Nervous Alaska outfitters tell clients, 'let's make a deal'

Lodge owners and charter operators worry upcoming season will be a bust

Posted: Thursday, April 16, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Skittish about the possibility the summer could bring a tourist bust, outdoor-related businesses of all sorts were offering deals, deals, deals at The Great Alaska Sportsman Show.

Halibut and salmon charters that have edged up to more than $150 in recent years were being discounted to less than $100. Gear of all sorts was on sale for 30 to 50 percent off. Lodges were slashing prices.

The Big Eddy Resort of RW's Fishing on the Kenai River offered a "Stimulus Cabin Fever" special of 50 percent off lodging and salmon charters on a space-available basis for May and August.

There is a simple reason why.

"June has become the new May," said Bob Candopoulos, owner of Saltwater Safari, which operates a lodge and two party boats out of Seward. "I don't know what's going to happen to all of us."

May and September have long made up the so-called "shoulder season" for fishing charters, sightseeing cruises and lodges built around an almost painfully short summer season. The shoulder months produced the gravy to pour over the meat-and-potato months of June, July and August.

Now, many said, with the national economy in a shambles, it is looking like the gravy is gone, and a lot are worrying about the meat and potatoes.

Pete Wedin of Capt. Pete's Alaskan Experience, one of those mom-and-pop halibut fishing businesses for which Homer is famous, said he fully expects some fishing charters to fail there this summer.

"People are talking about business being down 25 percent," he said. "I think we're going to have some attrition."

But then, he added, there was a lot of talk about business being drastically down last summer because of sky-high fuel prices, and he didn't see that. His business was off only 8 to 9 percent. He expects to be able to survive another summer even if it's worse than that, but he joked that he's asked his wife, Debra, to expand the size of the family garden, and he plans to can a lot more salmon this year.

Guides, lodge owners and charter operators who've been to sports shows around the country over the course of the last two months said it is obvious Alaska tourism is going to be hit, possibly hard hit, by ripples of the economic fear gripping America.

"The problem is people have a lot of money, but they're hanging onto it," said Rod Berg, who runs Rod 'N Real charters out of Soldotna with his brother. Berg said he understands why: The economy has them scared.

The Great Alaska was the ninth sportsman's show Berg has worked this year.

"We've been seeing a lot of economies," he said.

Most of them appeared weaker than Alaska's, he added, but that isn't exactly good news for tourism businesses in the 49th state. In-state tourism provides a sizeable slice of Alaska business, but the big chunk of the pie is national and global.

Steve Mahay of Mahay's Riverboat Service, which runs both sightseeing tours and fishing trips out of Talkeetna, said his business is split about 40-60 between Alaskans and tourists from Outside.

"Our Alaska client is still there," he added, "but Outside, our reservations are way down."

Just back from a couple of big industry trade shows in the Lower 48, he said, it is clear people are still traveling, but they're trying to do it much closer to home and at a much lower cost. This is not good for Alaska, which is viewed as an exotic and expensive destination.

Some tour operators here are talking about drops in Outside traffic by much as 50 percent. Mahay is hoping for better, but noted that he has cut his normal summer staff from 35 people to 20. It was the wise business decision, he said, but he wonders whether cutbacks like this will trickle down through the Alaska economy the way similar business cutbacks have rippled through the economies of Lower 48 states.

"Everybody is scared, so they're all cutting back," he said, all of which causes more fear and more cutbacks.

"Things get bad because people feel scared," said Jim King, a longtime Alaska resident who sells inflatable boats under the name of his late father, Gary King. He has seen economic ups and downs. Gary King Sporting Goods once owned the outdoor equipment business in Anchorage, but lost it to big box stores and better niche marketers. The Gary King store, a landmark in Anchorage for years, went out of business in 2000.

Jim King has since built a healthy business selling the "Alaska Series by Gary King" inflatables. With sales now split about 50-50 between Alaska and Outside markets, he too worked shows outside on his way back north to attend the Great Alaska.

Some places the local economies seemed fine, he said. Other places, he said, it wasn't so good, and the economics seemed to have troublesome ties to the psychology. Sales were average at the Miami Boat Show, he said, but when the Seattle Boat Show opened with local media headlining "woe is me," nobody seemed to want to buy much of anything.

Turnout on a recent Friday at Anchorage's show appeared good leading into what is traditionally a jam-packed weekend for the event, and people were buying things as in past years.

"I'm not in a panic," said 57-year-old Jerry Johnson from Anchorage. He was at the show primarily to attend some fishing seminars, he said, but he also purchased a new fishing rod.

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