When Holli Hipwell graduated from Fort Lewis College, she figured she’d have to move away to find fulfillment as an event planner. But not only is she still based in Durango three years later, she now gets to bring holiday magic to life for kids and kid-spirited adults across the country.
Hipwell (Business Administration, ’13) works as a brand coordinator with Durango-based Rail Events, Inc., collaborating with a variety of tourist railroads to stage licensed events on their passenger trains. The best-known brand she coordinates is The Polar Express, based on the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg and the feature film by Warner Bros.
During the winter holiday season, 57 tourist railroads around the United States, Canada, and the UK take families on trips to mock “North Poles” while on-board actors serve them hot chocolate and sing carols. Once at the “North Pole,” the children meet Santa Claus himself.
Hipwell describes her job as bringing the story to life while keeping the final product looking consistently good across railroads. She is also in charge of Peanuts-branded events like the Pumpkin Patch Express, as well as working with other licensed railroad events for kids.
“I mostly work on designing all of the events, writing the guidelines, and producing them at different tourist railroads around the country,” she says.
As a student at FLC, Hipwell knew she wanted to go into event planning; she just didn’t have a clue it would be with tourist railroads. She interned with a wedding planning company during college and contemplated moving away. Then, immediately after graduation, she landed a job as an event coordinator for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. (The railroad is under the same American Heritage Railways parent company as Rail Events, Inc.)
The experience was her first real exposure to railroading.
“It took me a year and a half of working there to even ride the train,” she laughs. After a year in the special events department, she moved over to Rail Events, Inc. “Everyone there but me has railroading background,” she says.
But Hipwell overcame that deficit with the skills she learned during her college internship. “When I did the wedding planning, I had all these visions from our brides, and I just had to work with whatever space I had,” she says. “So the trains are just my space. I make it work, and the train part is the last thing on my mind.”
One of Hipwell’s most engaging challenges in coordinating events is the variation between railroads. Each tourist railroad has a defined route, unique space constraints, different trip lengths, and often an entirely volunteer staff.
In the case of The Polar Express, each railroad must meet certain basic requirements: Each ride must serve hot chocolate and a treat of some sort, every ride must read the story by Van Allsburg, Santa must be on board, and every child must receive a bell. Otherwise, just about every other aspect is suggested, recommended, or optional. “We leave a lot of it to the railroads for creativity,” she says.
But the challenges of staging these events are not so trivial. “Some railroad museums have only a twenty-minute train ride, so how do you figure out how to fit an hour’s worth of event into a twenty-minute experience?” Hipwell asks. “Or, they can’t go to the North Pole. Or some railroads are on a loop track that goes three miles, so how can you make it different so you don’t notice you’re just going in a circle for an hour? We see all of those kind of things.”
And making the experience happen is not as simple as pulling off a magical train ride. There are many behind-the-scenes considerations, as well. “We’ll work closely with the railroads, start to finish, on getting their event plan going, figuring out the logistics, their schedule, their ticketing prices, helping them with scripting and lighting and sound design, and offering our suggestions and support,” Hipwell says. “Then we go out at least once to visit the railroad.”
Planning for these events is a year-long endeavor, even though the bulk of the site visits take place in November and December each year. And that’s just for the standard Polar Express event; Hipwell has recently switched tracks to her most challenging event yet.
Whereas most of the Polar Express events take place on tourist railroads, the national passenger railroad Amtrak recently reached out to Rail Events about staging a Polar Express in Chicago.
“This was a huge new thing,” Hipwell says. “Amtrak doesn’t have any kind of knowledge of events or theater production or anything like that. So that’s when we created the subsidiary company Rail Events Productions to really do the event for them.”
Hipwell knew they wanted to stage this new Polar Express well, right from the start. So she says she tackled pretty much every moving piece in the production. Her team built the Polar Express passenger cars expressly for this purpose, instead of merely decorating existing cars. She also hired a stage manager and established an entire production car with storage and dressing rooms for the cast.
“It was like a Broadway show, but on a train,” she says.
The first Amtrak Polar Express was such a success in 2015 that this year, in addition to Chicago, they’ll be running one in New Orleans too.
This work puts Hipwell on the road -- and on the rails -- for up to six months a year. Working on the railroad is not at all the career she thought she’d have. But the hard work and the unexpected path rewards her nonetheless.
“When I see the little kids smile and happy and having the best time of their lives, that’s definitely the most rewarding part,” she says. “And when the whole family shows up for these events and I watch them enjoy what they’re there for, then I know we’re doing a good job making it real.”