Charters and lodges cast a wide net for summer fishing clients

Posted: Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Charter guides and sport lodge owners are casting a wide net this season, hoping to reel in enough clients hungry for the state's fabled fishing adventures to make ends meet, the economy notwithstanding.

"It's going to be a challenge this year," said Bill Sadler, general manager of a fishing charter service and lodge on the Kenai Peninsula.

Some folks have already called to cancel reservations with Alaska Fishing Charters and Soldotna B&B Lodge, many clients saying they lost their jobs, Sadler said.

Still, with fuel prices down from a year ago, "and airline prices not too out of whack, we are getting the same amount of inquiries," Sadler said. "We are still very positive that as we get closer and closer to the season, more people are going to book."

Down the road at High Adventures, a fly-out fishing guide and outfitter five miles north of Soldotna, sales manager Susan Dowell also expresses confidence that aggressive marketing will pay off.

Dowell said some clients canceled because of lost jobs, but she also has a lot of solid repeat clients from Texas, where she was once employed in property management. When her husband went down to Texas to go fishing, she sent along a pile of rack cards advertising High Adventures to put up in bait shops there.

"It's exposure," she said. "The other secret is doing follow-ups. Until they say they have booked somewhere else, they are potential clients. You have to market your property. You can't wait for them to call."

And market she does.

Dowell's company also produced a DVD of one of their remote fishing camps and sent it off to a list of prior clients. She sent one of the DVDs to her brother, who is in the Merchant Marine to show on board his ship. She also sent copies to other friends and relatives.

"I sent it to people who knew people," she said. The DVD has already brought in some bookings, she said.

Veteran halibut charter operator Bob Ward of Award Charters in Homer said he's increased advertising as much as his budget will allow. As his repeat clients called in to book in April, he was also busy updating them on his observations of volcanic eruptions of Mount Redoubt, which he can see across Kachemak Bay.

Ward said he's heard from other operators that their bookings are down about 50 percent, and he anticipated his business could be down quite a bit. Still, he's not losing hope.

Cancellations aside, he is getting calls from all over the United States.

"We are confident we are going to be fine," he said. "We're counting on a good, safe season. Take care of the people who come and hope they go home and tell other people what they had."

Northeast of Anchorage, at the Northwoods Lodge in Skwentna, spokeswoman Shan Johnson said bookings for June are looking pretty good, but July and August, not so great so far.

Guest anglers at this small lodge can fish in all five species of salmon, rainbow trout, grayling and northern pike. Last year the lodge raised rates because of fuel costs, but this year, with fuel prices down a bit, they've brought rates back down, she said.

The heat of the economic downturn, in addition to allocation issues that have limited clients' catches, is hitting harder in places like Whalers Cove Lodge in Angoon, which offers wilderness sportfishing adventures and ecotours.

"Most of our clients are high-end investors," said owner Dick Powers. "Many of them have lost more than half of their retirement portfolios. We had people who booked and cancelled because they had lost their homes. A lot of folks I talk to are pretty stunned by this and they were definitely hurt."

He's also concerned about limits on how many king salmon and halibut that clients can catch, particularly the prospect of a one halibut a day limit, a new rule that he said the sport industry in Southeast Alaska stands ready to litigate.

Powers, who got into the business in 1971, said he marketed his lodge at 16 trade shows this year, including shows in Texas, Ohio, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Washington and Oregon.

In Arizona and Nevada, he found people who were scared.

"They've lost houses, retirement," he said. "The people who did show up, they were not interested in buying from any of the vendors. They are really spooked."

He did better in Spokane, Wash., and Long Beach, Calif., he said.

Between the shows and mailings to 15,000 past and potential customers, Powers figures he will spent close to $200,000 on marketing this year. The single mailing alone will run him about $7,500, he said.

Powers said he plans to market the lodge all summer "to make sure I have enough cash flow to stay alive," but he is also hopeful that the economy will improve by January, when he starts booking for the next season.

"I'm redoubling my effort to sell," he said. "We have an excellent fishery."

At the Shelter Cove Lodge in Craig, spokesman Dave Creighton also expressed some optimism.

"We're down maybe 20 percent (in bookings)," said Creighton. "About the only thing we can do is market as hard as possible. A lot of clients like this area because of the calm waters. We have a Web site. We have a client list. We send out mailers, e-mails. I've seen an increase in interest in the last couple of weeks. People are erring on the side of caution, but I'm optimistic. We have a lot of return clientele."

Creighton also said he felt the sport fishing industry has been spoiled by the good times.

"The last four years have been absolutely stellar for this industry," he said.

The firms who will be in trouble are those who did major expansions as a result of good bookings over the last four years, he said.

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