Alaska Highway Cruises: On the Road and Sailing the Seas

Reed Travel Features

BELLEVUE, Wash. -- In the summer of 1994, a new company based here introduced one of the industry's more innovative intermodal vacation programs.

The company was Alaska Highway Cruises (AHC), which offered, as its name suggests, cruises in the waters of the 49th state combined with a highway driving experience -- in rented recreational vehicles.

It was a bold move, and one that seems to be paying off.

Growth in interest in the concept -- among agents and their clients -- has been "slow but steady," according to AHC president Gary Odle.

The two dozen RVs the operator put on the roads in its maiden season topped 30 in 1995 and became 46 by last year.

And this year's fleet will number 65 by the time the first AHC guest sets out in May.

None of the vehicles -- all in the 21- to 29-foot range -- will be more than two summers old.

Odle said that the company already had sold off all of its '95s and intended to continue its policy of never renting an RV for more than two seasons.

It was the enormous cash demands of keeping the fleet current that led Odle and his founding partner, Brent Hobday, to sell a larger part of the company to one of its original financial investors, Bob Dindinger, owner of Juneau-based Alaska Travel Adventures, a highly successful land operation with services in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Sitka.

Dindinger became chairman of AHC, with Odle and Hobday continuing as president and vice president respectively.

"We realized that we needed money for new and replacement equipment to meet demand," Odle said. "The business was growing, but not quite fast enough to allow us to make the equipment purchases we needed.

"I had no qualms about turning to Bob, an old friend whose commitment to Alaska tourism is obvious," he added.

Dindinger was president of the Alaska Visitors Association (AVA) in 1989-90; Odle held the same office two years earlier.

Both have continued to serve on a variety of committees and task forces for the association.

Odle has been involved in AVA politics for many years, during his 15 years in the marketing department of Alaska Airlines and later, during his six years as director of Alaska marketing for Holland America Line-Westours.

The company expects to carry about 3,000 passengers this year. The cruise portion of the package will be supplied by Holland America Line-

Westours, AHC's collaborator from the start, and by two other lines, Carnival and Celebrity.

In 1996, in a departure from its basic programming, AHC began to rent RVs alone, on a fly-drive basis, sans cruise.

And this year, it will package cruises in conjunction with drive vacations in the customer's own motor home.

Clients might drive their vehicles into Alaska and then board a cruise ship in Seward for the seven-day cruise south to Vancouver.

In the meantime, AHC will arrange to ferry the RV back to Spokane, Wash., and transfer the owner to the lot from the ship upon arrival in Vancouver.

The company's standard programs -- although there is nothing very standard about AHC -- range from seven to 21 days in Alaska, the Yukon Territory and the Canadian Rockies and feature cruises of from three to seven days.

Travel agents have been important to the growth of the company, according to Odle.

From the beginning, AHC has sought to get its product into the hands of the retail trade. The company has a generous familiarization offer of a seven-day rental starting at $295 per person for the first two in the RV (third and fourth guests, $95 each) on a standby basis.

AHC has run sweepstakes drawings to determine which agent will win a free vacation -- anything to make the trade more aware.

And each year Odle and an AHC team undertake a grueling seminar circuit and/or sales blitz in key areas.

Most recently, for example, he and six others spent four weeks in Southern California, calling on hundreds of agencies with details of the 1997 product.

"It's important to us that agents know who we are and what we do," Odle said. "The response from the trade has been good, but it could be better."

AHC provides transfers to and from the vehicle lot, training in the operation of the RV, an itinerary with all campsites prebooked and a full kitchen and bathroom kit on board.

Last year, to ease the strain on campsites in and around Denali National Park, AHC opened its own private 150-berth facility, the Denali Riverside RV Park, two miles north of the entrance to the much-visited wilderness area.

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