Renee Brincks
Renee Brincks

Nearly 400 tour operators, business owners and other interested parties joined a Covid-19 webinar hosted by the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA) on March 20.

ATIA President and CEO Sarah Leonard moderated the discussion, which included updates from former Alaska Governor Sean Parnell and former U.S. Senator Mark Begich, who are leading the Alaska Economic Stabilization Team created by Governor Mike Dunleavy.

Stan Stephens Wildlife and Glacier Cruises President Colleen Stephens and Premier Alaska Tours President Josh Howes also shared information and took questions from industry colleagues.

Discussion topics ranged from safety measures and funding concerns to staffing challenges, cancellation policies and estimates for the potential return of cruise traffic.

"We wholly appreciate that these are very tough times for you, your industry and the businesses of Alaska in general," Parnell told the group. "But it's also a time when we can come together as Alaskans."

He and Begich, who referenced the "rough and tumble" nature of facing simultaneous health and economic challenges, outlined current efforts to secure assistance for Alaska business owners and employees. State offices are reallocating staff to address the uptick in questions and unemployment claims from workers hurt by coronavirus closures. Wider discussions on extending or expanding those funds are also in progress. 

Teams are working on the release of Small Business Administration loans that could help operators cover rent, mortgage payments, payroll, utility bills and other expenses. Industry representatives also expressed interest in grants, mortgage freezes and delayed loan payments. Permit fee delays or waivers and interest rate reductions for business credit cards could help businesses in the short and long term, as well.

Leonard said that many ATIA members are experiencing cancellations for 2020, and some have also reported cancellations for the 2021 season. Because cash deposits are a major source of cash flow for small tourism businesses, owners are left with little financial cushion after refunding customer deposits.

"It's not a wait-and-see-what-happens situation," Leonard said. "Financial assistance is needed now."

Josh Howes of Premier Alaska Tours said that just two weeks ago, his 2020 bookings were up over last year. Now, however, companies are questioning whether they'll be able to operate this summer. He's hopeful that travel may resume later in the season, but is also preparing for a potentially longer pause. 

Howes is especially focused on maintaining a team that took 25 years to build. 

"Really look at your team, and look at how you can protect those people as best you can, because we will come back," he told colleagues. "As an industry, we're extremely resilient."

Howes suggested that operators consider flexible rebooking policies to curb cancellations. The call for flexibility was echoed by Colleen Stephens of Stan Stephens Wildlife and Glacier Cruises. She also called on colleagues to share best practices related to financing, communications policies, cleaning routines and other business planning topics during these uncertain times.

"The amazing part of this industry is that we all are willing to work together," Stephens said. "I've seen that across the board, both in the state of Alaska and across the nation."

ATIA is sharing Covid-19 and travel-related updates at www.alaskatia.org.

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