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Corporate Travel in Alaska

Rich in private, commercial, and collaborative options for business travelers


USTravel’s John Moriarty.

Photo by Crystal Javier

Business executives in the Lower 48 states with meetings to attend, whether in a community within the state or in another continental state, enjoy ease in booking a private or commercial flight, a rental car or executive limo service, or even a train to promptly make the destination. The processes are fairly straightforward and accessible, options of transport abound, and everything seems to flow without major obstacles and in light of many alternatives.

Juxtapose standard US travel to the weather rigors and geographic complexity in Alaska, and suddenly it is clear why managed travel companies and customer service representatives for flight, vehicle, and waterway travel earn their money.

Think fog, high winds, and ice storms—and then add large pesky mountains in the way when trying to get somewhere. Even the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s website states, “Alaska is a huge state with a wide range of climatic and ecological conditions.”

In Alaska, “Your flight has been canceled because of weather,” is truly part of aviation nomenclature.

When it comes to traveling city to city in the 49th state, if the communities are along the road system, options for businesses spread across the spectrum. The most popular is a regional air service or a national air carrier like Alaska Airlines. If time is not of the essence, which would be rare in standard business practices that value and assiduously track time spent commuting, options such as a rental car, executive transport service (bus, limo, or car/truck), and even the Alaska Railroad can get corporate employees and guests to and from meetings and events. Traveling in the Southeast region between coastal communities, if there’s extra time, the Alaska Marine Highway System is an option. It has been operating year-round since 1963, servicing more than thirty communities in Alaska and, in the past ten years, carrying an average of 312,000 passengers and 98,000 vehicles per year.

But how does one book a flight or rental vehicle or seat on a ferry? Perhaps more important, what is the easiest way to manage corporate travel in such a weather-fickle state?


Travel Management

Corporations in Alaska recognize the value of hands-on travel management. Corporate management typically assigns internal staff to supervise and secure travel logistics themselves or outsources to a travel company whereby the corporate staff member serves as a liaison to the travel consultant in contouring the right itinerary.

A fortune for many corporate logisticians is the blossoming acclimation to Internet and online travel bookings and resources. No matter the mechanical medium chosen to travel on in Alaska, digital ease and access make some aspects of executive travel more efficient. Most companies’ staff members assigned to handling travel scheduling can utilize burgeoning travel websites like Orbitz, Kayak, Travelocity, Priceline, Expedia, and others that include free travel apps to access and manipulate flight details online via mobile or Wi-Fi connections.

But Scott McMurren, author of the monthly Alaska Travelgram eNewsletter and a thirty-plus year tourism business owner and Alaska travel expert, cautions not to overvalue website handholding. “It’s counter-intuitive. The prevailing wisdom is that you’ll find access to travel booking and resource options online, but in practice, most of the larger Alaskan companies are reaching out to the experts within a travel management company to oversee their travel planning.”

For the in-state, national, and international corporate executives who deem Alaska a tricky playing field because of travel limitations, as McMurren contends, a travel management company, or TMC, may be the most prudent and shareholder-responsible option.

There are certainly vacation travel agencies still operating in Alaska from Anchorage to Fairbanks and across the state. There are the competitive national companies like Carlson Wagonlit, originally founded in 1872 by a Belgian innovator named Georges Nagelmackers and primarily European-centric, that oversees international travel planning for many corporations.


Locally Owned

The crown jewel of TMCs in Alaska is locally owned USTravel.

For businesses and companies requiring managed assistance with their corporate traveling and outreach, USTravel has more than thirty years of extensive experience with intra-state travel planning for the oil and gas industry, the fisheries industry, Alaska Native corporations, and the State of Alaska. In addition to longevity, the company employs about 150 travel professionals and has six offices in Alaska, seven out of state. The company headquarters is in Anchorage.

When asked just how wide and far the company’s services cover, USTravel Marketing Manager Elizabeth Nerland explains, “Our travel agent team is familiar with booking scheduled air carriers, both domestic and international, as well as approximately $15 million in rural carrier travel every year. We have intimate knowledge of statewide rural carriers’ schedules and routes, the Alaska ferry system, rail services, charter, and remote lodging to service our clients’ intra-state travel needs, and we recognize these travel logistics are critical for any corporation’s bottom line.”

One unique bragging point for USTravel is its proprietary tracking mechanism for travel on rural Alaska carriers not available in the GDS (global distribution system). The company’s tracking system includes a database of 374 city pairs and 58 non-arc rural air carriers. While their agents still contact the carrier directly to make the reservation, the system creates the itinerary, the invoice, and the reporting mechanism to complete the reservation. By interfacing the booking data from the database to the GDS, USTravel is able to give each business client a full travel picture that includes all non-arc travel segments on their aggregated expenditure reports.


Trending Logistics

But how about the latest and greatest travel trending—is Alaska lagging behind on the information highway?

Absolutely not, says McMurren.

“Alaska is parallel with, if not superior, in our access to and application of digital mediums to benefit travel logistics,” says McMurren. “The Alaskan corporate trending in 2014 and beyond utilizes devices like iPads and tablets, smartphones and laptops, and comprehensive apps to ensure efficiency in the process. TMCs and travel consultants, in concert with modern digital technology for metrics and transparency, most often results in a happy customer who actually makes the appointment and can justify the expense.”

There are certainly other considerations when it comes to corporate travel and process. Accommodations are a necessary part of the calculus. Alaska, and not just in the larger cities like Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau, offers an impressive mosaic of corporate apartments, hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, and myriad alternatives for the weary business traveler.

For the adventurous employee traveler who seeks a reasonable price along with privacy and mobility, during the summer an all-in-one option of a recreational vehicle, such as a motorhome or pickup camper, may even generate a true “Alaska” feel and afford nights in a campground or national park in between meetings, mergers, and negotiations.


Private Jets

For businesses with the financial means, private jets are the opposite spectrum to the frugal corporate spenders. Although held tight to the vest when it comes to plane information and travel details, some notable Alaskan physicians and healthcare providers, construction contractors, financial institution CEOs, resource development companies, telecommunications providers, and Alaska Native corporations contract or own private jets utilized for business travel. Out-of-state private jet companies are also available for corporate business travel to and from Alaska and in-state, but all at a heavy price that primarily only pinnacle income earners can afford.

McMurren also highlights the fact that in Alaska exclusive charter flights with carriers are also available, most prevalent with oil and gas companies to the North Slope. He references Trident Seafood using the same method to bring its crews to Dutch Harbor and adds that planes can be retro-fitted for corporations to transport personnel and equipment, such as Northern Air Cargo accommodating Shell Oil.

Welcome to Alaska and travel diversity.

As Nerland admits, when it comes to Alaska and corporate travel, “We live in Alaska because we love the people, places, and environment, but it’s certainly a state that comes with some logistics challenges. Corporations and their travelers need state-of-the-art technology with a balance of human assistance to make sure they can get their job done. That’s where companies like USTravel, consultants like Scott McMurren, and the majority of agencies in the Alaska corporate travel industry meet the mark of exceptionalism.”

Indeed, with planes, trains, and automobiles, and even with a backpack and tent, Alaska is open for business and accessible thanks in large part to dedicated corporate travel professionals.

Tom Anderson writes from Alaska.

This first appeared in the April 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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