To fill summer's lull, resort lures Germans
"Alaska and the North has a natural allure to it, and they have to love the healing powers of the water," said Bernie Karl, proprietor of Chena Hot Springs Resort, LLC.
Karl has persuaded Condor Flugdienst, the world’s largest leisure airline and a subsidiary of Lufthansa German Airlines, to fly from Frankfurt, Germany, to Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to start a new type of circular tour bus trip that starts in either of the two destinations and ends at the other.
The new service will mean that Fairbanks will be by far the smallest U.S. city with scheduled nonstop passenger service to Europe, according to the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The flights, using a 270-seat Boeing 767ER, will start on May 24 and wrap up Sept. 27, with flights arriving at midday on Thursdays.
The package rate will start at $2,350, and go up depending on which of the two options a person wants to choose, said Andy Anger, marketing director-Europe for Chena Hot Springs.
The flights will feature a local microbrew from Fox brewery Silver Gulch. The brew on board will be an amber ale with a special label called "What Ale’s You," according to Karl.
"That Bernie, he is a real visionary," said Johne Binkley, whose family has offered paddlewheel boat trips in the Fairbanks area for many years. "This is going to be great for Fairbanks and for Chena Hot Springs Resort."
"That takes a lot of gumption," said Kevin Portorella, owner of Popeye’s, Alaska Burger Master, Winchells and a Subway franchise.
Karl, along with the Fairbanks Visitor and Convention Bureau and the Fairbanks Industrial Development Corp., persuaded Condor to make the flights. But Karl had to guarantee a high percentage of enplanements before the company would agree to schedule them last fall, according to Anger.
Anger was responsible for getting the word out to the biggest vacation tour groups to sell the trip and tours in advance.
"We contacted FTI, Der Tours, TUI, and Neckerman -- the biggest," Anger added. "These are specific tours for the German market." The tours, although billed as rugged Alaska and northern viewing, will offer a high level of comfort, according to Anger.
Germans typically choose their vacations in the fall, when catalogs of destinations and packages are printed. Prussian tourists are quick to pick up the new catalogs and book their vacations far in advance, according to Anger.
"We were able to get in the catalogs of the big names, so we feel that we should have a very successful first season," he said.
Anger said the tours offer two different 15-day packages. One, called Great Yukon Alaska Roundtrip Mountains, Glaciers, Bears and Prospectors, is designed for 49 passengers; the other, called the Great Alaska Day Hiking Tour, is for 12 people.
The resort has undergone a face-lift under the ownership of Karl and his wife, Connie Parks-Karl, with remodeled rooms and upgraded facilities.
The resort has also purchased a Cessna 208 Caravan on amphibian floats for flightseeing along the Yukon River, Fort Yukon, Mount Deborah, and Mount Hayes. Will Johnson, formerly of Dillingham, who has a lifetime of experience flying, much of it here in Alaska, is piloting the flights.
The tours that will visit Whitehorse, Tok, Valdez, Denali and Chena Hot Springs were developed around the Chena resort’s need for more guests in the summer months.
"We developed this because of a hole in our season, explained Karl. "We needed more guests for the summer months. We don’t know what it is, but the summer lull has always been a challenge for us."
Chena Hot Springs is well known in Japan as the place to go for aurora viewing in the winter, and as such Karl says the facility is generally full from November through March.
Alaska All Season Tours Inc., a company owned by Karl, will offer the tours with an MCI 50-passenger luxury bus with bathrooms and plush interiors, according to Karl.
"Transportation can make or break a tour, so we had to have control of this aspect, too," Karl said.
The increase in tourism in the Interior is not by accident, and according to Karl the local push is due to a changing economy, and to show off the state’s No. 1 resource.
"We are selling our state’s natural beauty, and it has little impact on our day-to-day lifestyle," Karl said. "I equate this with selling someone a hot dog, with a string attached to the wiener. You hand them the hot dog, and pull the dog out of the bun and keep it. They are getting the bun and the condiments, and they love it."