Farewell to Chuck West's Alaska empire

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Jerry BrownA remarkable era in Alaska travel ended with the announcement on Sept. 17 that Cruise West was closing its doors. For the first time since the mid-1940s, no company headed by a member of the West family will operate in the 49th state in 2011.

The collapse of Cruise West, rumored for many weeks before the word came down, closed a chapter in the story of the often contentious, always interesting life of the late Charles B. "Chuck" West, generally acknowledged as the first man to recognize the potential of tourism to Alaska.

Starting in 1947 with a 10-seat aircraft that he piloted himself, showing out-of-staters around the Arctic Circle portions of what was then a territory of the U.S., West built a travel empire.

At its peak, his holdings included Westours, Alaska's leading tour operator; hotels; a fleet of motorcoaches; a staff of highly trained tour escorts and service people; and much more. He also chartered the first cruise ships to operate in Alaskan waters, although Cruise West was still some way off in the future.

Along the way, he found time to go "through the chairs" of ASTA, becoming the trade association's president in 1969.

I met Chuck West on New York's Long Island at an ASTA chapter meeting in his first year as the trade group's top dog. He was there to try to sell the members on voluntary licensing. Throughout his presidency, he preached the need for such action at agent meetings throughout the country -- and completely failed to sway his constituents.

His message was simple: "Do it now, voluntarily, or it will be forced upon us." He was right. A patchwork of registration bills has since been foisted on the industry by a number of state governments, each with different and often onerous requirements.

In a sense, it could be said that West's two-year stint as ASTA's president, with the incessant demands the job made on the incumbent's time in those days, eventually led to the formation of Cruise West. It was during his time away from Seattle, which had become the hub of his empire, that he essentially lost Westours. Once out of office at ASTA, West found his company in debt and in need of a cash infusion to stay in business.

Reluctantly, he sold the bulk of the company to Holland America Line, with the understanding that he would remain its president. It was not, West would say later, a marriage made in heaven. His free-wheeling, in-your-face, charge-straight-ahead way of doing business clashed with the arguably less confrontational, "let's sleep on it" style of the Dutch majority owners at the time.

In 1973, HAL bought out West's remaining share in Westours ("for peanuts," he always claimed afterward), and he found himself "on the beach" at the age of 58. (The Westours name, still the property of HAL, is no longer being used.)

Whether West's tumultuous tenure as ASTA president did, in fact, cost him Westours is open to debate. He had, after all, some highly competent men running the company in his absence: Kirk Lanterman, for example, who later became president of Holland America Line, and Jack Musiel, who became president of Princess Tours and later, after West's departure, of Westours.

Chuck WestEven West candidly acknowledged in later years that he might not have made different decisions had he been in the Westours offices every day instead of away from Seattle on ASTA business. But I believe, along with many other observers of the scene, that a company with Chuck West's name on it needed Chuck West's attention.

Since the idea of retirement after the HAL buyout did not appeal to him -- in fact, probably never even occurred to him -- West immediately began the process of rebuilding a second Alaska travel presence with Cruise West as its centerpiece.

Chuck West died in 2005 at the age of 90, having headed the organization until his son, Richard, took over several years before. The line maintained a loyal following.

So what finally did Cruise West in? Price might have been a major factor. A company that offers generally spartan accommodations, no onboard casino and limited entertainment and dining options can hardly expect to charge a premium in a down economy.

And Cruise West's small ships, unable to achieve the economies of scale of their megaship rivals, were pricey. For example, an eight-night, roundtrip cruise on its Spirit of Endeavour from Juneau this year started at almost $3,500 per person, one of the nights being spent in a Juneau hotel.

Cruise West offered a different kind of travel experience. Its shallow-draft vessels, as a function of size, could nose into secluded coves and get up close to waterfalls and wildlife. They could deviate from their scheduled routing for a short time to follow a family of whales or other aquatic wildlife.

In the end, though, the company found it impossible to differentiate itself sufficiently to offset its price disadvantages. It came down to a simple case of value for money. It could do a lot of fun things that 2,500-passenger ships couldn't do. But at a time when most people are looking for maximum bang for their buck, Cruise West tariffs just struck many as too high.

For those with a sense of history, the shutdown of Cruise West has a significance far beyond the loss of its berths from the marketplace. For them, the Alaska travel landscape looks bleaker without a West-something in the mix.

Jerry Brown is Travel Weekly's former West Coast bureau chief.

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