Tourism: Asking for help

Feeling the pinch, industry lobbies the Legislature

Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2002

On Jan. 30, the halls of the Legislature will be packed with representatives of the state's visitor industry, who will fly to Juneau en masse to plead for relief from the economic downturn that followed closely on the heels of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

The fly-in is cosponsored by the Alaska Travel Industry Association and the Alaska Hospitality Alliance, which seek $12.5 million in relief funds in a supplemental appropriation to promote travel to the state. Those funds would be applied to the Alaska Tourism Industry Crisis Recovery Plan drawn up last fall.

"The main thing the plan tries to do is try to stem the decrease in visitors that is anticipated in 2002," said Susan Bell, president of ATIA and a senior manager with the McDowell Group.

"The fly-in is an opportunity for businesses from across the state to come to the Capitol to deal individually and collectively with their legislators while the legislators are here doing the state's business," said Dale Anderson, a board member of ATIA and the owner of Auke Lake Bed & Breakfast. "It's an awareness program that hopes to illustrate that it's not just a few businesses that will benefit from this (budget request) but across the board."

"The backbone of Southeast Alaska tourism is small businesses, mom-and-pops that service not only cruise-line passengers but also ferry passengers and individual travelers," said Anderson, also a Juneau Assembly member. "It's my opinion that small business is really going to bear the brunt of the effects of 9/11."

The ATIA holds fly-ins every year, typically at the end of March or in early April, Bell said. "It's earlier this year because of the special $12.5 million request."

Mark Morones, ATIA communications director, said the group is holding its fly-in in conjunction with the Alaska Hospitality Alliance, which already scheduled a fly-in for Jan. 30.

"From the ATIA perspective, the sole purpose is to get the supplemental appropriation. We need that sooner than later. If it gets pushed back to the end of the session, it might be too late."

One tourism representative attending will be Bob Dindinger of Juneau. Dindinger and his wife Julianna hold a controlling interest in Alaska Travel Adventures, a corporation doing business under 20 different names and in nine locations around Alaska. Some of its subsidiaries include Alaska Highway Cruises, Gold Creek Salmon Bake, Mendenhall River Rafting, Backcountry Jeep Safaris, Orca Beach Nature Hike (in Ketchikan), Ship Creek Landings RV Park (in Anchorage) and Wilderness Sea Kayaking Adventures (in Sitka).

"I have a lot to protect," said Dindinger, president and CEO of Alaska Travel Adventures and a veteran of 30 years in the travel industry.

As of Jan. 8, the subsidiaries of Alaska Travel Adventures that log advanced reservations were showing deficits.

"Our four recreational vehicle parks and our motor home rentals are both down," Dindinger said. "The rental product is running at 68 percent of last year. The cruise tour product is running at 54 percent. I am very concerned."

The 20 parts of Alaska Travel Adventures mean 220 jobs during the summer months, but Dindinger is hiring fewer people for the summer and has laid off some of the approximately 30 employees he usually has on the books through the winter.

"We are discounting everything we have, and we do expect it to get better before the summer - but it will not get well," Dindinger said.

A lot of Dindinger's business relies on cruise ship passengers

"But even with an increase of 12 percent of cruise beds, the number of passengers to Alaska will be about the same," he said. "Cruise companies are heavily discounting, which attracts a less affluent client - who spends less on shore excursions. We expect our business to be down 15 percent."

Dale Fox, owner of Bird Watching Tours of Anchorage, will also attend the fly-in.

"The amount of decline is a moving target," Fox said. "Most of my bookings come in the week before the tour, so I don't have a lot of indicators. But I know airlines are down, tour companies are down and cruises are down. And if people don't come to town, I don't have a business."

Fox, chairman of the board of ATIA, sees his trip to Juneau as a mission. "We know we need to convert a lot of people," he said.

Jeff Butcher, general manager of Goldbelt Hotel Juneau, said the travel industry has other potential straws that could be loaded on the back of its camel: A minimum wage increase, a liquor excise tax, an unemployment tax increase and a state-wide sales tax "on top of what we already pay and normal economic slowdown."

"We can't stress enough that this $12.5 million is to mitigate the declines we have already seen," said Butcher, a member of ATIA and AHA.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association is a nonprofit, member-based organization, the result of a recent merger of three organizations: The Alaska Visitors Association, the Alaska Tourism Marketing Council and the marketing division of the state of Alaska. ATIA assumed responsibility for promoting the state as a visitor destination on July 1, 2000. Before the formation of ATIA, the Visitors Association sponsored annual legislative fly-ins.

ATIA has 70 members in Juneau, Anderson said.

Gary Droubay, president and CEO of Goldbelt Inc., the Juneau-based urban Native corporation that owns several tour businesses, supports the fly-in.

"Goldbelt is very strongly behind this effort to get some funds to promote the state and bring dollars into Alaska - which will help us all," Droubay said. "I believe it will be an investment which will be well returned."

"Other states are going great guns, but Alaska is seeing independent travel decline in the last three or four years, because the state has abdicated all advertising responsibility to cruise ships," Droubay said. "Cruise companies do not advertise in a way that attracts independent travelers. They lure people into a $300 or $400 week on a cruise ship, and that's hard to beat. Our company relies on the independent traveler to stay at our hotel in Juneau and to go to Glacier Bay Lodge. People on cruise ships don't do that; they don't have the time."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.



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