scheduled TRE train dubbed the “Love Train.” With a specially decorated wedding car, the train pulled out of Dallas’ Union Station bound for Ft. Worth. The newlyweds and their guests left the train in Ft. Worth where The T had arranged for a reception. Wedding night accommodations were provided by a local luxury hotel, and the radio station fixed the couple up with a honeymoon trip to the Texas Hill Country.

According to Lyons, the event was widely covered on television, and KLUV broadcast the event live. “We were able to generate a great buzz at a time when the news media was looking for a real unique Valentine’s Day story,” he says. “It really put the TRE in focus in a fun way. People saw the train as bright and clean, and got a sense of where it goes. Hopefully they’ll be more inclined to try it.”

Metro Transit in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., took part in a similar promotion with 51 couples riding the Hiawatha light rail line between downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America where a mass wedding took place. Also sponsored by a radio station, the event took place on Saturday, July 7, 2007, or 7-7-07, which was considered a lucky day to be married due to its unique numerology.

Bob Gibbons, Metro’s director of customer service and marketing, says that the radio station, whose audience matched well with their system’s target audience, heavily promoted the event. It also generated significant local TV and print coverage.

Celebrating the Fourth
America’s favorite civic holiday is probably Independence Day. July 4th celebrations abound with fireworks and parades. However, in La Crosse, Wisc., they’ve turned the annual Independence Day celebration into a five-day music and food festival called Riverfest, which reflects the city’s location on the banks of the Mississippi River. According to Keith Carlson, manager of the La Crosse Municipal Transit Utility (MTU), “People have come to expect that we’ll provide bus service to the festival, and we’ve been doing it for a long time.” Several thousand people use the service each year.

The service is marketed by the festival organizers, and its site is served by regular MTU routes so there is virtually no additional cost to the MTU. “It’s important to our community image and it provides us with an opportunity to serve people who ordinarily don’t use our service,” Carlson explains. “We hope some of that use will carry over to other times of the year.”

Spine-chilling Transit
Each Halloween since 2001 the Metro in Cincinnati, Ohio, turns one of its buses into a rolling haunted house. According to Sallie Hilvers, chief communications officer for Metro, many lower income children could not afford, nor had access to safe Halloween fun. After establishing a partnership with the Cincinnati Public Library, Metro’s Haunted Bus has now become an annual staple of the city’s Halloween activities.

“It is specially decorated inside and out complete with witches and haunting passengers, but nothing too scary,” Hilvers says. The Haunted Bus visits a number of inner city neighborhoods in the weeks leading up to Halloween with Metro staff handing out donated treats and bus safety information. Hilvers’ enthusiasm for the project is more than passing. “When the kids come through the Haunted Bus, the last thing they encounter is a gypsy fortune teller, and that’s me!” she says.

Holidays that Give Back
Thanksgiving is traditionally the official start of the holiday season and in Riverside, Calif., it means the start of the three-week-long downtown Festival of Lights. The Riverside RTA runs special express service to the festival that helps many of the county’s elderly take advantage of a nighttime event they might not otherwise be able to attend. According to Jim Kneepkens, RTA marketing director, the service is so successful that advance tickets are sold and every seat is taken.

In addition, RTA has a long-standing tradition of providing a bus for children to paint at the San Jacinto holiday tree lighting ceremony. Using tempura paints, the children transform the bus into instant holiday art. It is used in service there for several days until the paint is washed off.
Kneepkens explains that RTA’s holiday efforts have also involved teaming up with a local mall, a TV station and the U.S. Marine Corps to fill an RTA bus with donated toys. This “Toys for Tots” promotion garners RTA lots of free coverage in Los Angeles’ competitive and expensive to buy TV market.

Back in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) and a local radio station have teamed up for the last 10 years on the day before Thanksgiving for a “Stuff the Bus” food drive. The radio station’s morning team promotes the event well in advance and then on the day of the drive they do their show live at the designated collection point, which has been a large supermarket.

“The response is so great that by the end of the day there are six or seven buses filled along with a couple of trucks,” says Jacqueline Janz, MCTS marketing director. More than 200,000 pounds of food or its equivalent in cash donations is collected and goes to Wisconsin’s Second Harvest organization which supplies many of the area’s food pantries.

Several weeks later, MCTS teams up with another radio station that puts on a Christmas Day Family Feast at Milwaukee’s convention center. More than 3,000 needy families get to enjoy a holiday meal with all the trimmings, and MCTS provides free ride coupons to those attending. “The station gives us a lot of promotional mention, which well exceeds the cost of providing the rides,” Janz says.

Providing Safe Rides
Free ride promotions related to certain holidays can be found throughout the country. In the Twin Cities, last St. Patrick’s Day — a Saturday — saw 86,000 free rides made on Metro Transit from 3:00 p.m. to the end of regular service. Spokesman Bob Gibbons explained that number is about 40 percent more riders than the previous Saturday. The program, which is sponsored by the Miller Brewing Co., has been held each of the last 10 years.

“It was a tough sell early on,” says Gibbons, referring to potential security and related problems. “But behavior problems on our vehicles have been minimal and no worse than any other time.” He stated that the program is now endorsed by nearly every prominent law enforcement agency and key elected officials. “Publicity is great every year. It was heavier when the free rides program was new, but has stayed at a high level,” he notes.

One of the longest standing free ride programs is held in Milwaukee on New Year’s Eve. It started as a highway safety program in 1977 and was funded by a state DOT grant. In 1987, the Miller Brewing Co., which is headquartered in Milwaukee, became the exclusive sponsor of the event and picks up the cost of the free rides and about 120 hours of extended schedules on 13 MCTS routes. These routes provide 30-minute service from the time normal schedules end, about 1:00 a.m., until 4:00 a.m. the morning of New Year’s Day. “Anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 free rides are taken on MCTS that night,” says Janz. “That’s easily four or five times more rides than normal.”

The event is now called “Miller Free Rides” and Miller takes the lead publicizing it. There is broad support from local broadcast and print media, and Miller provides a special Web site and toll free telephone information number. According to Janz, “The timing is great because the news media is looking for things to cover during a time when there’s usually not a lot of news being generated.”

With this being its 20th year as sponsor, Miller plans to do special promotions that will include paid TV advertising featuring Wendel, the delivery man seen in the popular Miller High Life commercials. Miller is also sponsoring free New Year’s Eve bus rides in Madison and Waukesha (Wis.).

All these holiday promotions have similar characteristics in that they provide opportunities for transit systems to introduce their services to many non-riders, they are opportunities to create lasting partnerships, they earn lots of positive media coverage, they often help people in some way and they help the transit systems give something back to the communities that support them.

From coast to coast and border to border, it’s evident that transit has found a way to become part of just about every holiday we celebrate, and that in itself is something to celebrate.

Joe Caruso is senior consultant for Brecon Hill Consulting, a strategic marketing consulting firm. He was the marketing director for the Milwaukee County Transit System and has spent nearly 33 years working in the transit industry.

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