Aspen Crossing is on the Express Track to Success
Trains have always been a big part of Jason Thornhill’s life. Canadian Pacific Railway tracks ran along his backyard when he was growing up on a farm near Mossleigh, Alberta.
“My dad would carry me on his shoulders to see the train,” he says. “It was a weekly thing to catch a wave from the driver going by.”
Today, Thornhill is the owner of Aspen Crossing, one of only two tourist train experiences in Alberta, and home to a successful garden centre, gift shop, restaurant and campground.
In 12 years, he’s grown the business from a three-person operation to an award-winning team of 40.
Along the way, Thornhill has illustrated time and again the rewards of risk-taking, diversification, innovation and nimbleness. “What it comes down to is tenaciousness. We’ve never really been willing to accept no for an answer.”
An Idea That Grew
After graduating from university as a horticulturalist, Thornhill began his career as a landscaper. He was frustrated by the scarcity of trees available to buy in summertime so he “stole 20 acres” of his father’s farmland to plant trees.
The tree farm eventually grew into a garden centre and gift shop. In 2006, he learned that an 1887 Pullman dining car – once the private business car for former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker – was available for sale.
Aspen Crossing’s Dining Car restaurant opened a year later on June 1.
In 2008, his team was brainstorming on what to do with 10 acres of unplanted land on the Aspen Crossing site and about 1,000 healthy but unsellable trees from the farm.
“My manager asked, ‘why not build a campground’?” Indeed, why not?
The trees were relocated and an 86-site (soon to be 121), fully serviced RV campground was built. Not long after, overnight accommodations were added in the form of three train cabooses, refurbished as sleeping cabins with decks and fire pits.
In the midst of the expansion, Thornhill was already working on another venture, negotiating with the CPR to buy 22 kilometres (14 miles) of nearby abandoned rail track scheduled to be dismantled. It took a few years to close the deal but by then Thornhill had acquired a locomotive from Moose Jaw, a caboose from Calgary, and later, railcars from Ontario Northland and CPR.
In 2015, he launched eight themed train excursions, including grain elevator tours, wine-tasting, star-gazing and dinner theatre.
“At first we were just trying to come up with ideas to get more people here to buy plants,” he says. “We’re rural so we have to educate people about where Mossleigh is and what we have to offer.”
Today, with 13 unique train experiences, Aspen Crossing has put Mossleigh on the Alberta tourism map. “I never thought it would become what it is today.”
Momentum Powers Success
Aspen Crossing’s business model appears to be gaining steam. In 2015, they averaged 50 people per train tour. In 2016, that doubled to 100 per tour. Last year, almost 12,000 visitors took an Aspen Crossing train excursion. Thornhill expects to reach 25,000 visitors this year.
Their success hasn’t gone unnoticed. Aspen Crossing has won a Rural Tourism Champion award at Alberta’s Growing Rural Tourism conference, was a finalist in that conference’s Entrepreneurial Challenge, was recognized by the SouthGrow economic alliance and has won three awards from the Vulcan Chamber of Commerce.
They’ve worked hard at leveraging social media and are seeing Facebook likes go up by about 100 a week, approaching a total of 7,000.
Thornhill is also working to increase regional partnerships and has accessed Travel Alberta resources through the Cooperative Marketing Investment Program. “I’m planning to go the Travel Alberta Industry Conference this year. I think it will be great to meet other operators and bounce ideas off them.”
Aspen Crossing continues to introduce new products, including the Polar Express ride, based on the famous children’s book and Warner Brother’s movie, a high tea excursion, champagne brunch and twilight tour. Its newest offering is the Train of Terror, a haunting experience just in time for Halloween.
“Right now we’re researching to see if an old-time railway hotel would be feasible,” says Thornhill. “There’s always something going on out here.”
His advice to others?
“Do what you love. When I see the smiles on the kids’ faces, it makes all the hard work worthwhile. And keep moving forward. The dream of what’s to come is what keeps you going.”
This is the 10th in a 12-part series on Alberta tourism success stories.