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Spotlight: Kirk Hoessle

Kirk HoessleBriefly describe business:
Alaska Wildland Adventures (AWA) brings visitors face to face with Alaska’s wilderness in a small group, interactive format without compromising comfort or safety. We operate three Lodges on the Kenai Peninsula, two accessible only by boat, and we facilitate travel between them. Many of our trips also include experiences in Denali National Park. Rafting, hiking, fishing, boat touring, sea kayaking, wildlife viewing and fine dining are all experienced along the way.

When did you first become involved with the visitor industry?
After several summers working in Alaska as a Youth Conservation Corp leader, I was hired as a wilderness guide in 1982 by the company I eventually purchased. We had five or six trips scheduled that summer, up to 16 people on a trip, and maybe 50 or 60 total guests. As the company grew, I grew into a management position and five years later became an owner. Now we serve about 2,000 visitors a year, one small group at a time, from 2 days to 2 weeks at our lodges and on our trips. In addition, we take about 2,500 guests a year on our half-day and full-day Kenai River rafting programs.

How is your business affected by the cruise industry?
We operate charter land excursions to Denali National Park for Lindblad Expeditions, a nature-based, small-ship cruise company. In addition, about 20 percent of our visitors combine a cruise with their trip with us. Often families will mix conventional cruising with a small-group wilderness experience to “do it all” or to meet everyone’s desires in the group. We are also finding that more and more Alaska cruise passengers come back to Alaska and try different experiences, becoming repeat Alaska travelers and our guests. It seems the lines between the segments are becoming more and more blurred as travel matures in Alaska, and we all have much to gain by working together.

How did you get your start with the cruise industry? The first year I became an owner of AWA, in 1987, we had a very challenging start-up year and needed to grow our revenues to survive. That was the first year a cruise ship came to Seward and my partner and I tried hard to offer a shore excursion that provided a grilled salmon lunch with a raft trip on the Kenai River. It worked! We entertained a bus or two every other week that summer – the cruise guests loved the small group adventure of the rafting and the authentic setting of our Lodge, and the extra revenue helped us survive that very important first year. I’ve had a soft spot for cruise guests ever since, even though we no longer do shore excursions, and, overall, cruise passengers form a small percentage of our customer base.

What’s the best part of your job?
I really enjoy May and early June when I participate in our company’s training programs. It’s my opportunity to help set the stage and energize and fire up our employees for all that it takes to thrive through a busy summer season. The growing daylight and warmth of early summer really helps fuel all the energy it takes to open our lodges and train all the workers, and it’s pure pleasure to participate as it all comes together, seemingly just in the nick of time for our first summer visitors. I manage by roaming through all our operations the rest of the summer season and I really enjoy that as well. I’m a guide at heart and I love the opportunity to share wild Alaska with young leaders and guests alike.

What’s your favorite cruise passenger story?
My favorite cruise passenger story came from that first year we operated shore excursions. It seems the rock band Heart (the Wilson sisters and others) were on one of those trips and I have very fond memories of the group rafting the river with us and singing the whole way, much to the delight of the other guests, our river guides and the bald eagles on the shore. We still tell those stories today.

What should Alaska do to better support/protect visitor/cruise industry?
As one who tries to run an environmentally and socially responsible business, I am quite impressed with the recent high level of investment that Alaska cruise companies have made to reduce and mitigate impacts on the environment. For a destination like Alaska, which greatly depends upon quality experiences in our national and state-protected areas to optimize our tourism economy, this type of corporate responsibility goes a long way toward positive perceptions in the marketplace. It’s a story that should be better and more widely told. Government and industry need to work together on these sorts of initiatives to safeguard resources important to all of us while making the regulations equitable, reasonable, achievable and beneficial.

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