An experienced guide will know when to swap one activity for something better. // © 2016 Christopher Batin
Feature image (above): Create a personalized Alaska tour for your client. // © 2016 Christopher Batin
More than 2,000 years ago, famous military strategist Sun Tzu wrote, “Wisdom is not obvious. You must see the subtle and notice the hidden to be victorious.”
Over the centuries, Tzu’s words of wisdom have helped competitive businesses prosper — and his advice applies to travel agents engaging in Alaska’s lucrative custom travel market, as well.
Bespoke Alaska tours highlight the value of a travel agent’s destination knowledge and his or her ability to master the subtleties that make up a successful vacation in this unique but challenging region.
Indeed, there’s much to see — and avoid.
Custom tours require research, and for time-crunched agents, time is money. It’s simpler to pick a ready-made Alaska tour package that is easy and profitable to sell because a wholesale company has already done the work and assembled the tour.
But, while these tours may fit the needs of some travelers, do not fall into the temptation of false economy. Suggesting such tours to your experienced or upscale clients who demand more might put your reputation at risk.
One of General Tzu’s winning strategies was to send spies to retrieve vital information. Fortunately, agents don’t need to recruit scouts to win the hearts of clients; all they need are the following six tips to create winning custom tours.
Sizing Up the Client
The client questionnaire is the first step in creating a custom tour. Identify hobbies, physical abilities and desired things to see and do in Alaska. Agent insight is key to interpreting the often-cryptic responses of “viewing wildlife, hiking in wilderness, comfortably watching whales.” Build upon these responses by asking detailed questions. Professional science or engineering retirees may want a more cerebral, science-based tour with guides who have a biology background. Thirty-year-old thrill-seekers, on the other hand, may have their sights set on a weeklong glacier trek rather than a day trip. Intergenerational travel has its mix of prerequisite conditions that often require additional questions and research.
A traveler’s budget determines the structure of any trip, and agents will be wise to customize a trip that is pleasing to their client while also showcasing the agent’s skillful budgeting.
Last year, Alaska traveler Ted Marmor spent 10 days exploring the wilderness with his wife, Kieke, and her friend Joan. Rather than booking a group hiking tour package, he opted for a custom adventure based on advice gathered from friends and associates who are longtime Alaska residents.
“I wanted a sensible, custom trip that met our criteria,” Marmor said. “I was not preoccupied with the cost, but mindful of good value for expenditures.”
He ended up chartering a bush plane to Alaska’s “Lost Coast,” a remote stretch of beach bordering the Gulf of Alaska, where the group didn’t see another human being for three days.
“Kieke and Joan spent time wading in the surf, hiking and beachcombing miles of sandy beach, and I was able to enjoy salmon and trout fishing,” he said. “We repacked and spent the next day exploring a remote glacier, camped on the ice, enjoyed an evening campfire and delighted in observing mountain goats 100 yards away. We enjoyed solitude and adventure before wrapping up the last five days at a full-service lodge.”
Not only was Marmor completely satisfied with his dream itinerary, but these custom add-ons would have meant substantial commission for his agent.
Understanding the logistics of Alaska travel is critical when planning a custom trip. Long distances, limited transportation options and unpredictable weather are factors to consider even before planning begins.
For instance, some popular brown-bear-viewing day tours out of Anchorage require a one- to three-hour, one-way, bush-plane flight, with only a few hours devoted to viewing bears before the return flight. Usually, more time is spent flying than actually viewing the bears.
Rather than arranging back-to-back day tours, decipher the client’s expectations and find complementary activities. A client who enjoys watching bears might also enjoy an extended-stay camp that offers “live with the bears” options. Book a houseboat, lodge or rental cabin in a remote, coastal bay where the client can sip coffee in comfort and watch bears fishing for salmon.
Continue planning the itinerary by suggesting different options to view bears that will have the client ecstatic with anticipation. Spirit of Alaska Wilderness Adventures on Kodiak Island uses saltwater kayaks to take guests near bears fishing at the mouth of coastal streams. Returning to Anchorage, clients can rent a car and visit bears at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center or the Alaska Zoo. Schedule a flight on Alaska Airlines to Wrangell to attend “Alaska Bearfest,” a three-day celebration that includes bear workshops, seminars, a salmon bake, golf tournaments, a marathon and concerts. Top off the itinerary with a daylong charter trip from Wrangell to Anan Creek Bear Observatory, where clients can photograph bears feeding on salmon from a hidden blind overlooking a narrow gorge.
By being aware of all the different types of activity options and avoiding complex and time-consuming regional transportation, there will be more time for travelers to spend on activities. That will make for a better vacation for them — and more commission opportunities for you.
Agents must consider Alaska’s vast size and weather patterns when blueprinting a custom tour. While Alaska’s summer tourist season runs from mid-May through mid-September, specific activities have narrow windows for optimum scheduling. Polar bear photo safaris take place near Barrow in September and October, not June, for example. Freshwater fishing for king salmon is best in June and July, but not August. Most wildlife, fish and bird migrations occur at specific times, and those may vary by region. Weather and water conditions will also be a factor. Kayaking alpine streams is usually better in early summer, rather than in late July, when hot summer days diminish snowmelt streams.
Finding an experienced Alaska guide for a custom trip is often hit or miss.
Here’s a dependable rule of thumb: Good guides have years of experience in Alaska and don’t need to beat their chests about their accomplishments — their careers and actions serve as their resumes.
Steve Ranney of Orca Adventure Lodge in eastern Prince William Sound has been in the Alaska tourism business for more than 30 years. He’s a bush pilot, commercial fisherman, sport-fishing guide and lodge owner. As the local expert, he is every agent’s dream for custom trip advice in eastern Prince William Sound.
On one of his trips, the Nye family was scheduled to cruise the coastal shoreline to look for black bears. When Ranney saw the bright sunlight that day, he knew that bears would be far back in the coves — a difficult hike for a family of eight with a 5-year-old in tow. Ranney continued with the tour but with a new focus.
“After Ranney located the orcas, we watched them cruise to within 15 feet of the boat, to where we could see their eyes looking at us,” John Nye said. “Everyone went wild taking photos as the whales kept circling the boat and checking us out. The encounter lasted for almost half an hour. It made watching a bear at 100 yards pale in comparison.”
Customizing Package Tours
Although many tourists enjoy their time in Alaska, some express a prevailing sentiment: “I wish I would have known about this or that tour. It’s what I really wanted to do.”
Beth Brandon, director of sales and marketing at Alaska Denali Travel, knows this lament all too well. The company’s staff has helped agents customize trips to Alaska’s iconic sights for 20 years.
The company’s specialty is Denali National Park, where the most popular noncustomized tour is boarding a bus that travels a 50-mile portion of Denali Park Road. The tour returns six to eight hours later, leaving clients to dine, shop and overnight at “Glitter Gulch,” a commercial area. While many enjoy this stretch of highway stacked with tourist shops, fast-food joints, lighted signs and massive hotels and resorts, others do not.
“Fewer than 1 percent of the visitors overnight at the end of the road in Denali,” Brandon said. “These people want the Alaska of their dreams. They want to experience wilderness and abundant wildlife. They want to immerse themselves in the magic of Denali.”
To meet the growing demand for custom Denali experiences, Alaska Denali Travel started Denali Backcountry Lodge, which offers clients 42 cabins at the end of the park road in the historic 1905 Kantishna Gold Rush mining district.
“Visitors can enjoy panoramic views of Denali, pan for gold, hike, photograph wildlife, ride mountain bikes or reenergize at our spa and wellness center,” Brandon said.
According to Brandon, after a week at Denali Backcountry Lodge, clients have the option of signing up for additional tours near the park’s entrance that include flightseeing trips, horseback riding, fishing and more.
Heather Dudick, passenger sales senior account executive at Alaska Railroad, says the railroad has a long history of helping agents customize tours. The company offers a variety of tours and special packages along its route.
“I just received an email from a travel agent who had never sold Alaska before,” Dudick said. “Once we talked and I opened the door to the customized tour options we offer, she booked a detailed, custom trip for her clients that includes stops in Seward and Whittier.”
A favorite Alaska Railroad custom trip is Hurricane Turn, which is touted as one of America’s last flag-stop trains, where passengers stop the train by waving a flag, a shirt or their hands. On this route, passengers disembark at a place of their choosing for hiking, rafting, fishing or exploring historical sites.
Another option is the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop. Clients can disembark the train, camp for a few days at a groomed campground in Chugach National Forest and engage in hiking, canoeing and glacier trekking tours provided by vendors who are seasonally based at the location.
Customizing Alaska trips may entail a bit of up front work for agents, but a properly planned and executed custom tour can generate commissions that leave standard tours in the dust.