Tourism data available as tough season looms

An Alaska research company recently completed a visitor industry survey, pooling statistics into a database it can tailor for different clients.

The report comes as the national travel industry seeks to regain its footing and Alaska tour operators prepare for an uncertain summer season.

Last year Juneau-based McDowell Group interviewed more than 4,500 visitors as they left Alaska, according to Susan Bell, senior manager at McDowell Group. Interviews were conducted in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, Kodiak and Sitka.

Locations for the interviews included airports, cruise ship piers and state ferries, with an emphasis on talking to people exiting to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and Bellingham, Wash., Bell said. Some surveyors also worked in Tok, interviewing highway travelers.

An Alaska study late in 2001 showed bookings to date were off pace with previous year’s statistics. The Alaska Travel Industry Association plans to petition the Legislature for $12.5 million to boost marketing efforts this year.

"One of the things we’ve been hearing is that people need to market aggressively," Bell said. Precise information from the database can help, she added.

Some key findings include the significance of the Internet to travelers. More than half of study participants used the Internet for trip planning, and one-fifth of participants purchased at least one Alaska travel product electronically.

The research firm estimates May to September 2001 visitors totaled about 1.3 million. Cruise ship volume slowed in growth compared with previous years, and the noncruise market was flat.

Also, the survey showed repeat visitors have increased to become one-third of the total market thanks to a high satisfaction rate of 4.8 on a five-point scale.

Travelers are reducing their trip planning times, the survey noted. More than one-half of the participants made their arrangements less than 90 days before their trip.

Visitors cover less of the state than in previous years and are more likely to focus on specific areas and activities, the survey said.

Niche sectors like wildlife viewing, adventure travel and cultural tourism are gaining in importance. Also, the survey showed cruise visitors are buying more shore excursions than in the past.

McDowell Group can produce a tailored report for different clients from communities, regions, nonprofit organizations or private businesses, Bell said.

The price of the reports is negotiated with each client and varies based on the sample size and degree of analysis used for each report, she said. Reports can be crafted for various aspects of the industry, from different areas of the state to types of visitor activities, she noted.

McDowell Group, which started this survey in summer 2000, last year interviewed 2,100 cruise passengers and 2,400 noncruise passengers.

A few clients signed up before the study was complete and have received reports already. "The first few reports we did do, the people were delighted with the information we had gathered," Bell said.

The report results will help future marketing plans for one of those clients, the Alaska Marine Highway System, said marketing manager Sharon Gaiptman.

"I will be going over all the results and using it as I tweak our marketing plan," she said.

McDowell Group’s analysis showed Anchorage was the No. 1 destination for summer ferry passengers, she said. Also, most summer passengers originate from the West Coast and see the Alaska Marine Highway as part of their travel experience rather than a transportation link, Gaiptman said. The report revealed 60 percent of summer ferry passengers were pleased with service on state ferries.

"I’m very happy with what the Alaska Travel Survey does for the Alaska Marine Highway," she said.

Other visitor industry leaders agree the information is valuable.

Although not a client for McDowell Group’s survey, Julie Saupe, executive director of the Matanuska-Susitna Convention and Visitors Bureau, believes the survey results come at a critical time. The research firm’s experience in tourism also is helpful, she said.

Specific data would be useful for Matanuska-Susitna CVB since the area typically is lumped in other research with other Southcentral Alaska areas like Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula, she said.

Officials from Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association note the importance of tourism research.

"Any effort to add to research is positive," said executive director Sarah Leonard.

AWRTA added some questions to a state survey conducted last year that is set for release this winter, she said.

Researchers are now compiling findings for a summer Alaska Visitors Statistics Program study, she said. AWRTA plans to release its findings at a conference in Fairbanks in March, she said.

01/27/2002 - 8:00pm