“Secret Shoppers” Test Anchorage as a Tourism Destination
If a tourism marketing consultant has its way, Anchorage would bristle with signs directing visitors to points of interest.
Pointing the Way
A comprehensive wayfinding system is the top priority suggested in the Anchorage Destination Assessment, a report by Arizona-based consulting firm Roger Brooks International commissioned by the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation. For the study, the firm enlisted “secret shoppers” to reconnoiter the city in January and July 2022 and review its attractions, customer service, ease of movement, and amenities. According to the report, “We looked at Anchorage as: 1) a place to live and raise a family, 2) a place to work, invest in, or bring a business, and 3) a place to visit.”
Many of the suggestions for action center on signs. For instance, broken signs are an eyesore, but quick enforcement of abatement ordinances can clean them up. Vacant buildings should have signs assuring visitors that the property is not forgotten. “Add a ‘Coming Soon’ sign for this old movie theater that is under renovation,” says the report, indicating the 4th Avenue Theatre, a few months before demolition began. “Invite us back!”
The principle of “invite us back” appears throughout the report. Such signs would let winter tourists know what might be open during summer. “We were confused in winter, thinking that’s all there was,” the report says.
Signs are the key to wayfinding, which was the most urgent complaint visitors had. The scouts were happy to visit Alaska Wild Berry Products and The Ulu Factory, but finding those shops was not easy. Also, locals told them to visit “Flattop” and “Westchester Lagoon,” but signs and maps use the official names of “Glen Alps Trailhead” and “Sullivan Park.” The report calls for consistency.
“Wayfinding systems increase visitor spending; they are an investment—not an expense,” the report says. Mobile navigation apps are not a substitute, the authors add. “We use navigation systems to find things we know already exist, but wayfinding signs can tell us about things we don’t even know you have and where they are located.”
Trailhead signs also need improvement, both to replace them when they are weathered and unreadable and to add details about how much time a hike might take and what hikers might see along the way.
Downtown shops need new signs, as well. The report suggests “blade signs,” the shingles that hang perpendicular to sidewalks so pedestrians can see what’s ahead. Too many downtown shops have signs that can only be read from across the street. “We almost didn’t even see Crush [Bistro],” says the report. “That would have been awful, it’s such a great place! But it needs a blade sign.”
More signs would clarify where Anchorage’s neighborhoods and districts are located. The report says, “There are several districts that locals refer to, but visitors have no clue where these are. We had a tough time trying to figure out exactly what was included in West Anchorage, or Midtown, or any of the other districts.” There are signs for “Arts District” and “Mushing District,” but those areas are not well defined. The report suggests signs stamped into the pavement at crosswalks. It adds that the proposal for a “Mushing District” gateway over 4th Avenue is a good start.
People, Not Cars
This illustration from the Anchorage Destination Assessment shows the view from downtown hotels dominated by surface parking.
Signs are an easy fix compared to the report’s more intensive suggestions for overhauling Downtown streets and parking.
“We had fantastic views from the windows in our hotel room at the Captain Cook,” the report says, “but it really showed us that downtown Anchorage has an overabundance of surface parking lots. During our stays, these parking lots were never full.” Echoing a report from May by the American Institute of Architects, Roger Brooks International suggests filling surface parking with more residential and commercial structures.
To make up for lost parking spots, street parking can switch from parallel to angled. “Angle-in parking increases spending by more than 20 percent, and it increases the number of parking spaces on a street by one third,” says the report. Further, waiving parking fees beyond three hours would be an incentive to spend more time (and potentially money) in Downtown.
The biggest problem in Downtown, though, is the confusing criss-cross of one-way streets. The report suggests redesigning them as two-way boulevards, pointing to Greenville, South Carolina as an example. “Sales revenues increased so much after these changes that merchants say it’s the best thing the city has ever done,” the report says. “There is enough tax revenue to pay for the upkeep of the trees and maintenance.”
The street conversion would include 5th and 6th Avenues, which are functionally extensions of the Glenn Highway. “You don’t want to have highways running through downtown, with traffic moving as fast as it can,” the report says. “Your goal should be to have people come TO downtown, not just going THROUGH downtown.”
The report acknowledges that those avenues are controlled by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, not the city, and therefore suggests that state authorities should be as concerned with economic development as they are about safety and reducing congestion. “Congestion is a downtown’s best friend,” the report says. “Downtowns should be about people, not cars.”
The Anchorage Destination Assessment finds fault in downtown’s one-way streets,
as shown in this illustration from the report.
The Anchorage Destination Assessment credits the city with doing a lot of things right. For instance, the bright colors at Snow City Café and Pablo’s Bike Rental are good examples of downtown beautification, as are the many painted trash cans. The report suggests every curb and façade looks better with benches or flowering planters.
The Anchorage Downtown Partnership and the Anchorage Community Development Authority have been trying to “activate” public spaces, and the report lists several more ideas. “You can buy a rack full of hoola-hoops [sic] for about $200,” it says. “How much fun would people have doing hoola-hoops downtown?” The report also sees untapped potential in the Sunshine Plaza and Post Office Mall on 4th Avenue. “While we have not seen the interiors of this building or the building next door, these could possibly be home to a fantastic year-round public market,” the report says, citing Seattle’s Pike Place Market in comparison. “With rotating seasonal vendors and artisans in action, this could be one of Alaska’s great draws.”
The secret shoppers saw what they considered world-class offerings of food, arts and culture, trails, and outdoor recreation. Girdwood scored points for its beautiful setting and enticing restaurants. Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria is “the best pizza we’ve ever had,” and they praised staff at the Visitor Information Center.
The guide published by Visit Anchorage earns kudos, as well. “We think it is one of the best visitor guides in the United States,” the report says. “It was truly helpful, not just an advertising piece. We loved how the guide showed visitors that Anchorage is actually open year-round. The Anchorage by Season section was great.”
Overall findings show concerns about crime and high prices, but Anchorage generally presents a good impression as an “exotic” destination. Maximizing appeal for tourists, the report says, opens the door to non-tourism economic development. “Enhancing the community through beautification efforts creates an attractive setting for both locals and visitors, key in revitalizing a community’s downtown,” the report says. “And a tourism-friendly town will attract non-tourism industries faster than others—new businesses will see the community as a visitor before they make a final determination about the community.”
This year the Alaska Railroad is celebrating 100 years of transportation people and cargo around Alaska. While the railroad is one of the states oldest transporters, it certainly isn’t the only one, and in this issue of Alaska Business we also check in on the Marine Highway, Span Alaska, and the White Pass & Yukon Route. For those interested in Southeast, our focus on that region provides updates on Kensington Mine, Tongass FCU, the troll fishery, and Juneau’s growing landfill.