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Playing Nicely Together

by Feb 21, 2019Magazine, Tourism

Tour operators work cooperatively to benefit travelers and each other

Great Alaskan Holidays’ goal is to provide customers with an amazing experience while also supporting the state’s tourism industry, so they partner with companies ranging from flying services to fishing guides.

© Charlie Sears

Companies in the tourism industry often work together to provide the best experience for those visiting the Last Frontier. And while this form of cooperative tourism may seem counterintuitive since many of them are competing for the same tourist dollar, such relationships actually benefit all of the parties involved—including the state itself.

“Alaska in particular is a unique destination, and everyone in the industry wants the destination to succeed because a rising tide lifts all ships,” explains Jillian Simpson, vice president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA).

“Our goal is to have a customer walk away from their Alaska experience with a well-rounded trip and to be happy with all aspects of their vacation,” agrees Bob Johnson, director of marketing for Great Alaskan Holidays. “While we’re in the business of renting motorhomes, we also want to support the tourism industry in Alaska as much as we possibly can. Ensuring that visitors have a positive customer experience—and want to come back—benefits us all.”

The Popularity of Package Tours

According to a survey conducted by McDowell Group for ATIA, Alaska visitor statistics from 2016 showed that 64 percent of summer visitors purchased a tour package through one distribution channel that included two or more components for one price. This number is down slightly from a decade ago—in 2006—when 69 percent of visitors purchased a tour package.

“While we’ve seen a slight decrease in people booking package tours, it’s remained pretty consistent,” says Simpson. “It was thought that Baby Boomers and younger travelers might want to be more independent, but the fact is, these types of packages offer so many benefits that we have not seen a dramatic decrease.

“I think it’s due in part to the fact that Alaska is a very big destination, and it can be complicated and overwhelming to plan the entire trip yourself,” she continues. “Most people who come to Alaska don’t stay in one spot; they want to travel around. And it definitely helps to have someone who knows the logistics involved and who can help visitors pick what will work best.”

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There are other benefits to working with someone familiar with the state. “If you are able to book with someone who knows the destination well, you can trust that they will know the responsible operators and the best experiences in each location—that you won’t miss out on the highlights,” says Simpson.

“An added value is that you can get the inside scoop on restaurants and guides, as well as take advantage of the special relationships that these companies have formed with other tour operators—for example, you might get to meet with a particular musher during a tour. You wouldn’t have access to this type of experience if you planned your trip independently.”

Visitors on Alaska Railroad’s Spencer Glacier whistle-stop can spend the day rafting, floating the river, hiking, or ice-climbing.

Alaska Railroad

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Finding the Right Partners

With so many different tourism offerings out there, how do companies find appropriate partners? A lot of factors are taken into consideration, from the level of service provided to the uniqueness of the offering to safety records and employee satisfaction.

“We look for a strong track record in customer service and companies that are known for delivering a good experience,” explains Meghan Clemens, marketing communications manager for the Alaska Railroad, adding that the company works with everything from large businesses to small mom-and-pop operations. “It’s the nature of train service to take passengers to new destinations, but they’re going to need somewhere to stay overnight and something to do. So we work with dozens of hotels, lodge properties, and tour operators to provide them with accommodations and activities.”

Clemens notes that the company also looks for a solid safety record, as well as hotels and tours that are accessible to all levels of ability.

Alaska Railroad’s reservation agents are locals, so they’re familiar with the options available to visitors. They advise visitors going to Denali National Park, for example, to spend at least two days in the park and to take part in excursions including flightseeing around the mountain, wildlife tours, and river rafting.

“Denali is a huge bucket list destination, and one of our partners, the Grand Denali Lodge, is one of its most popular accommodations,” says Clemens. “Another one of our trips, the Spencer Glacier whistle-stop, is a passenger opportunity we’ve developed in partnership with the Chugach National Forest Service.”

Located south of Portage off of the road system, the only ground transportation to Spencer Glacier is by train. Once there, visitors can join Chugach Adventures for rafting tours or to float the Placer River or go ice climbing or hiking on Spencer Glacier with Ascending Path. Alaska Railroad handles summer bookings for the trip.

According to Johnson, before Great Alaskan Holidays partners with a company, there’s a fairly significant vetting process.

One of Great Alaskan Holidays’ motorhomes outside Nagley’s Store in Talkeetna.

© Charlie Sears

Passengers on the Alaska Railroad pass by Bartlett Glacier.

© Glenn Aronwits

Passengers of the Alaska Railroad can join Chugach Adventures for rafting tours.

Alaska Railroad

“We spend a fair amount of time getting to know the companies that we will recommend to customers as our business partners,” he explains. “We learn the core values of a business, their business processes, how they deal with customer satisfaction, and how they deal with customers who aren’t happy. We want to partner with companies that reflect our core values and share our perspective on customer service.

“Safety, of course, is a top priority, and we also look at longevity—how ingrained are they in the state of Alaska?” he says. “We also take note of their reputation and read Google and Yelp reviews.”

Johnson adds that there are other not-so-obvious factors to take into account, including how many employees a company has and if they like their jobs, what the turnover rate is, and if they have a policy on continuous training.

“When we visit the location, we pay attention to how we’re greeted,” he says. “We want to experience things the way a customer experiences them when they walk through the same door.”

Great Alaskan Holidays works with a number of tour operators including K2 Aviation, Major Marine Tours, Copper Landing Fishing guides, AskMatt.com fishing guides, Rust’s Flying Service, Kenai Fjords tours, and more.

“We sometimes work with more than one operator in the same industry, but we don’t want to dilute our offering with too many choices—we never work with more than two or three like-type businesses,” says Johnson. “We want to work with the best of the best. We also don’t want to overwhelm our customers with choices, so we do the legwork up front and pre-select companies that we believe will provide them with a great time.”

Premier Alaska Tours is a tour operator that builds packages for a number of companies including cruise lines. In addition, they operate their own motorcoach and four glass-domed rail cars. Because they arrange so many different types of tours, they consider a wide range of criteria before adding partners into their mix.

“For Royal Caribbean alone, we offer twelve different tour patterns when guests get off the ship,” explains President Josh Howes. “We may book rooms at Pikes Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks, or rooms at the Grand Denali Lodge in Denali National Park, or at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge in Talkeetna. We also work with different restaurants and attractions to build a complete package.

“It’s all about finding the right fit and price point,” he adds. “We serve a range of clients from junior high school students on a trip to Alaska looking for budget accommodations to couples looking for an ultra-luxury experience on a Crystal Cruise and the best lodges and personal guides—so we work with a healthy mix of different suppliers across the state.”

Howes adds that Premier’s safety team also vets operators to make sure that they are carrying the right insurance, follow the correct safety protocols, and have a crisis management plan in place.

A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

“While our core business is moving people around the state by train, we promote and sell into other local Alaska businesses,” she adds. “Part of our mission is to support economic development across the state because it’s good for our passengers and for our partners.”

While Great Alaskan Holidays does not do bookings for its partners, they do promote the organizations on their website, by word-of-mouth, and through directing customers to these companies as preferred partners.

“K2 is a good example of why our partners do their booking directly; we don’t know the ins and outs of their business and the specific information that they’ll want to know like how much a passenger weighs so that they can distribute weight balances appropriately,” says Johnson.

Because Great Alaskan Holidays has been in business so long, its partner companies benefit from its reputation. “A lot of companies come to us because we’ve been serving tourists in Anchorage for thirty-four years, and we’re very well-known,” says Johnson. “People trust us. We also have a large customer base, so we have long-reaching arms; we reach customers throughout the world.”

Unlike other reciprocal relationships, Johnson says that the company rarely exchanges commissions. “We don’t get involved in that too much because, in my opinion, it can cloud the intent. If your top priority is the customer experience, and one company gives you 20 percent commission versus another company’s 10 percent commission, it might entice you to take the higher amount at the risk of customer satisfaction.”

As a membership-based organization, ATIA provides its partners with numerous benefits, especially when trying to reach markets in the Lower 48 or overseas.

“The travel trade is a very important partner to Alaska tourism, and part of our outreach is working with operators in the Lower 48 and internationally to educate them on how to put together
a package and how to connect with local operators in Alaska that provide tour products,” says Simpson. “We also attend trade shows, share leads with industry members, and pitch stories to top tier travel writers whom they otherwise might not have access to.

“By packaging tours, operators are able to save on resources and reach a volume of customers that they otherwise wouldn’t reach,” she adds. “And from the consumer’s perspective, it’s a great way to take a trip—all wrapped up in a neat bow.”

Ascending Path works with the Alaska Railroad to provide hiking and ice-climbing experiences.

Alaska Railroad

While the ways in which tour operators partner together may be different, the end goal is to improve everyone’s bottom line.

“Hotels and lodges want to work with us because we block a lot of rooms; we’ll take a certain number of rooms and continue to sell them over the course of the summer,” says Howes. “While not all companies want to do this—they may prefer to sell direct—we can be part of a healthy mix that includes other services like Expedia, who might sell four rooms a night all at different rates.”

Premier also has access to locations and activities that other companies can’t offer, which makes for a unique guest experience. “We can provide private experiences at boutique lodges or VIP fishing at remote locations,” says Howes. “We also work with guides like Jimmie Hendricks in Denali who climbed the mountain and can offer guests an engaging, first-hand account of the experience. We provide similar presentations by Bush pilots and dog mushers.”

Premier bills clients a lump sum for each package and pays all of its vendors directly. “This is especially helpful for smaller operators who find it a challenge to wait the 120 days that a larger company might take to get them payment,” says Howes.

While every tourism company is looking to offer something unique, most of them are also quite loyal to partners who have proven themselves time and again.

“At this point, there are a number of operators that we have long-term relationships with, and we’re not trying to shake things up every season,” says Clemens. “However, if we see that there is something new out there, we will reach out to see if there’s something that might round out our offerings even more.”

While the revenue arrangement depends on the partner, Clemens says that for the most part, the railroad participates in reciprocal relationships in which each partner promotes and sells each other’s offerings. “We sell into their tours, and they promote our trains,” she says, adding that most sales are commission-based.

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In the February 2024 issue of Alaska Business, we engineered a special section that inspects the many ways architecture and engineering enrich our lives, from creating beautiful and functional spaces to crafting functional and safe transportation corridors. In addition to the built world in which we live, this issue celebrates small businesses and the many functions they provide, whether they're developing tools in the healthcare industry or opening new dining locations.

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