The past volumes of cruise tourism in Southeast Alaska have tended to overshadow the region’s independent travel sector. But these independent vistors — aptly described by local lodge owner Russell Thomas as the “icing on the cake” of the travel industry — are expected to sweeten the 2021 visitor season in Ketchikan for local business owners.
Several local travel professionals and tourist-based business owners shared their experiences from 2020 as well as their predictions and hopes about independent visitors boosting business in the upcoming season via phone conversations with the Daily News this past week.
Ketchikan Visitors Bureau President and CEO Patti Mackey offered her outlook on the topic.
“We’ve always had an independent market audience,” she said.
She said that the visitors bureau focuses on a more regional approach in attracting independent travelers to the area, mostly advertising to residents in the Pacific Northwest as well as some outreach to Arizona residents.
The local visitors bureau also relies heavily on the state-funded Alaska Travel Industry Association to promote tourism in the the state, Mackey said.
This year, Mackey said her organization has been hampered by lower revenue caused by the Alaska Legislature adjourning before passing the capital budget in 2020 — which contained the marketing funding they depend on. That, in addition to revenue loss caused by businesses that did not lease booths in the downtown visitors center in 2020 and the loss of other revenue streams has caused staff to find new ways to continue to promote tourism to Ketchikan.
“We’re trying to come at this this year as creatively as possible, and also looking for opportunities for additional funding, because everybody’s trying to play catch-up and everybody wants to be in the marketplace and we’re all trying to get people to come to our town,” she said.
Mackey mentioned the attractive asset that Ketchikan has in its proximity to Seattle.
“We market and we fully utilize the big advantage that we have, and that’s a 90-minute non-stop flight from Seattle,” she said.
She said they mention that often in all of their advertisements and to the travel journalists they talk to, to get them to “understand just how quickly they can be in Alaska, with a visit to Ketchikan.”
In the time of the pandemic, Mackey said an important shift in their advertising strategy has been to include many photos portraying wide-open spaces and the ability to socially distance and to recreate in small groups in the outdoors.
She also called Alaska’s successful vaccine rollout “very exciting,” adding that she felt it would help to get businesses back on their feet.
An aspect of independent tourist numbers visiting Ketchikan Mackey mentioned was how they were limited by how many airplane seats, ferry reservations and local beds are available during a summer season. The number estimated by former studies, she said, tops about 45,000 visitors per season.
She also explained that there is a barrier to independent travel compared to cruising, in that booking an independent trip is a lot more work, especially if a traveler wants to visit more than one Alaska town, as a cruise ship does.
She and her staff have been working on ways to make that process as easy as possible for potential independent tourists. One way they’ve been approaching that is to create pre-made itineraries for people, based on Alaska Marine Highway System schedules.
AMHS Public Information Officer Sam Dapcevich said in a phone interview this past week, that 2021 summer bookings for the state ferries only opened on Feb. 24, so it’s too early to tell how the reservations by independent travelers will compare to previous years.
He said that although COVID-19 protocols such as mask wearing, testing and social distancing will continue into the summer season, passenger capacity will be increased on April 15.
Local tour-based business owners also shared their thoughts with the Daily News via telephone conversations this past week about how independent travelers might affect the 2021 season.
Russell Thomas and his family own Cedars Lodge, Silver King Lodge and Clover Pass Resort. The 2020 season, he said, necessitated postponing expansion plans for Clover Pass, cutting back on tours and adapting some offerings to serve more locals.
His outlook for the 2021 season, as far as tourists who visit town independently of large cruise ships, sounded like cautious optimism.
He explained that, at least for their businesses, independent tourists offers extra revenue that “can really help to add a little bit of margin” to one’s operation.
For larger tourism businesses such as Thomas’, he explained , it can be harder to operate with a small number of guests, as they have a higher number of assets and crew that must be sustained with overhead costs, making it difficult to operate with a profit.
The increasing number of the population receiving vaccinations will help, however, he said.
“That’s going to make a big difference for our captains to have the vaccine,” he said of his fishing guides.
When asked about how they’ve adapted recommended COVID-19 safety protocols to their businesses, Thomas said that a couple of their managers completed the local The Safety Specialists “COVID Clean — Taking Care of Business” course. He said that throughout the 2020 season tour business owners also met to brainstorm on best practices and protocols that would help them restart safely and keep the community safe. Information also was garnered from the SouthEast Alaska Guides Association, he said.
Thomas echoed Mackey’s thoughts about one reason why independent travelers visited in significantly lower numbers than cruise passengers.
“In reality, I think there are probably some people who are going to be open to (traveling independently,) but the reality is that I think the reason why the cruising is so popular and why this is such a nice destination is because you know, you can get on a cruise ship for 800 bucks or a thousand bucks for the week, and unpack and see all these places and I just don’t think there’s probably a more economical way to experience Southeast Alaska than doing it on a cruise, and some people will just be priced out if they come and try to do it independently,” he said.
Thomas mentioned the testing requirements that were set up in 2020 to combat the coronavirus pandemic was a barrier to people visiting in the past year as well.
“It’s not easy,” he said, to coordinate test results and flight schedules, especially if the airlines change or cancel reservations at the last minute.
Thomas said that as far as his businesses go, he doubts they’ll conduct tour operations in 2021, but “sales are looking pretty strong” for fishing package sales. People who were forced to cancel in 2020 often immediately re-booked for 2021, which helped to boost the upcoming season’s booking, he said.
“Also, the fact that everyone’s been pent up and quarantining and staying inside all year has got a lot of people wanting to do something outside,” he added.
He pointed out that Alaska has a leg up on attracting visitors in the wake of the pandemic.
“It’s wide open and there’s not a lot of people, and they can spread out and get out into the outdoors,” he said.
Co-owner of Chinook Shores Lodge Nadra Angerman said that their business is positioned well to enter the 2021 season strong, as it has always has been dependent mostly on independent travelers.
To adapt to the pandemic, all employees at the facility completed the TSS Covid Clean program and they required all guests to take a resort-funded covid test before coming to town.
The resort, which offers several beach houses and fishing excursions to its guests is expecting to be fully booked for the 2021 season, she said.
“September is the fall silver salmon run and self-guided anglers are crazy about our cohos — after all, Ketchikan is the salmon capital of the world,” she said.
She strongly emphasized her concern and empathy for businesses in town that fully relied on cruise passengers and would likely be struggling for another season. Although the lodge will continue to welcome independent tourists in 2021, they did lose some revenue in 2020 due to mitigations such as cutting guided fishing trips and allowing only self-guided fishing; canceling all reservations from New York and New Jersey residents when the outbreak in those areas were high; and nearly doubling their cleaning crew’s duties when heightened sanitation became a requirement.
She said that the resort did welcome about 400 guests in 2020, and they achieved zero COVID-19 infections.
Angerman pointed out, via a text message earlier this week, the advantages that independent tourists bring to town, such as their need to shop locally during three-to-14-night stays at the lodge.
In a press release shared via email, Angerman described an online shopping program that the business implemented in partnership with the Alaskan and Proud Market that would eliminate the need for guests to physically shop in local stores as a way to minimize contact with locals.
She expressed optimism for the future of tourism in Ketchikan.
“People want to come to Alaska,” she said. “It is the trip of a lifetime.”
Manager of Southeast Exposure Jared Gross shared his company’s 2020 season experiences and outlook for the 2021 season. Southeast Exposure offers a zipline “adventure park,” guided bicycle and kayak tours and Zodiac boat rentals.
In 2020, the company offered zipline adventures to locals, Gross said, but it is undecided whether the zipline course will run this year. A program fully designed for locals that he was excited to share will start in 2021: a kayak club that will meet at different locations on Friday or Saturday nights to paddle together with a guide.
It will offer a way to “kind of get the community involvement going,” he said.
Gross said that there already has been interest from independent tourists in reserving spots for the company’s guided, U.S. Forest Service-permitted Misty Fjords kayak camping tours. He said that they do get business from independent travelers every season, and so far 2021 seems like it may match 2020 in numbers.
Another change the company has made for 2021 is to offer their large beach-side yurt, previously used to house employees, as an Airbnb to visitors. Another house previously used for crew housing now is utilized as a long-term rental.
Like Mackey, Gross said that the close proximity of Ketchikan to Seattle relative to other Alaska destinations, may prove to be a draw for independent tourists.
“Ketchikan’s easier to fly to than anywhere out of Seattle,” he said, adding that this might make the rentals and Airbnb rentals and hotels the main recipient of business this season.
Owner of the downtown business Inn at Creek Street Steve Reeve said that his business, like Chinook Shores, always has relied heavily on independent travelers.
The 2020 season was dismal, however.
“It was a very big decline,” he said, adding that, “by and large, people stayed home last summer so we felt a major hit.”
The Inn at Creek Street is made up of eight restored historical buildings along Creek Street and in Thomas Basin that comprise the hotel. The largest building is the Bayside, which houses the company’s guest services and reception. Across the creek is their New York Hotel, which also features the New York Cafe.
Reeve said he expects that the increase in vaccinated people definitely will be a big help to local businesses this season, as well as freeing people from the awkward and ever-shifting testing and travel requirements that dampened travel in the past year.
“So far, things seem to be looking better for this summer,” he said. “People are really ready to travel again. Especially people who are interested in staying in Ketchikan for a few days — whether it’s fishing, or sightseeing or whatever their interest.”
He added, “My sense is, we’ll have a resurrection in the economy this summer.”
Speaking of many of the town’s tourism business owners, “In general, I think those folks are going to do OK this summer. I think it’s a great time for out-of-state people to visit us. They’ll have access to all our resources, not in competition with cruise visitors. We’re hoping all the small businesses can hang in there.”
He said an important role the Inn at Creek Street will continue to serve is as a conduit between guests and local tour companies, as the staff routinely recommends local businesses to guests.
As far as changes his business has made to mitigate the virus, Reeve said they have used the TSS program and used protocols offered by the travel company Trip Advisor to enhance their already stringent cleaning and sanitation practices.
Reeve said his company has been partnering with other Alaska businesses to advertise the state as a safe place to travel, and to reassure potential guests that “things are OK in Ketchikan.”
He also added, “I want us to keep emphasizing what is cool about this town.”
Reeve, who also is the Executive Director of Historic Ketchikan, said that one unique aspect of Ketchikan that should be emphasized more is that there are almost 40 historic buildings, just in the downtown district.
His company has renovated many of them as part of their accomodations, and is in the process of renovating yet another old building at Thomas Basin.
Reeve also shared his thoughts on the bigger picture of how the loss of the 2020 large cruise ship season, and possibly the 2021 season as well, might reshape tourism in Ketchikan.
“Two years ago, we were beginning to be, as a community, forced into deciding ‘How much is too much tourism’ — we were just getting swamped,” he said.
“It’s been very healthy to go back through and remember that the independent traveler is what we really ought to be emphasizing. The cruise visitors will benefit from our community emphasizing our destination appeal in the travel market,” he added.
He, like Angerman, pointed out that independent travelers spend more time and more money in the community, making them valuable assets, but that focus on them was turned toward cruisers over the years.
“I think we’re all kind of benefitting,” Reeve said.
He also shared his opinion that summer 2021 is going to be a better season than 2020, although he said he expected business travelers to continue to visit in lowered numbers, as businesses have adapted to remote meetings.
He concluded, “It’s an interesting time for us all to be retrospective and to even create a stronger community for the right kind of tourism in the future.”