Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, is the gateway for exploring the wild beauty the state has to offer while also boasting all the amenities of a first-class tourism destination. Only in Anchorage can you walk on a glacier, explore a natural park, view the northern lights in and enjoy a spa all in the same day. Julie Saupe, president and CEO of the city’s tourism promotion organization, elaborates on the unique offerings of the city and surrounding region and why Chinese visitors are increasingly attracted to Alaska’s mystique
You have been president and CEO of Visit Anchorage for more than 11 years. What have been some of your most important milestones and challenges at the organization over the years?
Starting with the challenges, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 was a challenge for us on the leisure side as domestic travelers wanted to save more money and were facing hardships. We survived that by putting more money into the market. We were in a place where we could do that, rather than pulling back. That was a good lesson for me; it was early on in my tenure as president and I realized that you can’t take anything for granted and you need to figure out how to diversify. The international markets were important during that time, as it was helpful to have the international visitation when we saw our domestic leisure visitors decline.
How would you describe the evolution of both the Anchorage brand and your promotional strategy at Visit Anchorage over the past decade?
It all goes back to diversification. From the point of view of a strategy, and looking at year-round stability for our industry, we have a department that focuses just on meetings and conventions. The idea is to diversify away from leisure by inviting conventions, particularly off-season.
From a leisure traveler perspective, we do a lot of straight-up brand and marketing promotion domestically, and that goes out to travel, trade and consumers. Internationally, because of budget constraints, we have to be very targeted, and so in places like German-speaking Europe and China and Australia, we focus on the travel trade. We look for businesses that can do our marketing for us and have existing client bases. We focus on training them on how to sell Anchorage, why to sell Anchorage, and what their own clients can experience here. It’s diverse. It depends on the market that we’re going after.
Visit Anchorage joined the delegation on Opportunity Alaska to promote tourism in Anchorage to Chinese businesses and government officials. What was that experience like?
I visited China eight years ago, and during this visit, I was stunned by the change I saw. I expected there would be growth and some changes in the market, but I really was impressed by the change in the visible wealth, both in consumer items, with the shopping districts in China, and then, in general, the Chinese people seemed very optimistic and very pleased with the progress they are experiencing. They were very engaged, especially the travel trade that we met. You could tell that their client bases were growing and that their clients were looking for new and different opportunities.
They had a lot of people who had already made multiple trips to the United States and were looking for that second or third tier city. They had visited Chicago, New York, LA, Las Vegas, Hawaii, and now they are ready for something different. That is where I got excited, because Alaska certainly is that opportunity for something different for the person in China who is already well traveled and is looking for maybe a quieter experience or a more natural experience, and their interest in winter was phenomenal to see.
Is winter the primary product for Chinese tourists?
What I gathered from the travel trade that we met with was that their clients were really looking for that very fresh, crisp outdoor experience. The northern lights were certainly at the top of mind for just about everybody. They want a way to be invigorated by the outdoors, to experience clean air, snow, bright skies, and glaciers, and it was great to see because those are all the things that we can offer right here in Anchorage.
Given what they’re looking for, what would be the best seasons for them to come?
Certainly fall, winter, and spring, when the northern lights are visible. I would say mid-September all the way through late April, you can experience all of these crisp activities.
A big part of your work here is promoting Alaska as a whole, and you work hand-in-hand with the Alaska Travel Industry Association and other travel industry participants. How does that collaboration work?
We think it’s beneficial to our visitors. We are looking at the visitors’ needs. While I represent Anchorage and I’d love to just sell Anchorage, I know the visitor might not have Anchorage or Fairbanks on their bucket list, but they do have Alaska itself on their bucket list. Therefore, we work together to attract people to Alaska and then we can sell our individual regions or properties. It is a very symbiotic relationship. We all are after the same clients, so we work to get those clients first, and then they can determine the final details of their Alaska experience based on our community profiles and offerings. We all have unique properties and offers for our visitors, but we have to get them to Alaska first.
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 to the city?
Any time we can improve access to any of our markets, it is huge for us. It makes it easier to promote in that market. We watched this happen with the Icelandair service a few years back for the European market. Our ability to reach Europeans with a compelling message is much easier when you can say you don’t have to spend 25 hours to get here. From Reykjavík, it is about a 6.5-hour flight. It’s phenomenal. And so, if you are able to say that you can get from China to Anchorage in 6.5 hours, it really opens up marketing opportunities. We are excited about that and are doing everything we can to work with the airport and others in the industry in Alaska. It’s not only for tourism. The “opportunity” in the trade mission title is to make opportunities for business, whether it’s mining, fishing or anything else, and to make it a lot easier to do business between Alaska and China. Therefore, we are extremely excited about the potential, about the numbers that the airport has put together and the logic behind the potential of these flights. We think it just makes sense.
Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Anchorage, calling the state something of a Shangri-La to the Chinese. Do you think that visit has worked to pique the interest of Chinese tourists?
Yes. We don’t have direct research to back up what anecdotally I have been hearing, but I know our operators who can share their numbers from the Chinese market will confirm that, since the president’s visit, there has been a phenomenal increase. I know the Alaska Railroad, which offers winter trains between Anchorage and Fairbanks, has added more departures because of the increase they have seen. I also know a couple of our operators who work directly with Chinese visitors have seen phenomenal growth in the last couple of years. While I can’t cite numbers for all of Anchorage, I can tell you that our businesses are feeling the impact.
As CEO and president of Visit Alaska, what do you want to have achieved in the next five years in Anchorage’s tourism scene?
From the international market and coming off of this Chinese trade mission, I want to see that we have strong growth in this area and that we can manage the growth. We want to ensure that we can be true to this offering, so when we go out into the markets in the future, we can say, we can manage your group, we can manage all of the folks that you want to send to us, and they are still going to have this very authentic, very Alaskan experience – they can have this pure experience where they can get out and enjoy nature.
What Anchorage offers is a wilderness setting with first-class amenities. You can go out and have a wilderness experience and then come back and have a first-class meal, a spa treatment, or whatever it is that might keep you happy in the evenings. What I want to do is grow tourism but grow it in a way that maintains the Alaskan mystique of our product. And if we grow in the right way, which we certainly have the power to do and we have been doing thus far, we can keep that mystique and that product intact. I’m excited about the chance to do that.