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August 23, 2006 - On the Road

Alaska has become one of the more popular destinations for travelers in the United States. The hospitality industry in Alaska is one of the largest single sectors of our economy, and we have experienced a slow and mostly steady growth in visits to Alaska. One implication of this growth is that once-small businesses have had to grow and change to accommodate higher and higher demand for their products and services.

In the years that I have been in the industry, my business has been transformed in the opposite way. Most of my guests contact me because they are looking to avoid the larger, more commercial destinations and activities. So as the Alaska Hospitality industry grows, and the businesses within that sector try to accommodate larger and larger volumes of people, my business is charged with the task of courting and maintaining relationships with small or very small business that offer highly customized and personalized experiences, whether it be lodging at a secluded cabin on a hilltop with views of Mt. McKinley, or a personally guided rafting and float trip, or a personalized adventure in the Brooks Range.

Much of the information that people outside of Alaska receive about our state come from large, sophisticated marketing engines operated by industry groups and/or large vendors. You'll notice a lot of cruise ships, domed rail cars, king crabs and big mountains in these advertisements, and I am the first to admit that these images are very compelling, and the cruise lines and other large players have done a very good job at getting their guests to some truly spectacular destinations. However, to be on that cruise ship looking at that glacier or visiting that national park requires you to compromise about the number of people with whom you share that experience. So while the experience with both
View from the entrance of one of the large hotels in Denali Park, Alaska. Numerous business, hotels and other commercial enterprises are located in the area known as "Glitter Gulch." This picture was taken in September 2005, after the guests had left for the season.

the cruise lines and the railroad is very good, once you reach your destination you're faced with a rather commercial and often crowded set of options.

The biggest enterprises are the drum to which the smaller businesses tend to dance. Tour schedules and courtesy shuttles are tailored to match the arrivals of cruise ships and trains. In order to offer these added amenities, the smaller companies must have the ability to handle the large number of guests arriving at once, and so what was once a very personalized experience becomes something geared to a larger audience, and by definition, is less personal. In addition, businesses that are located away from the cruise ship terminals and train stations have a hard time attracting these guests because they can't offer the transportation options that the larger places offer. While this situation may seem like quite a problem to overcome for a small to very small business, I actually think this is a big advantage for many of them, provided they are focused on a very high quality experience for their guests.

For that reason we generally suggest that people skip the larger vendors, and do a self-guided trip instead. It isn't that these larger vendors don't do a good job, but rather that to have that wonderful, personalized Alaskan experience, with great hospitality and great locations, you need more flexibility. In almost every case, that requires that you travel by private vehicle, and for that reason we include rental cars in almost every package we do for our guests.

A lot of people are reluctant to drive during their visit to Alaska. My guests have cited a number of reasons, from finding driving to stressful, to concerns about the condition and quality of Alaskan roads, to the amount of time required to drive the hundreds of miles in a typical stay here. I will admit that I am not typical, and I really enjoy driving, but part of that is because of the tremendous flexibility that having your own vehicle offers. In addition, there are so many wonderful destinations that are not served by cruise ships or the train. Having access to a car opens up your visit to so many possibilities that really make a difference in your stay.

Having access to a vehicle is not the complete answer, however. This past weekend is a perfect example of what can go wrong in Alaska, or in fact, on any trip that you might plan. A week of heavy rains caused widespread flooding that damaged two bridges on the Parks Highway, the major route between Anchorage and Denali and Fairbanks. The road is just now being reopened, and drivers should expect delays traveling either north or south on the Parks Highway between Talkeetna and Denali. Travel insurance is always a good idea, and if you had the right travel insurance, your costs relating to delays and trip interruption would be covered. The same flooding also suspended rail operations, and thousands of guests were stranded, especially in Talkeetna and Denali, so taking the train did not help guests avoid the inconvenience caused by the floods.

So, get in the car, find the special places, meet the special people, buy travel insurance, and have a great vacation.



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