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Virtual Visitors

by Jul 2, 2020Magazine, Tourism

With the 2020 tourist season decimated, businesses look for new ways to serve customers

First come the shorebirds, congregating on the beaches of the Kenai Peninsula. Then come the king salmon, returning en masse to the rivers where they were spawned. Then—usually—come the tourists.

Last summer more than 2 million visitors were welcomed to the Land of the Midnight Sun. They toured and dined and experienced what makes Alaska what it is. And in doing so, they spent more than $2 billion. Oodles of companies (and entire towns) rely on a tourist presence. Like early homesteaders, businesses depend on summer’s bounty to make it through the winter.

This year has seen innumerable changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, though one of the most profound has been a shift from life in a physical world to a digital one—across the globe businesses asked employees to work from home, schools went online, and shopping carts were found in the upper right-hand corner of customers’ screens.

This shift has challenged Alaska businesses that rely on tourism groups and independent travelers. Across the state, businesses in every industry have had to find creative revenue streams. Many decided to look for ways to add value to the lives of those already here; Alaskans helping Alaskans through uncertain times.

The Anchorage Public Library

The Anchorage Public Library has long offered programs for downloading books and streaming movies and music, applications that have become all the more vital in recent months.

“Everyone seems to want more,” says Community Engagement Coordinator Misty Rose Nesvick. “More books, more movies, more content.” At present, library card holders can check out ten items per month, up two from pre-pandemic policies, a move Nesvick says people appreciate enormously.

Some of the most sought after materials, Nesvick says, have been movies, audiobooks, and ebooks. But it’s not just folks looking to escape into a well-told narrative. It’s also been parents looking for materials for homeschooling and businesses seeking strategy and skill development, amongst numerous others.

The Anchorage Public Library’s website is a digital El Dorado—it has everything. And more. Right now, one of the library’s biggest goals is to help locals sort through its treasure trove of online programs to make living in the new normal easier.

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The online products function like apps. For example, Overdrive has the feel of a traditional library, where the librarians create and curate the content, and Hoopla operates on a Netflix-like model where content is added and removed by brand. Some other apps are geared toward movies and music, others teach languages or offer tutorials on a slew of topics. One of the programs that has seen a prodigious increase in traffic is LinkedIn Learning, which library members can access at no cost.

“Right now a lot of businesses are trying to figure out how to keep their people trained on the latest stuff while also trying to cut costs, so LinkedIn Learning is a great tool,” Nesvick says. “There’s a lot of things that the library can do to support the business community and their users.”

The main driver behind the library’s change in services hasn’t been so much to recreate but to adapt existing programs and to stress the localness of its programming.

Many of the new virtual programs play to the strengths of the various team members: The Youth Services Librarians launched virtual storytimes and the Virtual Librarian developed a How-To for people new to online programs.

“We know there’s a lot of content out there from libraries and non-libraries, so we want ours to be our people,” says Nesvick. “We know that folks are feeling really disconnected in general, so while it’s great to watch a celebrity read a story, it might be more reassuring to a child to watch our local librarians, the ones they’re used to seeing every Wednesday, connect with them.”

Nesvick says the bulk of the feedback the organization has received is gratitude for finding a way to distribute content and help with a sense of normalcy.

“I got feedback from a healthcare worker who said her five-year-old daughter’s world was turned upside down, but the fact that she could still go to storytime was one thing that could make things okay,” Nesvick says. “And so that’s what we’re hearing from folks, that they’re just so appreciative that we’re continuing to do the work and to support them.”

While a strategic plan for the rest of the summer is in the works, it’s fairly fluid. It’s hard to say now what greatest need the community will have in a few months; however, Anchorage Public Libraries is planning to help people learn technological skills and parents teach their kids from home.

This summer the library also hopes to roll out a web series for information literacy. It’ll cover how to recognize true facts, determine what’s reliable, and what makes a solid or poor source of information.

“That’s the strength of the library, being able to say, ‘This is how you figure out the information,’ not necessarily, ‘This item is fact because we say it is,’” Nesvick says. “It’s more about asking the question, giving people the tools, and figuring out how to make sense of it all. It’s all about learning.”

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The Anchorage Museum

That ethos is something The Anchorage Museum understands—people crave a deeper understanding of the world around them. It’s an ideal the organization was founded on and one it has continued to deliver, just through a different medium.

“We know that our mission doesn’t go away, nor do we want it to, during this time,” says Anchorage Museum Director Julie Decker. “Delivering content is what we do, so finding ways to do that over different platforms was a good reason to be creative.”

For the museum, it was important to create content that endures over time rather than materials that are reactive to the moment: work that adds value over the years and doesn’t just add to an oversaturated virtual world.

Finding a way to digitize the museum was paramount. Within days of widespread closures the museum had revamped its website with a section devoted to visiting the “Museum From Home.” There’s a page with a compilation of short videos about various featured artists and their work, another that teaches Dena’ina words, and one that provides resources for artists to continue to nurture and hone their craft, among others. Each day more pages are added, building out the digital museum until it mirrors the existing one.

“We’re trying to create a really immersive experience online that provides the same kind of value of an in-person exhibition,” Decker says.

During the first few weeks of the hunker down order, the museum presented its first ever virtual only exhibition with artist Nicholas Galanin, designed online classes to discuss urban harvesting, held artist talks, and hosted a series of online concerts.

While the programs are geared toward locals, they’ve been viewed as far away as South Africa, Norway, and China.

“There are some moments when you feel like the world got smaller in a really beautiful way,” Decker says. “There is demand and engagement, and it’s been good to know that you can still have a very connected human experience, even with Zoom.”

In a normal year, the museum sees 200,000 visitors, nearly half of whom visit between May 15 and September 15. Significantly fewer attendees are expected this year and the bulk will be Alaskans. Finding fresh (but socially distant) ways to engage locals is driving much of the museum’s planned programming this summer. Decker says they’re trying to develop more outdoor programming, like painting classes spread across the vast lawn, outdoor films, and sound walks.

“We’re trying to use our natural world as an extension of our building,” Decker says. “We’ve done some of that before, but we want people to feel safe and secure, so we’re thinking about ways to offer programming both indoors and out.”

Decker thinks the museum is uniquely suited to weather the storm, saying, “Museums are creative places. They’re all about solving problems and connecting people.” She adds that her team is also incredibly determined. “We’re a bunch of people that are very passionate about the mission. It’s a whole new way of thinking and doing, but I’ve seen the most heartening commitment to making sure we serve all our audiences.”

Visit Anchorage

While the museum looks to serve its existing audience, Visit Anchorage is set to welcome a new one. During a normal year, Visit Anchorage would have spent the spring and early summer welcoming out-of-staters into the grass-roofed Visitor Information Center in downtown Anchorage and fielding emails from travelers with imminent travel plans. But it isn’t normal. Instead, in mid-May the center sat locked and requests from hopeful tourists were looking toward a more far-flung future.

Visit Anchorage has two main audiences: visitors and the businesses who serve them. With most cruises and tours canceled this summer in response to COVID-19, the visitors group has pivoted away from marketing to Outside travelers and toward marketing to Alaskans.

“Right now we’re in the process of really planning how to showcase appealing activities for in-state visitors,” says Julie Saupe, Visit Anchorage president and CEO, adding that one of the biggest conversations amongst her team is how to best invite Alaskans from other parts of the state to Anchorage for staycations. Recently, they’ve been working with their tourism partners to roll out discounts for Alaska residents, guides to Anchorage that make sense to someone who lives outside the metropolis (spoiler: they include Costco runs), and itineraries that are amenable to distancing guidelines (calling on outdoor activities like hiking and visiting the Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage).

For the first time, Visit Anchorage will spend advertising funds within the state—usually it focuses attention on visitors from the Lower 48 and beyond. Even so, Saupe says they’ve received a surprising number of requests for visitor’s guides.

“I’m hoping it’s a recognition that Alaska has these big, wild open spaces that I think people are craving,” Saupe says. “We’ve really changed a lot of our content to recognize how people may need to be inspired or entertained from home right now.”

Visit Anchorage is also devoting a large chunk of its time to corresponding virtually with meeting planners to discuss reasons why and how to plan a future convention in Anchorage.

“We’re working on how to best present ourselves digitally,” Saupe says. “In the past we invited meeting planners up here and we’ve toured them around Anchorage. Now we’re investing in new tools to do more digital proposals that are more interactive for meeting planners to engage with and learn about what Anchorage has to offer.”

Beyond its continued efforts to lure visitors near and far to Anchorage, the company is also working to be a beacon of guidance for its member businesses. In March and April Visit Anchorage developed an online toolkit for its constituents to help them navigate how to access stimulus funds and cope with closures. It’s not a part of Visit Anchorage’s core mission, but it’s now essential to keep the various ships in its armada afloat.

One of the elements that Saupe says has been most well received by its affiliates is a series of webinars published by Visit Anchorage ranging from marketing strategies and best practices for reopening to cleaning and sanitizing.

“When things go back to normal, we’ll be ready,” Saupe says.

While everyone is eager to get back to normal (or close to what normal used to look like), Alaska’s organizations are making the most of the opportunities they have now, helping people travel far and wide—digitally, at least.

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One factor that contributes to successful business operations is the ability to adapt to new situations; rare is the organization that flourishes without changing at all. This year, as we are all acutely aware by now, will go down in history for many, many things including the wide range of methods implemented by businesses as they adapted to the new landscape presented to them by COVID-19.

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