Millennium to usher in new state tourism marketing system

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SEATTLE -- The face of Alaska tourism marketing and promotion is changing. The old cooperative triumvirate of the Alaska Visitors Association (AVA), the Division of Tourism and the Alaska Tourism Marketing Council (ATMC) is no more -- or, at least, will be no more by the middle of next year. Ultimately, the entities will be replaced by a single unit, the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA), a hybrid of all three.

Mount McKinley in Denali National Park is a favorite tourism site of Alaska visitors. The catalyst for the creation of ATIA is the need to broaden the base of contributors to Alaska's tourism marketing effort and to streamline the existing, sometimes clumsy, three-way approach.

Holland America Line vice president Bill Pedlar, president of AVA for the next year -- and quite possibly AVA's last president -- is frank about the need for a change of thinking and structure. "There were a lot of overlaps among the AVA, the Division of Tourism and the ATMC," he said. "That was perhaps inevitable, no matter how well the system worked -- and it has worked well until now.

"And under the current system, there are three offices to maintain, an expensive business at the best of times," Pedlar said.

And these, clearly, are not the best of times for Alaska. Facing budget deficits year after year as the economy is buffeted by falling oil prices and declines in the lumber and fishing industries, the state legislature has been pulling back from its involvement in tourism marketing funding, preferring to put the onus for that more and more on the private sector.

Therein lies another important reason for the birth of ATIA. "The AVA, which has worked for more than three years to develop the new structure, felt that the only way to persuade more businesses to contribute was by bringing the effort under one roof," Pedlar noted.

Even under the new setup, the Alaska visitor industry is not fooling itself into believing it has achieved marketing nirvana. "Will all of the problems of the past now go away?" Pedlar asked. "Absolutely not; there will still be occasional overlaps. "But will the new system be more efficient? Absolutely."

ATIA will be run by a 21-member board of directors -- 17 of whom already have been elected, including Pedlar. It will be the board's immediate, and delicate, task to persuade Alaskans that tourism is everybody's business -- and worth paying for.

That includes car rental companies, hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and a host of industries that have never seen themselves as benefiting from out-of-staters -- operators of gas stations, retail stores and restaurants, for example.

"Visitors shop in Alaska, don't they?" Pedlar asked, rhetorically. "They may come on cruise ships, but when they're ashore, they shop.

"That's the message we have to get out to retail stores," he continued. "It's in everybody's best interest to contribute to the tourism effort."

The concept, according to Pedlar, is unique among U.S. states in that it offers the only totally voluntary funding mechanism. How broadly the promotional fund will be embraced by nontraditional contributors will have a marked impact on how well Alaska does in the world tourism market.

The legislature has made it clear that it wants the private sector to assume more -- much more -- of the funding role. "We've got to prove at a minimum that we can match the legislature's contribution," Pedlar said.

"If the private sector produces more than that sum, that's fine; we'll have that much more to spend."

In 1991, Alaska stood seventh among all states in tourism spending. By 1998, with the legislature cutting back, it was 27th on the list. In the millennium year, its less than $6 million public-private sector total will rank it no better than 32nd in spending.

It is against that backdrop that the era of ATIA is being ushered in to Alaska. The first step will be the dissolution in June of the ATMC, the joint public-private sector organization that was charged by statute with implementing the policies and programs of the AVA and the Division of Tourism.

How long it will take to implement the second step -- the elimination of AVA -- will depend on how soon the new structure is up and running, and fully funded. "The plan is for AVA to be disbanded by the time of the next annual convention [next fall]," said Pedlar. "But that will depend on how well things go in the months leading up to that."

Besides satisfying a lot of businesses that previously didn't think they had a stake in tourism, Pedlar -- as AVA president -- will have to deal with the growing tendency of local community governments to impose fees, user taxes and various other levies on visitors, as was the case recently in Juneau, which set $5 per head as the charge for visiting cruise passengers next year.

Other communities are known to be leaning toward implementing similar programs. "The private sector is not unsympathetic with the revenue plight of many local communities," Pedlar acknowledged. "But tourism is not the quick fix they're looking for.

"In today's global market, in which technology allows people to shop and compare quickly, travelers are becoming more price-sensitive," he continued. "At the end of the day, the consumer is influenced by price, and if the consumer stops coming, we're all in trouble."

Given the challenges facing Alaska's tourism industry and with all of the foregoing duties on his plate -- not to mention the demands of his job in Holland America's worldwide cruise operations -- why does Pedlar relish the prospect of the next year of transition to ATIA? "Because," he laughed, "it promises to be a lot of fun."

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