Selling the capital city

Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau tries to bring in tourists

Posted: Tuesday, May 09, 2000

People think it's glamorous to work in tourism, says John Mazor.

But Mazor, who came to Alaska two years ago to take over the presidency of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, admits that he hasn't been able to participate in the wildlife viewing, icefield tours and numerous other outdoor activities that bring hundreds of thousands of people to the city each year.

Instead, he and his seven staffers spend almost every day during the summer working long hours to ensure continued growth in the visitor industry, especially from independent travelers and conventioners. Last summer, they and 220 volunteers had individual contact with 160,000 travelers, and it was usually ``more than just handing out a map and answering an inquiry on the phone,'' Mazor said.

In some places, tourism planners might think, ``All I have to do is put a butt in a bed,'' he said. But Juneau's rapidly changing tourism industry and complicated transportation mix make for a ``truly unique'' challenge, he said.

``On the outside, tourism may seem glamorous,'' Mazor said during an interview in his office overlooking South Franklin. ``On the inside, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to get there.

``I compare the first six months of (working at) the bureau to boot camp. We ask a lot. Everyone has a very demanding position. And it's not for everyone.''

Recently, the JCVB has gone through some turnover and gained employees with a background in tourism and in marketing.

Connie McGee, previously office manager for Ward Air, started in December as director of convention sales. Gretchen Garrett, formerly marketing administrator for the Downtown Business Association, phased out of her old job over several months and started working exclusively for the JCVB in January. John Beiler left the Alaska Division of Tourism in March, after 10 years marketing the state internationally, to become director of tourism development at the bureau.

``I think we've progressed to the point where we've been able to bring in `tourism professionals,''' Mazor said, ``as opposed to an environment when you train people to be tourism professionals.''

He noted that Beiler met a national travel writer at the ferry terminal at 2:30 a.m. one night last week.

``It's a passion for Juneau and a belief in the community,'' Mazor said. ``It's a group that enjoys working together.''

``John Mazor is a very dynamic person, very energetic,'' Garrett said.

``John is really remarkable as far as being a visionary,'' said Carolyn Holbert, a five-year veteran with the JCVB as manager of convention sales and service. The boss is ``death on deadline'' but puts more stress on himself than others, she said.

When Mazor first came from Oscoda, Mich., where he had been head of the CVB and Chamber of Commerce, ``It made me a little nervous at first,'' Holbert said. ``You know how Alaskans are -- `if you haven't lived here for 30 years ... '

``(But) he really did his homework. I think what really saved him was a strong management background in an organization such as ours.''

With more than 600,000 cruise ship passengers scheduled to arrive this year, promoting Juneau as a destination might look like an easy task.

But the JCVB's budget creates an incentive to bring in more independent travelers, about 135,000 of whom are expected this year.

About 70 percent of the annual budget of about $900,000 comes from the city's bed tax, which most cruise ship passengers don't pay. That includes operations at Centennial Hall, which the JCVB markets to conventions.

``We have to go where the money is,'' Beiler said.

So the bureau is working on strategies to increase independent visitors, a market that has been flat in recent years.

Local tour operator Bob Engelbrecht likes the bureau's Website,

Garrett, who maintains the Website, said that in a recent month there were 650,000 hits and 16,000 ``viewer sessions'' of two minutes or more. She recently conducted a Website workshop for members.

``I think they're doing a lot with the Internet. I think it's a good and sophisticated site,'' Engelbrecht said.

``(But) I think there's more that can be done.''

Engelbrecht thinks more marketing should be aimed at young, affluent residents in the Pacific Northwest who are looking for short trips -- say, three or four days. That kind of visitor would be interested in the adventure tours of his company, NorthStar Trekking, he said.

The challenge in tourism today is customize marketing to target an audience, rather than mass marketing a more general message, Mazor agreed. ``Trying to convey a message is becoming much more specialized. To be effective, you've got to cut through the noise, and you've got to focus limited resources. Very much a rifle approach vs. a shotgun approach.''

Beiler said he's trying to educate travel agents and tour wholesalers about independent travel opportunities, which they haven't always been comfortable selling. This week, he's attending a conference in Dallas of the Travel Industry Association of America.

The JCVB does some joint marketing with other organizations, such as the Southeast Alaska Tourism Council, and is a member of the fledging statewide umbrella group, the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

On its own, the JCVB distributes 150,000 to 200,000 copies of a vacation planner every year, including member advertisements and listings and narratives about the region and available tours.

Wooing conventions and conferences is a long-term commitment, with any event years in the making, say McGee and Holbert.

A few conventions come relatively easily to Juneau. For example, for the second time, Juneau this summer will host the National Congress of American Indians, which brought in 750 visitors in 1997.

``I think we give Native groups a large welcome, more than a lot of other towns would,'' McGee said.

Holbert said she has seen conventioners in tears after a whale-watching tour, a reaction that her counterparts in Miami or San Diego probably don't get, she said. ``It makes the long hours I go through really seem worth it.''

The value of a convention, on a per-person basis, is greater than having a cruise ship in town, she said. A McDowell Group survey shows that the average conventioner accounted for $1,999 in direct expenditures in 1999. The approximately 4,000 conventioners from November 1998 to October 1999 generated $8.2 million in revenue.

And the growth potential is there, McGee said. ``We could easily have had a convention this week or last week,'' she said Wednesday. ``There's no one booked in town.''

But even though a slight discount for conventions is available through Alaska Airlines, the travel time and expense of reaching Juneau can dissuade many groups whose members aren't affluent enough to make the trip, she said. ``It's not an easy sell. ... I try to make people understand how special it is.''

``People want to come here so desperately,'' Holbert said.

Still, McGee said she gets questions such as, ``Are there bathrooms there?'' and ``Do you still live in igloos?'' That's because ``the cruise ships have sold it as a beautiful wilderness,'' she said. ``So I have to debunk all that.''

She's now trying to land a 2003 convention for the Outdoor Writers Association of America, which she described as ``Hemingway-type people.'' The convention, which will be in Juneau or in Columbia, Missouri, would bring 500-600 people but would be even more valuable for the promotional ripple effect the writers could create, McGee said. ``Their value goes on and on and on.''

McGee is going to the writers' association's 2000 convention in Greensboro, N.C., next month to make the pitch for Juneau. She also recently attended a gathering in San Jose of meeting planners.

The JCVB maintains a list of 400 organizations and contacts, Holbert said. ``We work that data base every day.''

Maintaining contacts is key to all of the bureau's efforts, Mazor said. As Americans work more, they have less time to design trips and rely more on packaged or bundled vacation elements, he said. That makes relationships with the packagers more and more valuable, he said.

JCVB members exude confidence and pleasure in sharing Juneau with more people.

``I love the tourist season,'' Garrett said. ``I really, really like living here.''

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