Tuesday, December 4, 2007

You saw it here first

I would have been leading the annual two-day planning retreat for the Mat-Su Convention & Visitors Bureau if I were at home and not with family in the Midwest today. I’m sorely bummed to be missing it, since I’m the new president of the MSCVB board, and we have exciting ideas on the drawing board for the future of the organization.

Here's my very first President's Column I wrote recently for the MSCVB members' newsletter:

Ever get phone calls from big-city folks who want to book with you and are in a hurry? They get off the phone before you can give them directions. Then, when they get here, they wander around lost because they thought they knew how it would be in Alaska, from MapQuest or whatever. Like them, we don’t always end up where we anticipated in our advance planning. I love maps. I’m crazy about them. An artist friend gave me a piece of calligraphy on a map that reminds me that in life, The Map Is Not The Territory.

I was a big-city person, before I moved here 5 years ago. Immediate gratification and the quick “get” were paramount. I’ve had to learn to slow it down here, and that’s been a good thing. That’s when we can actually get to know what’s under the surface. So many of our visitors zoom through on their way to Denali. They miss a lot of the wonderful people, naturally beautiful features, and off-the-road experiences of the Mat-Su Valley because they didn’t get past the surface, past what they could see at 65 miles per hour. The past couple of years, many of us have had banner years in our businesses, but from the numbers we know that we are barely scratching the surface with the million-plus visitors who travel THROUGH the Mat-Su in the summer. We have yet to capture so much more of the potential market.

The MSCVB is plugging away at the job of getting the word out about the Mat-Su Valley. The other day, I reflected with Bonnie Quill about how the organization has matured and how many strong foundational pieces have been put in place, since first board members developed the vision of the MSCVB, since Bonnie became the Executive Director 7 years ago, since Tammy Bruce joined the staff over 5 years ago, and since I joined the board. We are on the verge of so many big, BIG pieces in this moment because of all the work that has been done to this point. Each year, we put more pieces in place to reach visitors and help them more fully know what this place is that they’re coming to, what the heck a Mat-Su is.

In the four years I’ve been a board member, it has strengthened my patience bone. From the beginning, I wanted more winter marketing and a more thorough and interactive website presence, and I wanted it now. As I’ve gotten to know the “territory,” there have been good reasons for why these things have not come more easily or quickly.

For example, we could do a slick brochure or website for winter tourism, but to this point there has not been a good means of distribution. Reaching those specific people interested in coming to Alaska in the winter through mass marketing and media in a cost-effective way has been challenging. That’s changing year to year. More visitors who have come in the summer are considering winter and requesting winter information. The number of people coming for the Iditarod is surging by leaps and bounds. ATIA is growing its reach to winter visitors, which opens distribution avenues for us through their leads. The new Denaina Convention center in Anchorage is expected to significantly add to shoulder and off-season tourism business starting one year from now.

MSCVB’s marketing and website committees are working in these trend areas to meet “visitor need” with “product”—finding the right avenues to get the word out to those travelers. It’s not fast, but it is deliberate and comprehensive of changes in markets, political climates, and technology. Step by step, we’re making tracks.

Another project MSCVB’s board has started to think about is one which stands to have a tremendous impact on tourism in the Mat-Su Valley. It’s one that I’m passionate about, but also about which I’m going to need to exercise patience and help to lay solid groundwork.

As you know, the visitor center which the MSCVB operates is now in the shadow of the hospital and in the hubbub of the Glenn-Parks interchange. It is much less visible, and visitors using the VIC are down 50%. I thought, why can’t we have a VIC at the most-used entrance into our Borough? Like a gateway center, welcoming them to come within our borders, like at state borders in the Lower 48? A year ago, the board started to explore this concept. We have an idea and there have been some good first steps.

Last summer, we had shared preliminary ideas with the Assembly during a work session, and it was received enthusiastically. Next, the board drew up a resolution in support of a Destination/Gateway Visitor Center for the Mat-Su Borough. It lays out potential locations, such as near the Knik River exit off the Glenn Highway, and names potential partners we might approach such as DNR, Fish & Game, and the Glenn Highway Scenic Byway. The notion is to create an experiential, multi-faceted center which is a pace-setter among visitor centers.

A good model is being developed in Fairbanks. The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center ( www.morristhompsoncenter.org ) broke ground this spring, and is the product of many organizations working together with local, private, state and federal funding. Early on, I joked that we could name ours the Sarah Palin Visitor Center if that would grease the wheels of funding. This long-term vision may not be realized by the end of her run as Governor, however. The Fairbanks center was over ten years in the making. Certainly, ours will not be completed by the time I finish my term as the MSCVB board president, but I’m excited to start the process.

We adjust our course as we go. Most recently, this new resolution was brought forward to MSCVB members at the annual meeting a few weeks ago. We asked members present to make an advisory vote on whether MSCVB should move forward with this goal. Good points were made, information were shared, and members asked a lot of questions. This was all very helpful as we start on the ground floor of this project. The motion to support this effort carried unanimously.

What we have mapped out is not necessarily the territory we’ll be in a couple of years from now. The vision could look totally different, the political climate might shift, and where the money comes from will always be a question. But we’re putting a tack on our “map” as the starting point. I hope that you will journey alongside the board and staff as we venture down this trail.
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