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Vol. 13, No. 48 Week of November 30, 2008
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

AK-WA Connection 2008: Visitors pan for good times in Alaska

Vendors, from hotels to the railroad, market the mother lode of unique attractions in the Last Frontier’s growing tourism industry

Rose Ragsdale

For Alaska-Washington Connection

In the 1890s, thousands of people sailed north from Seattle to find their fortunes during the Alaska gold rush. More than a century later, multitudes still flock to the Last Frontier, crowding onto cruise ships or trekking north by car, RV or airplane every summer. Only these visitors seek their fortunes in good times, not gold.

Alaska attracts more than 1 million tourists every year, and most of them arrive on cruise ships. A record 835,000 passengers boarded 218 sailings to Alaska from Seattle this year, making the Emerald City the ninth-busiest cruise port in North America, said Port of Seattle spokeswoman Rosie Courtney. She said the activity compared favorably with 2001, when the port saw only 59 sailings carrying 170,495 passengers.

Seattle’s cruise market has boomed since new, faster ships have made it possible to offer weeklong, round-trip Alaska cruises. Five major cruise lines — Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line and Royal Caribbean — visit the Port of Seattle. From Seattle, the major cruise lines mostly offer weeklong Alaska trips. But in fall, in particular, there are shorter cruises around the Pacific Northwest; some small cruise lines offer smaller-boat sailings around the Northwest and to or within Alaska.

But what happens when these droves of tourists reach Alaska? How do businesses in the tourism industry entice the visitors to stay or make use of the attractions and services they offer?

Focus on the incomparable

Successful vendors employ a blend of common sense and creativity by tapping into Alaska’s abundant resources of scenic vistas, diverse wildlife, captivating history and engaging people to craft unique experiences and then spread the word about their offerings.

The Alaska Railroad, for example, markets its “GoldStar Service,” which offers “the best view from the best train in the world.”

The railroad added two new double-deck dome cars to its fleet in May 2005. Two more of the $4 million luxury dome cars were purchased in 2007 and placed in service on the Denali Star this year in response to high demand.

Railroad officials plan to introduce the popular GoldStar Service on its Coastal Classic train, service from Anchorage to Seward, when the fifth and sixth of the new dome cars arrive in Alaska.

The railroad is also offering new vacation options for the adventure traveler. Itineraries include scenic rail travel and other transportation links to unique experiences that are “off the beaten path.” These packages include the “Kenai Deluxe Adventure” and the “Alaska Fishing Sampler” ideal vacation options for the fishing enthusiasts who may be traveling with someone that may not be so enthusiastic about fishing.

These railroad vacation packages can be customized to satisfy any interests. For example, the “Alaska Indulgence” 12 day/12 night package spans from the Arctic Circle to the seaport town of Seward, the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. Along the way, visitors “indulge” in Alaska through unique and exclusive experiences in the Denali backcountry, remote fly-in lodges, and the Kenai Peninsula with superb dining and some of the finest tour excursions in Alaska. Accommodations, gourmet dining, with helicopter accessed guided fishing and hiking options.

A new partnership between the Alaska Railroad Corp. and the U.S. Forest Service provides the public with a distinctive travel and recreational experience found nowhere else in the United States. The first phase of the project includes the opening of the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop. Plans call for a series of five whistle stop stations where visitors can disembark the train to take a day or overnight trip into the heart of the Chugach National Forest.

In addition, an all-in-one self-propelled car called a Diesel Multiple Unit built by Colorado Railcar will provide the whistle-stop service because it can stop and start in a short distance, is fuel efficient and remarkably quiet. It has the power to pull two additional railcars, the railroad said.

Selling scenic Sitka

The history of the United States is but a heartbeat in the history of Sitka. The Kiksadi Clan of the Tlingit Indians had lived in and around Sitka centuries before the Russians or Americans ever set foot on the island’s rocky shores. Choosing the seaward side of the island they named Shee, the Tlingits called their settlement Shee Atika, which means “people on the outside of Shee.” The name Sitka is a contraction.

The Tlingits thrived undisturbed on their island paradise until 1799, when the Russians arrived. An ensuing fur-trade flourished and the Russian-American Company became the most profitable fur trader in the world. By the mid-1800s, however, over-hunting had diminished numbers of sea otters, and thus, the Russians’ interest in the new world. In 1867, the Russians sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million.

Today, the Sitka Convention & Visitors Bureau draws visitors to Sitka in a variety of ways. To reach both sides of the visitor market (convention/groups and independent/leisure) the Sitka CVB places print ads and attends market-segment related tradeshows and conferences. These print ads sometimes come with some type of internet presence such as a banner ad or insertion into an upcoming e-zine or e-newsletter, said Philip Rupeil, director of convention sales for the Sitka CVB.

In addition, the Sitka CVB typically participates in about six tradeshows every year, again targeting both independent/leisure and group/business travelers.

“We also publish about 50,000 vacation planners which are sent out to individuals who call our office or place an online request through our Web site, Rupeil said. The vacation planner is also available to Sitka CVB members that exhibit at tradeshows related to their specific types of businesses.

Recently, the Sitka CVB began airing a new television spot in Alaska aimed mainly at the meetings and convention market, but it is also valuable to the independent traveler market and soon will be used in the Pacific Northwest and California, Rupeil added.

Promoting popular Ketchikan

What sets Ketchikan apart from other Southeast Alaska communities is its convenience for visitors traveling from the Lower 48. The popular tourist destination is a quick 90-minute flight from Seattle.

Ketchikan officials work with the cruise ship industry, the State of Alaska and others to promote their community as a visitor attraction.

“Our mission is to promote the Greater Ketchikan Area as a visitor destination and meeting site, to enhance the economy of the community, and assist in promotion of the area’s attractions and events,” Ketchikan Visitors Bureau officials said.

When possible, person-to-person contact still works better than mass mailings or blanket e-mails, they advise.

“We want our clients to know each is important to us and not just a name on a list,” they said. “Alaskans in general respond well to this philosophy. We are a small population and tend to favor personal interaction. This seems to be the case for any of our potential clients.”

Ketchikan visitors bring with them numerous misconceptions regarding Alaska, and “while we take them seriously, it is possible to find humor in some of them,” said officials of the visitor bureau. “For example, Southeast Alaska consists of islands, only accessible by sea and air. One cannot drive from Anchorage to Ketchikan in a day. Also, Ketchikan is at sea-level, and folks do ask us what level we are on as they stand on the cruise ship docks or overlook the water view.

“This is not to make fun of the questions. They are all valid,” KVB officials add.

One tool the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau has generated is a brochure to help educate visitors about some of these misconceptions, and it is preparing a second brochure on the subject.

“Also, we do not take Alaskan money,” the KVB adds.

Hotels lure visitors with amenities

Members of Alaska’s hospitality industry distinguish their offerings by marketing their amenities and special services.

The Millennium Alaskan Hotel in Anchorage, for example, promotes its uniquely scenic location on the shores of Lake Hood near Ted Stevens-Anchorage International Airport.

Responding to a growing national trend, the Millennium also caters to guests who travel with their pets.

This hotel is known as the “Home of the Iditarod, so it’s appropriate that we accept pets in the hotel,” said Bill Remmer, director of sales and marketing for the Millennium.

Rather than tourists, the hotel focuses much of its marketing efforts on business travelers, especially in-state visitors to Anchorage and does television advertising to reach small communities in Alaska.

“Business travelers are our largest segment of guests. We draw from the oil industry, mining, fisheries, all the resources sectors. That’s our bread and butter year round,” Remmer said. “But we also feel a kinship and tie with Washington because many Alaska businesses are tied to the Seattle and Portland areas because they have operational centers and sales offices there.”

Others in hospitality approach their marketing on a broader scale, sometimes with help from sister companies.

Westmark Hotels, for example, is the largest hotel chain in Alaska and the Yukon and operates in some of the most exciting destinations found in the Land of the Midnight Sun, with each hotel reflecting the personality of the community it calls home, its officials said.

“We are proud to be owned and operated by one of the leading cruise line companies in the world, Holland America Line. Our dedicated employees and our unparalleled hospitality create experiences of a lifetime,” said Westmark marketers.

The hotel chain attributes its popularity with visitors to its winning culture and dedicated employees along with a strong emphasis on teamwork.

“Through excellence we create once-in-a-lifetime experiences, every time,” Westmark said in its mission statement.

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