Economy worries tourism-fed Talkeetna

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- Talkeetna Air Taxi instituted its first ever hiring freeze this spring.

There will be no new jobs at the flightseeing company that wings people to Mount McKinley until the tourists show up. If they show up.

"We're waiting until mid-April, to see where booking levels are," general manager Sandra Loomis said.

With grim economic news around the country and the world, visitor-related businesses in Talkeetna are watching carefully to see how this tourism season shakes out. The town is a hot spot for summer tourists and stakes a claim on half the hotel and motel rooms in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Tammy Bruce, marketing manager for the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau, says it's too early to tell how the season will turn out, judging by what she's hearing from bureau members.

Some members say they expect to do well; others say business will be down, Bruce said. Some are getting bookings, but not until later in the season than usual, she said.

Visitor-dependent businesses in Talkeetna say early reports showed a significant drop in the number of passengers booking preseason trips with cruise companies, though a spate of price cuts helped bring bookings back up some.

Talkeetna Air Taxi saw a similar dynamic: Bookings were down 30 percent after the holidays.

But, Loomis said, numbers improved after the company offered "guerrilla specials" and cruise companies slashed prices.

In terms of hiring, she said, most of her company's 30-person staff came back this year, so the freeze isn't as dire as it sounds. They haven't actually cut positions but aren't hiring new employees just yet. Still, the company is selling one of seven planes in its fleet.

"We may be OK this year, but I worry about the next three to five years because I don't think this economy thing is going to go away," Loomis said. "We're making plans to scale back."

Still, several business owners recalled grim predictions last year that ended up being mostly quashed by a surprising number of international visitors. Stay-at-home vacations planned this summer by thrifty Alaskans could also help Talkeetna.

Alaska Heritage Tours, which operates the 212-room Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge outside town, expects bookings to be down this summer by double digits, said Dee Dee Kay, sales manager of lodging.

"I don't think we're going to be full every day," Kay said.

Still, she added, smaller operations and banks in the Lower 48 that reward customers with trips are going strong.

"They're tracking fairly well, because maybe as much of their money wasn't in the stock market," she said.

At least one demographic appears unaffected by the economy.

More climbers are booking flights with Talkeetna Air Taxi to Mount McKinley, Loomis said.

Those intrepid adventurers seem to weather "all the different little dips and doodles of the economy," she said. "They live to climb."

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