Home to the midnight sun and aurora borealis, Fairbanks is a comfortable and authentic gateway to Denali and the basecamp for Alaska’s Arctic. Accessible year round, each season has its distinct charms and activities, from dog sledding in the winter to canoeing in the summer. One of the world’s most accessible northern cities, Fairbank’s vast, clear skies, pristine rivers, lakes, rich culture and abundant wildlife give visitors the possibility for adventure or solitude and guarantees to inspire a sense of awe. Fairbanks’ renowned aurora viewing lures people from all over the world during the “Aurora Season” from August 21 to April 21. Fairbanks’ location is ideal for northern lights viewing because it is under the “Aurora Oval” – a ring-shaped zone over the far north where aurora activity is concentrated. Additionally, low precipitation in Fairbanks contributes to consistently clear nights. All combined these variables make the Fairbanks region an outstanding destination for possible aurora viewing. Here, Deb Hickok, president and CEO of the region’s tourism marketing organization explains the gems of the region and how she is collaborating with Chinese partners to attract more visitors to the Golden Heart of Alaska
You have been president and CEO of Explore Fairbanks for 19 years. What have been some of your most important milestones and challenges at the organization over the years?
The main challenge when I arrived at Explore Fairbanks was that Fairbanks, and Alaska overall, was known primarily as a summer destination. The first winter I was here, we created a working group called Mush On With Winter Tourism and sat in a room off and on for an entire winter devising a strategy to develop Fairbanks into a winter tourism destination. Today, we are a year-round destination. Most of our growth, especially since the Great Recession of 2009, has been in winter tourism. Summer tourism has been flat but winter tourism has grown throughout that period. Our strategy was to develop winter tourism, and through that work, we actually developed a third season, which we call Aurora Season. Aurora Season begins August 21st and ends April 21st, straddling summer and winter, and is a big draw for international travelers in particular.
That growth has primarily been in domestic travel, but Fairbanks does have the highest percentage of international travelers. It doesn’t mean we have the highest volume, but we have the highest percentage of visitors. We know this from a study on summer tourism done by the state government in 2016, which stated that the statewide average for tourists coming from international destinations was at 9 percent whereas the Fairbanks average was 16 percent – the highest in the state. This includes the end-of-summer jump that we get from visitors hoping to see the northern lights. We know from previous studies that we have by far the highest ratio of international to domestic tourists for the state during the winter season. We still focus primarily on domestic marketing but international is an important and growing piece of it.
A lot of growth relates to how you are marketing or branding your destination, and how you are continually evolving that brand because consumers’ preferences and tastes change and competition increases. That is a real challenge in tourism – you can’t just look at your destination in a vacuum, you have to look at who your competitors are, what they are doing in terms of marketing and how you can not only stay competitive with them but also stand out. It takes a lot of thought and research, and we are doing a good job but we must continue to evolve.
I had spent about 17 years in Pennsylvania tourism prior to moving here, and we promoted all four seasons. For me, promoting winter was a normal part of marketing a destination, especially since we have seven months of winter in Fairbanks, and this phenomenal thing called the aurora borealis, the northern lights. Behind that strategy of developing winter came a lot of things, like air service development including charters that come specifically for aurora tourism in the winter, and infrastructure development to support that growth. We can lure visitors here but we have to have the infrastructure in place to handle it. The Fairbanks Visitor Center at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center is in a $30 million building that was made possible through a collaboration that I was personally very involved in.
How would you describe the change and evolution of both the Fairbanks brand and your promotional strategy at Explore Fairbanks over the years?
When I first started in destination marketing, we were really focused on destination marketing. But as the market evolved, we realized that we are only as good as our product, so we want our infrastructure to get better and better. That’s why we became engaged in infrastructure development, like getting recycling bins in public spaces, designing street signs, creating the visitors center, and getting direct flights to Fairbanks. It is important for a destination organization like ours to be involved in infrastructure development because it improves the product.
You were recently in China with Governor Walker’s Opportunity Alaska trade mission. While there you signed a contract with the East West Marketing Corp, which Walker described as marking “another quantum leap for tourism from China to Alaska.” Could you please tell me more about that agreement and your experience on the trade mission?
From a macro view, it was a privilege to be part of this larger group of Alaskans that came from all different industries and sectors, and we were able to learn a lot about ourselves and what we are looking for from the Chinese market, what other Alaskan businesses have already done successfully, and what people have planned. That was a wonderful part of the trade mission on a personal as well as a professional level.
For Explore Fairbanks, the first time we began working with Taiwan was in 2007, but we have only been working with mainland China for the past three to four years. Mainland China is still fairly new to us. We really wanted to be strategic about how we develop business in China; it’s such a large market with great potential that we want to be focused and not spread our message too thin. We had been planning to hire a firm to represent us to help get the message out, as we’ve done in other countries successfully, and the Governor’s mission accelerated the process. We thought it would be an asset to have the Governor there when we signed the contract and capitalize on the publicity, and we thank the Governor for that.
We have definitely seen visible growth in the Chinese market over the last three to four years. We also have an additional market segment, which is Chinese students studying in the United States. We have become a spring break destination for those students, as well as a Thanksgiving break destination.
During the trade mission, Governor Walker held several high-level meetings to advance the establishment of direct flights between China and Alaska. How significant do you think that would be in boosting Chinese visitor numbers to the city?
That seems to be more of a long-term strategy that would be beneficial for the state. In Fairbanks, we are currently more focused on shorter-term charters, as they have been successful for us thus far in bringing tourists directly to Fairbanks from international destinations.
Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Alaska, calling the state something like a Shangri-La to the Chinese. Do you think that visit has worked to bring more Chinese visitors?
Although we don’t have specific figures, I am sure that President Xi’s visit had a direct impact on Chinese tourism. Any time that you have that high-level government conversation, you will get exposure and publicity. Governor Walker’s relationship with President Xi has certainly been positive. The Opportunity Alaska trade mission will also positively impact Alaska and its tourism sector.
What are your major goals for the upcoming years for Fairbanks’ tourism scene?
We are working on a convention center and a performing arts center for downtown Fairbanks, so our first step is to demolish a building that has been vacant for nearly 15 years, and we are taking steps toward that. That is one tool in our toolbox that we don’t have; most mature destinations have a convention center. China fits in that plan in the sense that we host meetings in Fairbanks as America’s Arctic City. We are the farthest-north U.S. city with air, rail and road access. A lot of our success in the meetings market has been in the circumpolar north, like the Arctic Council meeting. The Arctic Council meeting was a good experience for us, with the equivalent of the seven secretaries of state of the Arctic nations, as well as the other nations involved in the conversation, making the journey to Fairbanks. There is so much research and conversation happening about the Arctic, and China is involved in those conversations. We do think that having the right facilities to host these meetings would be a big asset for us and we would definitely increase our focus on these meetings.
We may only be a community of around 100,000 people, but that’s part of the Fairbanks charm. When we had our first charters arrive from Asia from Japan in 2004 on 747s, people questioned how we would handle the volume of visitors. We have a number of microbusinesses in Fairbanks, especially during the winter, like dog mushers who mush to earn a living. We saw these people team up and work together to provide the services necessary to handle the larger volume. We’ve seen this throughout the process of developing winter tourism. The private sector is very innovative and entrepreneurial, so they find ways to handle the visitors and increased volumes. Our summer business is also based on influxes, as 50 percent of visitors are on land tours from cruise ships. We handle large volumes of people all the time and our industry is well versed in doing that. I have full confidence that we will continue to handle it.
I have worked with entrepreneurs for my whole career in tourism, but Alaska is a whole different set of circumstances and the entrepreneurs are even more creative because we are remote. They are really good at solving problems and making sure that they offer the best product with the resources that they have. They find new and innovative ways to use resources.
How would you describe what makes tourism to Fairbanks unique and enjoyable?
You’ll find a community that has all of the modern amenities like typical hotels, but we’re in the wilderness. Wilderness is just five minutes away from our doorstep, so you really get a sense of that vastness of space and nature, as well as opportunities to see natural beauties like the midnight sun and the aurora borealis. We are in the interior of Alaska and have two mountain ranges that prevent coastal weather from getting to us, so we have very clear nights, increasing visibility of the northern lights. We’ve developed wonderful summer attractions and robust winter products in addition to the natural beauty, which are very Alaskan in personality and accessible to visitors.