How an Amtrak Designer Used Visual Storytelling to Recruit More Veterans (and More Love for Train Food)

Image source: Amtrak / Doug Riddell.
How an Amtrak Designer Used Visual Storytelling to Recruit More Veterans (and More Love for Train Food)
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Every year, Amtrak transports 31 million passengers around the United States and parts of Canada.

Their focus is often on how to give even better experiences to train riders — and their Amtrak family.

As a creative, Chuck Gomez — Amtrak’s senior photographer and videographer for five years — saw an opportunity to share deeper behind-the-scenes stories about Amtrak’s people and their efforts for their customers.

Chuck worked with a cross-functional team and hoped to spark an understanding and a connection between the public and the people hard at work at the intercity passenger rail provider.

“There’s no better way to tell a story than with pictures.”

There were two stories that Chuck wanted to share about the Amtrak experience:

First, it’s not just “train food”  — a story of the food that Amtrak serves onboard from a fresh insider’s perspective. The goal was to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the chefs hard at work to bring an excellent dining experience to Amtrak riders.

Second, one in five Amtrak employees are veterans or active members of the Armed Forces, National Guard, and Reserves. Amtrak has been focused since 2013 not only on supporting veterans and active military personnel, but also on applying their unique skills to support the mission of “America’s Railroad.”

Both stories revealed Amtrak’s most important asset — their people.

Image source: Chuck Gomez.

Amtrak saw an opportunity to engage viewers and leave them with a positive feeling. Instead of talking about superficial topics, they wanted to reveal a multilayered story so people outside of Amtrak could relate, empathize, and appreciate.

So, Chuck — one of countless creatives striving to create beyond their organization’s limits — used his skills to create the vision with members of the creative team.

The goal: Create something impactful, despite limitations

Budget, time, technical and creative resources, approvals… there are lots of questions when launching a new creative effort — and for good reason. Is the project worth it? Will it really make a difference to the public?

For Amtrak — which operates as a for-profit, federally chartered corporation with the government as a majority stockholder — there’s so much to do at all times that it’s hard to know which creative project will yield the greatest impact.

When questions like that arise and it’s difficult to answer definitively, it becomes nearly impossible for a passionate creative in-house team to freely explore the ways they can make an impact.

This is how Chuck and the creative team did it.

Project 1: Make train food interesting through stories and pictures

When we think about memorable experiences, particularly travel experiences, food often plays a big part.

But the challenges of making food on a moving train can make a professional chef run the other way. Here are a few:

  • Making something delicious for everyone. Anyone who has cooked for a large group knows how hard it is to satisfy all taste buds. Amtrak customers are extremely diverse — in age, ethnicity, income, and food preferences.
  • Accommodating all special diets. Amtrak needs to cater to customers with dietary needs and restrictions, including vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and health-forward options.
  • Meeting time limitations. Riders are on a time schedule — some more restrictive than others. Some people need food in a hurry, so there must be options that allow you to be flexible.
  • Price setting. “Reasonable price” means something different to everyone. Yet, everyone wants good fresh food at a price that won’t empty their wallet.

Sounds impossible to do all of this well, right?

Amtrak’s solution was a gathering of chefs from around the world who brainstormed menu ideas and cooked for three days straight.

Image source: Chuck Gomez.

To tell the deeper story behind Amtrak’s food, Chuck used his photography skills (and experience from working at the Food Network). He photographed not only the meals the chefs prepared, but also portraits of the members of the Amtrak Culinary Advisory Team while they were working. To color-correct his images and get a true film-like look, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom was his go-to tool.

Amtrak has since revamped dining services to offer contemporary and fresh choices for customers traveling on its national network.

See shots of the chefs having fun test cooking in the kitchen.

Project 2: Make an inspiring video of military members continuing to serve at Amtrak

About one in five Amtrak employees self-identify as veterans or active members of the U.S. Armed Forces, National Guard, and Reserves.

“Amtrak remains focused on hiring veterans because of the valuable experiences and leadership skills this group brings to our national network,” said Kimberly Woods, Amtrak spokeswoman.

The Amtrak team wanted to tell a deeper story about U.S. veterans who were happily working at Amtrak and are continuing to serve their country in other ways. They hoped to use these stories to help recruit more veterans to come work for Amtrak.

So, Chuck helped create a video to share their stories. He completed the project on a very limited budget, infusing the creativity of designers and film editors.

“Production value doesn’t necessarily mean spending more money on a show,” said Chuck. “At times, I was the only one blocking, lighting, and shooting a scene as the director, cinematographer, art director, and sound recorder.”

“Despite my production challenges working as a ‘one-man band,’ I was determined to squeeze the lemon dry and make this film as professionally crafted as I could.”

The team behind the video: Chuck Gomez (director, cinematographer, producer), Craig Kramer (executive producer), Chris Ruskino (video editor and designer), Patrick Kidd (writer), Artem Kulakov (audio engineer and music), and Marlon Sharpe (creative director).

Aim high, take risks, and create before asking

The Amtrak team pushed through the typical challenges people face in an organization — to make things happen.

When asked what his advice would be for other creatives, Chuck said to never let what seems like red tape get in the way of your creation.

“I answered each of my creative hurdles by taking risks and pushing myself to learn new techniques in the art of visual storytelling,” he said.

“In production there’s a saying: ‘You are as good as your last job.’ That’s why I treat every assignment — no matter how small or big — as if it was my last. So, I can proudly say that I do not have regrets.”

The Veterans Hiring Initiative has won numerous awards, and, presently Amtrak’s workforce is made up of 25 percent veterans. It is the hope of the Human Resources Group to maintain such figures because veterans often possess the experience required to “hit the ground running.”

Chuck was named a finalist in the 2018 Adobe Government Creativity Awards. Today he is no longer with the Amtrak Creative Services Group, and is freelancing as a cinematographer and photographer in New York City and Washington, D.C.

“He set the bar very high for future projects,” said Kimberly.

Read more in our Creating Impact series, and click here to learn more about Amtrak.

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