[IMAGE]Premier-.jpg[/IMAGE]If you are fortunate enough to own a motorcoach operation in Alaska, you are at an advantage because the scenery sells itself. But, you also have to be innovative to keep your operation running year-round.
"Typical tour season is mid-May to mid-September. Basically, you have a four-month window to meet your primary revenue goals, and then the remaining eight months is essentially winter," explains Josh Howes, vice president for Anchorage's Premier Alaska Tours.
Some of the attractions that Premier works with cruise lines and tour operators and wholesalers to provide for customers, include Denali National Park and the pipeline terminal in Valdez.
To help provide a true Alaskan experience, each of the tours the operation provides features a local Alaskan tour director who is knowledgeable about Alaska's people, culture and destinations.
"Our company is made up primarily of local Alaskans that have grown up here and spent time hot mopping their yard to make a hockey rink or go moose hunting," says Howes. "We look for folks that have those Alaska stories that they can tell. Anybody can recite the facts about how big the tallest mountain in North America is or how many people live in a particular city. What people really enjoy are the personal stories."
With the area's rough terrain and extended winters well noted, daily maintenance of the motorcoaches is key and starts with the driver, who does thorough pre-, mid- and post-trip inspections. Since some of the tours Premier provides last longer than 10 days, any time a coach comes into the shop for any reason it's placed on a lift, and assessed by mechanics to make sure everything is operating correctly.
Another area of focus due to the area's elements is driver training. Each fall Premier does a session with its winter drivers to remind them of the basics of driving during that season, such as not using cruise control or the Jake Brake, how to put chains on, what kind of fluids are important to have and how to use the auxiliary heaters. Drivers are also asked to prove themselves in the icy conditions to ensure they can actually handle the vehicle.
"Once the snow starts falling in Anchorage, it's pretty much icy all winter. So, it's really easy to do driver training on ice because it's always here," says Howes. "We want them to know how a bus really handles when it's going sideways, what it feels like and give them the experience to handle the situation."
Always creating new ways to keep its fleet on the road even in the winter months, Premier has begun seeking more opportunities outside of the tour sector. In the winter of 2008, the operation sent three motorcoaches to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska for three months to haul oil company crews around the North Slope. Another innovative tour that it has created is in association with Japan Airlines (JAL).
"JAL does charter flights from Tokyo directly into Fairbanks during the winter months, where it's 20 degrees to 30 degrees below zero," explains Howes. "Approximately 300 people will get off the plane and on to our coach, and then we will take them out to the hot springs or to see the aurora borealis."
When asked what its customers are most surprised about when visiting the Alaskan region, Howes says many are shocked that it doesn't take long — usually about 20 minutes or less — to get out of the "big cities," such as Fairbanks and Anchorage, and find themselves in the wilderness. Howes adds that the operation's focus on customer satisfaction is what sets it apart from the competition.
"The marketing pitch certainly is that 'it's the last frontier,'" says Howes of the Alaskan region. "It's just a matter of once they get here that you really knock their socks off and treat them to first-class service that they may or may not expect in the last frontier."