If you hadn’t noticed, they’re here. And with the Kenai river dipnet fishery set to open next week, the flow of tourists through the central peninsula will get a lot bigger.
Well over a quarter million visitors will come here this year. The vast majority of them will arrive either by cruise ship or from another part of Alaska, and they’ll spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 million on lodging, food, guide services and entertainment. One of the main groups working to keep those visitors coming here is the Kenai Tourism and Marketing Council, subject of a lot of debate the last few years when it comes to government spending. Just two years ago, the borough supported KPTMC to the tune of $350,000. This year, it will get no borough funding. And that’s kind of rare. Most cities and boroughs around the state invest more into marketing themselves to outside visitors. Pamela Parker is the president of KPTMC’s Board of Directors..
“We’re limited in what we can do at the moment, but we’re in the process of restructuring and that’s going to be the goal for this year; take a look at our mission, what are we trying to accomplish, what do we need to do to accomplish that mission and work backwards from there," says Pamela Parker, President of KPTMC's Board of Directors.
"We need to market the Peninsula. What’s the best way to do that, how much is it going to cost, how are we going to bring in the revenue to do so? Because we want to make sure we’re still having a presence statewide so that we can draw that traffic from Anchorage, Mat-Su, Denali.”
A big revenue generator for KPTMC beyond its membership base is the ads it sells in the tourism guide it prints each year. But tracking how effective that is for getting people here is tough to do. That’s one reason the borough had been pushing for the group to try and grow its online presence. But the web is a big place. And even if the group’s Facebook page has nearly 200,000 followers, it’s not a lock that they’ll all actually book a trip. And really, the folks who are most likely to have a lot of money to spend while they’re here may not be as easy to reach online.
So figuring out how to connect with people that have money, while your budget is shrinking, is the real challenge. Tim Dillon from the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District has been working alongside KPTMC as it tries to restructure and reposition itself.
“We have to help them make those changes," Dillon says. "We talk about the book they do, which is outstanding. I’m almost 61 years old, I have the iPad, the iPhone, all that stuff. But when I go traveling, my wife and I like a piece of paper. So is there a way to take that book and instead of having it setup the way it currently is, maybe it’s downloadable. And then this way you don’t have the (printing) expense, but you still can keep the revenue stream going with the advertising. We’re going to try and help Pam and those folks do those what-ifs.”
It’s easy to imagine the quote, average tourist, someone from outside, mouth agape at all the moose and mountains. But Parker says there’s a lot of low hanging fruit just up the road.
“If folks from Anchorage come down to the Peninsula, they are tourists in our area and their tax dollars are important to us. Just like when I go to Seward, I’m a tourist in Seward even though I’m still on the Peninsula, I choose to spend my money at those businesses. So I think reframing the idea of what a tourist is and that we’re still marketing not only to outsiders but also to Alaskans. We want them to come down here. Sixty-five percent of our tourists to the Peninsula are from Anchorage or the Valley. So that’s a huge piece of it, but we have to make sure that we’re including them. Those are tourists."
She says the lack of borough funding is a challenge, but it also presents an opportunity to operate outside the bounds of that contract and be more responsive to what’s working and what isn’t when it comes to trying to lure in a few more tourism dollars.
This week’s number: Seven, as long as we’re on tourism. That part of the local economy has shown growth in seven of the last eight years. 2014 was the lone down year, when the state of Alaska was near the bottom of this current recession.