Money for marketing big issue for 49th state

on Peck, new president and chief operating officer of the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA), talked with associate editor Paul Felt about the marketing body's tourism efforts and goals.

Travel Weekly:What has been the response from travel agents to the new Destination Specialist Alaska program, developed with the Institute of Certified Travel Agents?

Peck: Outstanding. ICTA had the highest number of inquiries they've ever had for that kind of program. We believe the program received over 500 inquiries.

TW:The ATIA commissioned a statewide survey of 315 tourism-related businesses about the summer season. What is the state of the Alaska tourism industry?

Peck: The number of tourists we had for the season was either right at 1.2 million, same as last year, or slightly lower.

We know that our cruise ship passengers increased from 690,000 (from summer, 2001) to 720,000. That means that the rest of the industry is less than healthy. [The number of noncruisers] went from 510,000 to 480,000.

TW:Isn't the problem that the same total number of people are spending less money?

Peck: Overall, we believe that visitor spending is down. The prices of cruises and cruise tours dropped substantially, and those are not good indicators for the future.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association's new president reported little change in visitor numbers for summer 2002 compared with the previous summer. Above, kayakers in the Inside Passage. For example, this year you could purchase cruises for $499 and $599 on season, which was just unheard of in the Alaska market in the past.

The other thing that we know is that the less expensive excursions did well, whereas the higher to mid-range stuff did not.

TW:What other market factors concern Alaska?

Peck: People are taking shorter trips, closer to home. I've read RV purchases are way up [in the lower 48 states], but we didn't see that business here. Our border crossings on the Alcan and Taylor highways were down substantially (10%).

I also think we're seeing a change in the buying cycle. The cruise industry used to be able to tell you before Dec. 31 what summer would look like. Now, folks are gathering info on the Web and waiting for a deal.

TW:How do you think the ATIA can do a better job of marketing the state?

Peck: Sometimes it takes a little money to make money. For our fiscal year through July 2003, our budget will be $10 million -- 60% private and 40% state. At a little more than $4.2 million in funding from the state, we rank 39th in state tourism marketing dollars.

We'd like to double our budget. We believe we need to be at $20 million. The difference from 10 years ago is there's a lot more infrastructure and availability of product, from hotels to excursions. It is a marketing issue, plain and simple.

TW:You have more than 25 years' experience in Alaska tourism marketing. Has heading up the ATIA changed your ideas about how to best sell Alaska?

Peck: Not really. The reasons people come to Alaska are to see the mountains, glaciers and wildlife, and to a lesser degree the cultural experience. That hasn't changed in 50 years. The image of Alaska -- we still have that in spades.

TW:The ATIA recently introduced a new logo and tagline: "Beyond Your Dreams, Within Your Reach." What does that mean to you?

Peck: Research we have conducted tells us about [perception] hurdles: time, distance and cost. The new tagline addresses them very well.

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