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Alaska Travel Industry Association

Determining who is the next visitor to Alaska


Humpback whale breaches at sunset with full moon and Chilkat Mountains in the background, Southeast Alaska.

© John Hyde/AlaskaStock.com

As one of the strongest links among the independent Alaskan visitor industry operator, the state’s planning and tourism arm, and the actual traveler spending money to come visit the Great Land, the Alaska Travel Industry Association serves as a barometer of travel trends and influences.

Its 700-plus membership that spans the breadth of the 49th state is largely made up of the men and women who own, operate and staff the state’s variety of visitor and tourism-related businesses. As a result, the organization is first on the ground to register when there is a change in demographic, in requested travel product, or in international or domestic targeted interest in Alaska. That information is funneled to the state’s tourism marketers and helps determine Alaska’s visitor industry targeted marketing campaign and annual plan.

Whether a charter boat operator in Ketchikan, a northern lights tour company in Fairbanks, or adventure travel charter in the Aleutians, members participate in annual strategizing and provide feedback that directly links to how the state attracts its next visitor.

For 2013, ATIA staff members say they are seeing increased interest from international travelers, arrival of new air service to Anchorage that will further open up the European market, and a “huge” growth of visitors from Down Under. As one of the state’s cornerstone industries and economic forces, tourism and visitor industry commerce remains big business in Alaska—furthered by the grassroots folks who are providing the front-end services. Whether a policy discussion, workshop to develop a regional or company level tourism strategy plan, or simply a webinar or instructional guide to help the local tourism business capture its market, the ATIA is on board.


Member Toolbox

Jillian Simpson, current membership director at ATIA who formerly directed international marketing for the organization, recently commented on such trends. “The industry is definitely healthy,” she says. “We are seeing growth. We are seeing visitor numbers come back up. Worldwide projections for travel are positive.”

The organization itself is also experiencing some internal growth, rolling out a new membership program and related benefits for its existing and potential members.
“This is going to be a big push for us” in upcoming months, she says.

For those who are uninitiated to the organization, it provides a targeted method for travel-related businesses in the state to receive assistance in marketing their product, to participate in a collective voice toward policy issues, and to refine and improve on an ongoing basis how the state determines and plans for the next Alaska visitor. It’s a good place to “just learn about the distribution channels (for your product), or if you have issues impacting you—policy issues—that you need counsel on...” Simpson says.


Current Trends

In recent years, the state’s Alaska Visitor Statistics Program and related reports showed that international visitation is taking a larger and larger piece of the market share of visitors to Alaska, Simpson says.

This summer, one related expansion that has Alaska tourism marketers excited is the initiation of Icelandair flying into Anchorage from Reykjavik twice weekly. While the access to Iceland itself is interesting, the larger impact is the network of connections that the airline provides to visitors traveling to and from Alaska. “It really opens up all of Europe,” Simpson says. “We expect to see a spike in visitation from Europe, really because of their network in Europe.” The importance of the Iceland connection was highlighted when 20 Alaska businesses traveled to the country recently for a business summit.

As a result of that new connection option, Alaska has made a “nice investment” in targeting its marketing to the European traveler.
The state currently enjoys access to a number of international flights. Most notable of past years is perhaps Condor airlines, which travels four times each week between Frankfurt and Anchorage, with one flight that goes on to Fairbanks. Condor operates seasonally from May to October. “The vast majority of the travelers are from Germany and Switzerland,” Simpson says.

But the biggest growth-sector for Alaska tourism currently is, perhaps surprisingly—Australians. “Certainly the strength of the Australian dollar....has made it more affordable to come,” says Simpson. Many Australians enjoy cruising. With Alaska among the world’s prime cruising destination, coming north for other travel is not so much of a leap for Australians, she says. Also, “there are a lot more trans-pacific flights available,” Simpson says.

One area of potential growth that the industry is examining is the emerging markets of China, Brazil and India. “The state is looking very closely” at the potential visitor influx from those countries, she says. “Right now, it’s a small share of the international market.”

Another prime area where the state is seeing increased visitor interest is with family travel. “Multi-generational travel is gaining popularity all over,” she says. “People are taking trips for special events and anniversaries.”


Quick and Nimble

Because the leisure travel industry is among those most sensitive to external financial and logistical impacts—whether it be a market downturn in a certain region or country, global transportation influences, or even an unexpected natural disaster—travel industry marketers must react quickly and be flexible in their planning and response. While the planning itself is done a year or so out, the option to change those plans based on unexpected influences is a hallmark of the travel and visitor industry.

“Right now, we’ve done the draft of the marketing plan for the visitor season of summer 2014,” Simpson says. “We’ll have that finalized in June. Some components of the marketing program work year after year.” One example might be targeted marketing packets mailed to prospective visitors who have requested information about the state. “Sometimes, it takes two to three years to commit,” she says.

Because the organization is further segmented into smaller committees and subcommittees that meet regularly, members and planners are able to stay on top of current events. One example is the earthquake that occurred in Japan and resulting catastrophic tsunami. “There was the earthquake one month before we were planning a major sales mission to Japan,” Simpson recalls. Immediately the committee of members and staff had to determine if the major campaign would—or should—go forward, she said. “We reallocated those funds toward promotions in Korea ... and then we decided to do the mission in the fall,” she says. “We wanted to try to give it some breathing room.” According to Simpson, the industry organization was able to react and redirect its marketing so quickly largely in part to the fact that the state has contractors all over the world “to provide that kind of counsel to us and we were able to make decisions,” she says.


Off Season

While Alaska’s prime visitor season remains the summertime and the draw of its Midnight Sun, winter tourism constitutes 15 percent of overall visitation to the state, Simpson says. “Fall winter is a special time. Maybe a little bit more niche,” she says. The Iditarod and World Ice Art championships remain a steady draw during the alternative season. And, Alaska’s crystal clear nighttime skies are still a treasured tourism product. “The northern lights are a huge draw,” she says. “We are one of the more ideal places in the world to view them.” For many years and ongoing, the state has benefited from Japanese charters targeted directly to northern lights tours. “What a great economic boost,” Simpson adds.

As one example of the benefits afforded to organization members, the ATIA undertook a dual-tiered campaign targeted to two user groups: first, destination marketing organizations/land management planners; and second, tourism businesses. The organization provides a strategic plan for each group on its website regarding how to tap that alternative season of great potential. “Winter tourism is growing,” Simpson says.


Making the Most

Such strategic plans and personal counsel to Alaska’s cadre of visitor industry businesses is among the standard fare for ATIA. The organization’s member benefits otherwise include opportunities for members to post jobs on a shared site, discounted trade show booth space, discounts to annual industry convention and trade shows, personal consultation with ATIA staff to develop custom marketing opportunities, and other benefits. With membership from Barrow to Ketchikan, the organization is helping guide the state in determining who is the next visitor to Alaska.
“Tourism in general is really fun,” says Simpson, who has worked in the industry for many years and is helping craft the upcoming expansion of membership benefits.

Nicole A. Bonham Colby writes from Ketchikan.

  This originally appeared in the April 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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