Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Finding Myself Still Alive At 30 - Part 1 of 2

When I landed in Anchorage, Alaska thirty-six years ago this summer, I knew what I was in for.  I also knew the reason I had been recruited to complete its fledgling DMO startup.

Still facing my 30th birthday, I had cut my teeth as a DMO exec in Spokane, where business executives had tasked me with separating that startup from the Chamber of Commerce then under a very powerful executive who took it personally and made it personal.

I jumped at the opportunity when Anchorage made the offer for many reasons.

As a good friend put it once regarding something similar that happened to him - once a struggle like that is concluded it is very complicated for anyone in the room who has “blood splattered all over them.”

Possibly this is also what led a later successor to apparently whitewash the history of that organization leaving himself at the center or possibly I failed to leave a folklorist in place (smile.)

But I had already exceeded the average tenure nationwide for DMO execs surprised to find myself still alive at 30 five years seemed like an eternity.

Anchorage found me appealing that due to my Expo ‘74 experience I had a grasp of the far greater potential of tourism beyond just conventions, rare at the time for peers in that profession.

The governing board in Anchorage also knew I had proven to have grit and they tasked me with something even more difficult.  They wanted me to pursue Anchorage’s full share of tourism economy.345897070_aabb0989de_b_thumb1

That meant gently weaning it out from under the control of then interlocking tourism interests in Seattle and Southeast Alaska but without taking anything away from what had long been the Alaska tourism “establishment.”

As we left the room after our first meeting, I remember telling a member of our governing board who happened to head a major Seattle-based Alaska-focused tour company (who became a good friend,) that to achieve that end, it would take between two and five years, but I might not survive that long.

The easy part was exceeding Anchorage’s fair market share for regional and national conventions.  But even adding in state meetings that segment would be but a small fraction of Anchorage’s visitor potential.

Even back then, the convention and meetings segment was showing some signs of losing steam, what we know today was in fact a long, slow decline as a proportion of overall travel.

The real potential for visitation to Anchorage would be doing something Alaska had never done.

We strategized that the real potential was going after travelers who, with only a few days to visit, wanted to experience the full breadth of what Alaska had to offer without spending two or three weeks jumping all over the state as had been customary.

This was an untapped segment focused on minimizing costs and logistics in what would be the equivalent of a long weekend’s stay but it meant breaking with the tradition.

Instead of the way each community had traditionally been identified for tourism with a particular feature to maximize tourist frequent movement and stay, we would reveal to this untapped segment that all of these could be done in day trips around Anchorage.

Analysis showed if carefully communicated to target markets, this new segment would be value-added to Alaska, and Anchorage could still serve its assigned role as an overnight stop for escorted tours or as a jump-off point for expensive fishing and hunting lodges.

The strategy also included tapping into visitation from Asia and Europe, working to develop stopover visits from air passengers refueling during flights over the pole and opening up winter tourism.

We also sought to persuade cruise companies to add itineraries that came all the way from Seattle and Vancouver into the Port of Anchorage without sacrificing their traditional itineraries limited to Southeast Alaska.

The reason I told our governing board I probably wouldn’t last very long is that back then Alaska tourism was very incestuous and heavily under the influence if not the thumb in some ways of a few Seattle-based businesses.

Alaska tourism had always been primarily about Southeast Alaska because this historically originated with cruise excursions to Glacier Bay organized by naturalist John Muir in the late 1800s.

We knew that when Anchorage ventured outside its designated role as an overnight, it might set off alarms in other parts of the state which would cause some to appeal for protection to powerful allies further south.

We had to try even more than Anchorage already had to simultaneously fulfill our role in traditional Alaska tourism promotion while repeatedly making the case that what we were doing differently was a win/win for Alaska.

Many understood, but suspicions of Anchorage motives ran deep, some with good reason, thus the pejorative at the time that its best attribute was that it was 10 minutes from Alaska (insinuating it wasn’t really Alaska.) 

To build good will, I spent a lot of time on projects that, while they didn’t benefit Anchorage that much, they did other parts of the state.

I tried to make friends and alliances all over Alaska and took time to call and meet with them frequently to allay any concerns burning up the grapevine.

But I also made more than my share of mistakes, many of them really stupid.

“Suffering fools gladly” is not my default, and I made a mortal enemy one day when I told a senior Alaska tourism operative in front of his friends that I didn’t appreciate his off-color jokes, especially those denigrating people of color.

Telling or listening to these jokes back then was a sign of fraternity, at least for the “good ‘ole boys.”  Regardless of how offensive it was, I could have handled that much more smoothly and without humiliating him.

Twice the age I was then, I know now that people can often read what I’m thinking on my face anyway.

But it also didn’t take long for us to begin tapping into Anchorage’s fair share of tourism which we confirmed with research.  The findings contradicted long established “conventional wisdom,” unavoidably stepping on some toes.

The more we tapped into a fuller share of visitor-centric economic and cultural development, the more the Anchorage community wanted us to do even more.

It was difficult not to cross the line, even in a state as gracious and accepting as Alaska.

So sure enough, in my fifth year, right on schedule, cabals of Alaska and Seattle interests began cornering me in private to press for us to step back.  Way back.

Often they would drop the name of a local constituent intimating it was someone over which they felt they had influence or insinuating the threat of losing lucrative contracts.

In hindsight, I should have raised an alarm more vigorously with my board as a whole, but instead, my low key summaries were designed to reassure them I had it under control.

That was a mistake.  Never underestimated the power of gridlock on personal relationships as a trump logic and metrics.

I went to great lengths each time one of these sessions took place, to review the data and how what we were doing was both/and, and not a threat to Alaska’s traditional tourism infrastructure.

But it was compliance not reassurance they wanted.  It only further alienated me from them.  Fueled by success and feeling threatened, looking back I’m sure my intensity and frustration came across with more than a little hubris.

Within little more than a year, a handful formally threatened my board with resignations of membership support (a small part of our funding) if I wasn’t fired and a course change made.

If not they would smear us in the news media.

To be continued…

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