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Spotlight: Karen Harris

Karen Harris

Karen Harris

Briefly describe business:

Alaska Garden Gate B&B started as a bed and breakfast in my home 11 years ago. Four years ago, we added cottages.  Now we offer 12 units to guests. We’re set on 10 acres, with awesome mountain and Knik Glacier views, between Palmer and Wasilla.

When did you first become involved with the visitor industry?

I did a Web search for B&B’s in Alaska from my newspaper-industry job in Minneapolis. One of the first website links in the search was for a B&B Association in some place called the Mat-Su Valley. They were promoting an upcoming event aimed at aspiring innkeepers. I sent in my registration and flew up to attend. The ladies of the Mat-Su B&B Association welcomed me and encouraged me to come and start a B&B.

How is your business affected by the cruise industry?

A great number of my summer visitors have either cruised up or will cruise south after their land tour.  It’s not unusual to hear that they are in Alaska a second or third time to travel independently.

How did you get your start with the cruise industry?

I encouraged the B&B Association of Alaska to become active with the Alaska Cruise Association (ACA) (now CLIA Alaska) when it started. The State of Alaska tourism research with the Alaska Travel Industry Association showed us the large percentage of visitors who discover Alaska through the cruise industry.  Stats showed that they often added pre- or post-cruise time in the rest of Alaska, or came back again to see more. That was an obvious opportunity for us B&B hosts to welcome them through our local expertise and hospitality.  As ACA came into being, John Binkley’s statesmanship and testimony of his life in tourism businesses gave us more reasons to connect with ACA. I’d say it’s about every week that I run into a local lawmaker or community leader in Palmer who recalls that we took a bus to Whittier and had a tour of a cruise ship a couple of years ago. I’m still impressed by the crews at work on the bridge and on the lower levels —sanitation, recycling, laundry and those kitchens! We also went deeper into the ship, where John explained how the dirty water is cleaned by the organisms and filters, and then he drank some! Our B&B industry has learned a lot about the wastewater discharge issues and has advocated for fair rules at the state level. Over the last several years, it’s been exciting to hear about more ships being deployed in Alaska waters and about more cross-gulf sailings bringing people to Southcentral Alaska.

What’s the best part of your job?

I was a French major who wanted travel to always be a part of my life. As a young adult working in Minneapolis, it was easy to hop flights to European capitals for long weekends. That became more time-intensive and cost-prohibitive after I moved to Alaska. Now, it’s a great joy to “travel” right at my own breakfast table with visitors from all over the world. In the last decade of hosting guests, I’ve learned more about foreign cultures and places because of the chance to really get to know these people who I share my home with.

What’s your favorite cruise passenger story?

There’s no one story that stands out, but it’s nice to see that the guests who arrive in Palmer after disembarking in Whittier or Seward are still in awe of the scenery they saw along the Inside Passage.

What should Alaska do to better support/protect visitor/cruise industry?

As B&B owners, we are usually the only one or two employees in our business. During the summer season, it can be intensive and overwhelming to get everything done and just make it from one day to the next. Since we are, by definition, home-based businesses, it can be a challenge to keep up on the issues of state politics and news. It actually helps our members a lot to have ACA explain areas of concern and provide education around issues that are tough to decipher.

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