Who We Are: On the right track
Ryan Summerlin October 2, 2010
Summit Cove residents Mark and Leah Greksa engineered their lives around trains, after traveling the world. Now they own the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, out of Caon City.”We did it backwards from everyone else,” Leah Greksa said.But as her husband of 22 years points out: “Travel taught us more about the (service) industry than school.”The couple met at Fort Lewis College and earned their degrees in business. They both grew up in Colorado: Mark in Littleton and Leah in Golden. Mark was a junior patrolman at Arapahoe Basin in high school, and because Leah’s parents operated the Georgetown Loop until 2004 (and had operated trains since 1968), she sold tickets, trained as a brakeman and conductor and learned accounting as part of the family business. (Leah’s mom was a teacher, and her dad was a petroleum engineer; both were looking for summer business opportunities and had a special interest in railroad history in Colorado.) After college, Mark and Leah Greksa worked in the ski industry for the Armed Forces Recreation Base (Leah instructing and Mark patrolling) in Austria and Germany for six months and then at A-Basin.They took their first 3,200-mile bike tour together in Europe in 1987, then returned in 1989. In 1990, they decided to backpack around the world. They flew into Delhi, then traveled to Nepal, did the Everest trek, toured Thailand, explored the rest of southeast Asia and went to Australia and New Zealand.”When we were traveling, we were reflecting on ‘What do you want to do in life?” Leah Greksa said.One day, while in Katmandu, they called Leah’s parents, who asked the couple, after their return to Colorado, if they would help run the Georgetown Loop Railroad. So, in 1991, they returned to set up “home” in Summit County, which was close to Leah’s parents in Georgetown and where Mark already had connections to A-Basin. Mark opened a restaurant and the couple took over marketing the railroad, which carried more than 120,000 passengers a year.
Then, the opportunity to purchase tracks through the Royal Gorge came up. In 1998, they purchased it, in partnership with a freight company. In May 1999, the first train, with five cars, ran. At the time, the couple still ran the Georgetown Loop, but in 2004 a renegotiation with Colorado Historical Society made the train financially impractical to run, so the Greksas declined to rebid on the Loop and focused on the Royal Gorge. By the end of 2004, they had moved all of the Georgetown train equipment to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, where it remains.With their full attention on Royal Gorge, the couple gutted the coaches and added luxurious dining cars. Their inspiration came from the Napa Valley Wine Train, which they thought was one of the best examples of a first-class train experience.Since Caon City didn’t have an attraction that would entice people to stay overnight (the bridge is mostly thought of as a day-trip destination), the train drew tourists internationally, helping the town in general. Even during this economic downturn, the train still attracts about 100,000 people a year, and it continues to grow, the couple said.”It takes 110 percent of our energy just to run that train,” Mark Greksa said. “(We learned, from Georgetown), it’s important to be able to communicate to the city, local politicians and the community about what tourism does for an area.”The Greksas go out of their way to treat people as guests, rather than tourists, because as world travelers, they wanted to be treated as such. Fine cuisine and friendly staff go a long way to accomplish this mission. The couple travels to the railroad about once a week, while 60 to 80 staff members see to the day-to-day operations.”It’s a major Colorado attraction, and we’re not done,” Mark Greksa said. “I’ll never be happy with the level we’re at because I think once you are, your business goes down the tube.”Within the business, Mark is driven as an idea man and innovator, while Leah is the steady, stable “engine” who organizes his ideas and keeps them going.”Our philosophy is trying to build a really good, full-time, stable management team,” said Mark Greksa. “We try to hire people with more talent – who are smarter than we are – because they come up with great ideas.”They model the guest experience they create on Walt Disney’s emphasis on safety, courtesy, showmanship, entertainment and efficiency. They also reward longtime employees by sending them on trips, because they believe it’s important to reward great staff members.”It’s a great family business,” Mark Greksa said, and Leah added, “We have a wonderful team.”They both love the operation: Mark likes seeing the result of combining fine dining with a classic train experience and watching riders’ faces as they see the gorge or talk about the incredible food and wine aboard the Royal Gorge Railroad. One of Leah’s favorite activities involves standing in an open car under the hanging bridge and sharing the beauty of the surroundings with people. “It’s just an amazing place to be,” she said. “We appreciate what we have, and we’re grateful.”