Skylar Travel is the first and largest operator in Alaska for the Chinese community. With a wide array of services including group tours, independent itineraries and translation services, the agency has been critical in wowing a record number of Chinese visitors in Alaska. Here the group’s COO, Jin Chen, describes what she most loves about Alaska, a place that she now calls home, and how the agency is working tirelessly to raise awareness about the opportunities for tourists and tourism development throughout the state
You have been COO of Skylar Travel for over three years. What trends have you observed in the Chinese travel market in Alaska over those years, and what have been your most important milestones and challenges at the company?
We have seen an uptick in total volume in the Chinese travel market. Every year we experience growth overall, but the most important part is the independent traveler. Since I began here three years ago, we knew that we needed to develop the independent traveler segment. Independent travelers, or FITs in industry terms, are people who travel on their own and book their own hotels, plane tickets, etc. Chinese tourists typically need a little bit more assistance along the whole journey of planning the trip. We have created pre-set programs with guaranteed departure. You can chose from a 5-day, 6-day, or an 8-day program and buy the whole pre-planned itinerary, with hotels, attractions and sometimes meals. You just need to book your own plane ticket and select a departure date that works for you. It’s basically a half-built module that they can book into. We have so many departures to choose from. We are actually doing daily departures for many of our destinations this summer instead of weekly departures. If we have 7 products, that’s 49 departures per week. That is part of the business that took us a long time to build. Guaranteed departure is hard because, since most of our business is B2B, we have to give our agents confidence that even if they only sell two seats for a departure date, they know they will be able to have a guaranteed tour. We won’t cancel small groups like airlines would do if they didn’t sell enough seats sometimes. We have built that confidence with our partners over nearly five years. From the beginning, we had to accept the fact that we are not going to make money on every single tour. It was about building relationships and reassuring our agents that they can sell Alaska knowing that someone here is reliable and taking care of their guests.
Group tours are the backbone of our company and a stable market. The trend is moving towards FIT. Younger people want more freedom and flexibility, and a more customized and unique experience. Having a 10-year visa program with China is a big plus, since most Chinese visitors that come to Alaska are on their second or third trip to the U.S. Once they’ve seen LA, San Francisco, New York and maybe Hawaii, they look at other options like Alaska. The 10-year visa really affords Chinese visitors flexibility in their travel plans.
Another milestone is being recognized by different state and local agencies for the work we’ve done.
Another trend we are seeing is seasonal. The summer season has always been the spotlight child, but we are happy to see the winter season growing. I have no doubt that the popularity of the winter season will overtake the summer season one day, given the length and beauty of the winter season.
You joined Governor Walker on the Opportunity Alaska trade mission. What were your impressions in China?
I was amazed by the interest of Chinese companies in investing in Alaska, and that is something that I have been working on since I got back. Alaska has a bounty of natural beauty, but it does need some fundamental development like more lodging choices or attractions that interest the Chinese visitor, and of course shopping. We have to be competitive with other major U.S. cities like Los Angeles that are popular with Chinese visitors. We want them to enjoy the beauty of the nature that Alaska offers, but we need to have a range of products available for everyone. The disposable income is there, they want to take something home, we need to make sure that is available here and capture that market.
It was a very interesting time to be in China within the framework of the trade dispute, as people questioned how to get their money safely and easily to Alaska to invest or whether there would be high-level political interference. Alaska has a very good track record of protecting investments, but it is a challenging time. That stable government environment, contrary to some other countries around the world, helps us stay attractive despite these challenges. We can sell Alaska all we want to those investors, but we need them to come to Alaska and see it for themselves and all of the opportunities.
Overall, the trade mission was a really good experience with representatives from different sectors and influential people. It was good to make those connections. We had the right mindset going into the trip. We weren’t looking to get new clients; we already have an office in Beijing year-round. Our goal was to make contacts, especially with investors and people who could make decisions; private meetings like with the Chinese Investment Corporation (CIC) are great for us in the long run.
During the trade mission to China, Governor Walker and the delegation held several high-level meetings to advance the establishment of direct flights between China and Anchorage. How significant do you think that would be in boosting Chinese visitor numbers?
The distance between Harbin and Anchorage is the shortest between the U.S. and China. Harbin and Anchorage are also sister cities as similar winter destinations. Anchorage Airport has been working very hard to line up that route since Harbin itself is not a first-tier city, we have to match the route to connections to major cities in China and reach a much bigger market.
I have been present in several meetings on the subject. It is definitely very attractive, especially combining passenger and cargo flights. The short distance between these two markets and the 6-hour flight make the possibilities endless. Having a direct flight with China is not only significant for bringing Chinese tourist to Alaska, that’s a given, but would also open doors to Southeast Asia and India, with which Alaska currently has no direct flights. It will also benefit local Alaska residents who travel to those destinations.
How friendly would you say Alaska is to Chinese visitors, including those who may not speak English?
We provide Mandarin translation services for free to our tourism partners and at a cost recovery basis to other Alaskan businesses. We want to help Alaska be more China-ready, whether that is translating brochures for the Department of Natural Resources or menus and welcome cards for hotels. If the hotels have 100 Chinese travelers check-in, we may only be sending them 10 or 20 of those travelers, but we are helping them provide better services to the Chinese and make Alaska better. We call it the China-Ready Fund.
We have a lot of guests who don’t speak English at all. Besides the beauty, the best that Alaska has to offer is its people, and that’s why I have lived in Alaska now for 10 years. I haven’t gone anywhere and met people as nice as Alaskans. We are friendly, helpful and very welcoming. Our tours are mostly narrated in Chinese, which is the benefit of signing up with a Chinese tour company, with the exception of tours only narrated by the Park Rangers. Having a guide who speaks Chinese is very important to these travelers as this not only enables them to understand Alaska culture and history but also take care of their essential travel needs.
How would you describe what makes tourism to Alaska unique and enjoyable? Out of all the places in the world, why should Chinese visitors come here?
Alaska’s natural beauty is the biggest draw, especially northern lights viewing. Alaska is not only the best place in the U.S to view northern lights, it’s also the best destination in the world for that. The Alaska Tourism Industry Association has a really good slogan – “Beyond your dreams, within reach.” That is so accurate, even when translated into Chinese. People have this image of Alaska as being so far away, but you realize how close it is to China when you look at a map. Even without the direct flight, it’s not that far. Beijing to Anchorage is an 8.5 hours flight.
Beyond the beauty, I fell in love with Alaska because of the people. That is something you can’t change about a place.
What is your promotion strategy in China?
We mostly work B2B with businesses like C Trip, the Chinese equivalent of Expedia, a platform where customers can book their flights or trips directly. They won’t know necessarily the travel agent who will receive them on the ground. Expedia will run ad campaigns and promote destinations, like Alaska. Typically, they do these campaigns at their initiative so we don’t participate in them directly monetarily. If they are doing a special event, like an anniversary sale, then we will chip in more for those promotions. We also travel with destination marketing organizations like Visit Anchorage, Explore Fairbanks or Alaska Travel Industry Association on trips to Asia, where they will unite hundreds of travel agents and inform them about Alaska and what it has to offer. We need to make sure that the people who sell tourism are aware of what we offer.
We also manage several social media accounts on WeChat and Sina Weibo, both company accounts and an account called I Love Alaska that we have been managing for several years, at our initiative, with general tourism information on Alaska. This helps us reach independent consumers. We were the first tour operator operating in Alaska for the Chinese community. We have grown to be the largest one. We take a lot of pride in the itineraries we develop because we know how Chinese tourists travel, what they want to do and how they want to feel when they get home.
From your position as COO, what are your major goals for the upcoming years for Skylar Travel?
Our goal has never been to make money today. That might sound weird coming from a private company. We have had to make major sacrifices to provide the best services to our customers and partners, to promote this new destination, and set role models of how Alaska tourism should be in China. Our goal is to provide a platform and create local jobs in Alaska. We try to hire locally as much as possible. Our goal is to build that foundation for other companies who want to sell Alaska in the future.
Community engagement is also very important to us. We support all of our employees – if their kids have a volleyball or baseball game to play, we provide buses to get them to their games around the state. We also support the Chinese community here, and sponsor all of the big events, like Chinese New Year, and will continue to do so in the long-term.
The only Mandarin-speaking tour agency in Alaska, Skylar Travels offers guaranteed departure tours and flexible independent traveler programs featuring glaciers and winter aurora. Founded by a couple originally from China, the company’s mission is to show worldwide travelers the best of Alaska’s wild beauty and make sure it is an unforgettable experience.
The Skylar Travels group owns and operates Charlene’s Express Travel and Alaska Skylar Travel, with offices located both in the United States and China. Over 20 years of experience and local insights afford the group the capacity to provide domestic and international travelers with a dazzling array of unique Alaska vacation packages throughout the year. Skylar offers guaranteed departures for Flexible Independent Travelers featuring Winter Aurora Adventures, Summer Bear Viewing and authentic Alaska Glaciers experiences.