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Hotel Official Predicts Big Year for Visitors

By Shannon Haugland
Daily Sitka Sentinel

Major cuts to the state’s tourism marketing budget has prompted industry representatives to start working on a dedicated assessment among themselves to keep getting the word out about Alaska, the Chamber of Commerce was told on Wednesday.

Carol Fraser, director of sales and marketing for Aspen Hotels, was the featured speaker at the packed Chamber luncheon at the Westmark Sitka.

Fraser spent some of her time at the podium talking about plans for Aspen’s four-story, 71-room hotel now under construction at Oja Way and Lake Street, but she saved time at the end to talk about the industry in Alaska. Aspen Suites Hotel Sitka is scheduled to open this summer.

Before the state’s current budget crisis, the Alaska Travel Industry Association received $16 million from the state, which was matched with an additional $2 million from the private tourism sector. The ATIA budget shrank to $1.5 million this year, making it one of the smallest state tourism budgets in the United States.

Carol Fraser (Sentinel Photo)

Carol Fraser (Sentinel Photo)

“Everybody’s budget in the 48 states is bigger than ours now,” Fraser said.

The state has closed its marketing offices abroad and canceled publication of the glossy vacation planner, hindering ATIA’s ability to market Alaska – a difficult task in the first place, Fraser said.

“Alaska is huge and difficult to book,” she said. “If you want to go to Sitka and Denali … you need a planner to help you plan your trip. We are the only state without a vacation planner.” The TV ads and other advertising have also been canceled, she said.

Those in the Alaska tourism industry agreed that a budget of $1.5 million is not enough, and started talking to legislators about a statewide fee assessment to rebuild the funds for marketing the state, under a Tourism Improvement District.

A TID would allow the industry to collect a fee on itself – through a .5 or 1 percent hotel bed tax, for example – that would go toward marketing, similar to the plan used by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Fraser said.

“We want to do something,” she said. She has seen similar steps taken by 11 other states. Industry representatives met with state House finance committee members about this, and it was well received, Fraser said.

“If it passes (through the Legislature) we can form a TID,” she said. Fees would be collected starting in 2018 or 2019.

“The state can’t rely on $1.5 million. … We need everyone’s support across the state because the tourism economy affects all of us.”

She said Alaska’s tourism industry is healthy in general, with the 2 million visitors in 2016 making last year the biggest year for tourism in the state’s history. For the first time in a decade the state had more than 1 million cruise visitors.

This year “is going to be an incredible year,” she said.

Fraser said the industry contributes about $4.1 billion to the economy and provides 47,000 jobs, which makes it the second largest private sector employer. About 11,000 jobs in Southeast are in the tourism industry. A total of $105 million is collected in visitor fees by the state.

The hotel being built on Lake Street is the third Aspen Hotel in Southeast, and like the others is designed with an “extended stay” concept, with affordable long-term rental rates. The rooms are suites and include kitchens. There will be no restaurant in the hotel, and Aspen plans to work with other hotels and businesses in Sitka to accommodate guests.

There is as yet no dedicated parking, or a dedicated loading area for guests, but Fraser said she’s working on the issue with the city. There is no on-site parking requirement for businesses in Sitka’s Central Business District zone, but Fraser noted that many visitors come to Sitka without cars.

She said it took three years to find a site in Sitka for the 44,000-square- foot building, which will have a small meeting room, exercise facilities and a business center. She said the company plans to add 14 to 16 employees to the Sitka economy, and are “loyal to Alaskans” and hire as many Alaskans as possible. She said many Sitka contractors were hired to build the hotel, including those working on excavation, concrete, insulation and the sprinkler system.

Fraser has lived in Alaska since 1983, and got involved in building hotels in 1998, working with the future founder of the Aspen Hotels chain, George Swift. The chain currently has hotels in Soldotna, Kenai, Anchorage (two hotels), Juneau and Haines.

She said the chain has a history of being a good community member, and running a high-quality operation, and she anticipates the same will be true in Sitka.

At the end of the meeting, Fraser drew Jeff Budd’s name out of a hat to win one of the prizes at the luncheon: two nights at the Juneau Aspen Hotel. Debbie Reeder also won a basket of prizes.

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