Tourists and cruise ships are ready to return to Seward. But is Seward ready for them?

A scarcity of seasonal employees and housing complicates what’s expected to be a strong summer for Seward’s visitor industry. It’s a problem testing businesses statewide.

SEWARD — On days like these, when the rugged peaks gleam across the bay and the sun warms the spring air, it’s easy to see why hundreds of thousands of people come here each year. During a run of ideal weather earlier this month, the city began its molt from a sleepy seaside burg into its bustling summer form.

Early-season tourists dashed from the Alaska Railroad Depot to board wildlife cruises at the harbor. Nearby, a seafood market employee repainted a sandwich board that will soon advertise specials. At the Alaska SeaLife Center, cruise ship passengers watched as Pilot, a massive sea lion, hypnotically swam its loops.

It’s good to be back in Seward, said Marek Slaby, captain of Royal Caribbean’s 962-foot Radiance of the Seas, one of two cruise ships docked on a recent Friday. “I get up to the bridge at 3 o’clock in the morning, and I can do it every single day — sailing into Resurrection Bay,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful place.”

The return of cruise ships feels more novel this year than most. None came in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Seventy-six dockings are scheduled for this season. “Holy cow. I forgot how big they are,” said Kat Sorensen, executive director of the Seward Chamber of Commerce, after the first one arrived.

“I think after the past two years, we’re just generally excited to see them return,” she said.

But excitement is one in a stew of feelings bubbling right now. A shortage of workers in the tourism industry — across Alaska and nationwide — is unfolding acutely in Seward, made worse by a dearth of housing.

For some, it’s a repeat dilemma. Last summer, many business owners say they were caught unprepared for a crush of independent travelers that tested the limits of their ability to provide meals and services. Some who expected a down year similar to the first pandemic summer scrambled to fill jobs and keep customers happy.

“I think coming into this summer, everybody’s a little hesitant, thinking about how last summer left us feeling,” Sorensen said.

This year, though businesses have had a chance to make some adjustments, the return of cruise ships could add a layer of complication, said Tara Riemer, the SeaLife Center’s president and CEO.

“I think the biggest piece of anxiety for the community is what happens if we have the same level of independent traveler as we did last year, and we add cruise ships to that?” she said.

A shallow worker pool, in Seward and statewide

Elle Zernia chooses optimism.

“I’m hoping for it to be a nice, easy progression into what is a very organized, seemingly perfect season,” said Zernia, owner of Mermaid Grotto Cafe and Boutique.

It could happen. Cruise ships aren’t yet arriving full, which might allow some businesses to ease into the peak season. But the reality is many of the same pressures that businesses faced in 2021 remain this year. Tops on that list is a shallow pool of seasonal employees.

“It’s not for lack of getting out there,” said Zernia, who said she advertised on popular online job search sites like Indeed and CoolWorks. “There’s just not a whole lot of applications coming in.”

“We thought last year was the most crazy, insane summer we could’ve ever encountered,” she said. “And I actually think that this year is going to give us a run for our money.”

Every tourism-oriented business in Seward, it seems, has a story to tell about the breakneck pace of summer 2021. Zernia recalled a struggle to serve some frustrated, hungry customers.

“I’ve had people cry last summer. I mean literally. ‘Please don’t send us away,’ ” she said. She tried to be upfront with customers that they might wait an hour for food, she said. Others recalled people sometimes waited two-plus hours for dine-in restaurant service around town.

Across the street at 13 Ravens Coffee and Books, owner Liberty Miller entered the 2021 summer season loyal to the customers who supported her early on in the pandemic. “People will always buy coffee, especially when the world is ending,” she said. But last year, determined to maintain her presence at the north end of the harbor, she worked seven days a week with just one employee.

“Last summer, at the end of each shift, I couldn’t even find the energy to drive home. It would be sunny like this and I’d come out here and sit down and fall asleep,” she said from the deck outside her door. “I felt like my brain was short-circuiting.”

Faith Alderman and Fiona Crosby opened The Porthole food truck to serve early morning customers in August 2020. Last summer, they saw enough customers to stay open around the clock, but lacked the employees to grow their new business.

“We’re trying to balance what we know we can do, but still be ambitious,” Crosby said.

Crosby said she, like many in Seward, held down two jobs last summer. She opened The Porthole at 4 a.m. and also worked later in the day at J-Dock Fishing Company, a sportfishing charter operation and seafood market. She slept in two 4-hour shifts each day, she said.

“I was a robot,” she said. “The word for this summer is ‘balance.’”

J-Dock, too, hustled to keep up with the unexpected rebound from the pandemic downturn, said Kristyn Allaway-Stickel, whose family has owned the company for nearly 20 years. “At first we were trying to navigate getting in business, and surviving, and staying afloat,” she said. “And then quickly, just the next year, trying to keep up with everything that was coming in.”

The reason Seward’s workforce was so harried last summer wasn’t entirely due to an increase in visitors. It also had to do with the type of visitors who showed up, said Sorensen, the Chamber of Commerce director. Travelers didn’t come as part of a cruise or tour package that arranged for meals and lodging. Most traveled on itineraries of their own design.

“Every (2021) visitor that passed the Chamber on the Seward Highway was an independent traveler,” Sorensen said. “They’re needier, at the end of the day.”

The Chamber contracts with analytics company Datafy to approximate Seward’s annual visitors. Two years ago, it estimated about 239,000 unique visitors came to Seward. Last year, that number increased to 261,000. While both numbers are significantly less than the 459,000 who came in 2019, the most recent cruise ship summer, there’s another metric that made the 2021 crowd different: average trip length. In both 2019 and 2020, it was about 3.25 days. In 2021, that number shot up to 4.3 days.

“I definitely love seeing the increase in the average trip length. It means people are enjoying coming to Seward and staying longer,” Sorensen said. “But with that, we do have more of a demand for restaurants and hotels and services.”

Judging by early season bookings for excursions, lodging, trains and more, Seward is bracing for a similar volume of independent travel in 2022, several business owners said. Tension mounts as employers large and small scramble to make the hires needed to receive it.

Stephanie Higgins, who owns Firebrand Barbecue with her husband, Chad, admits she’s getting a little nervous. The business bought a second commercial smoker to double its product capacity. But a lack of employees meant they couldn’t open for this season as early as they hoped. Higgins is hoping to add eight to 10 more employees to her existing staff of five.

“Firebrand needs employees. Morning, afternoon, full-time, part-time. That’s been our biggest struggle so far,” she said.

It’s the same story at the Alaska SeaLife Center.

“It feels like every department needs somebody,” said Nancy Deel, the SeaLife Center’s marketing and communications director. “Custodial, security, development, education, ticketing. We’re worried, having a minimal amount of ticketing staff to get people through the door to come in.”

Sarah Leonard, president and CEO of the Anchorage-based nonprofit Alaska Travel Industry Association, said members statewide are reporting more difficulty in filling positions.

“We’re hearing this in Denali, in Fairbanks, throughout Southcentral…,” she said. “It’s happening nationwide in the tourism and hospitality industry.”

Clark Hopp, chief operations officer for Alaska Railroad, which runs passenger service from Seward to Fairbanks, said the number of applications for seasonal jobs this year was less than half of a normal year. He expects the railroad, which operates passenger trains from Seward to Fairbanks, will manage without reducing services, but its employees will work hard to make that happen this summer.

“To be quite honest, I really don’t know what’s happening to the labor pool,” Hopp said. “And I think a lot of industries, a lot of businesses across the country are asking themselves that same question: Where are the workers?”

Hunger for housing

If a worker shortage is pummeling the tourism industry statewide, a housing shortage in Seward means many businesses are fighting with their hands tied.

Multiple times recently, the SeaLife Center made job offers that were accepted, only later to have that acceptance rescinded when the prospective employee couldn’t find a place to live. Faith Alderman, one of the owners of The Porthole food truck, said she’s lost employees like that. She said she’s struggling to find an apartment herself and is considering living in an RV.

For Stephanie Higgins of Firebrand Barbecue, the problem literally hit home.

“We actually, last summer, had some living in our spare bedroom,” she said.

Jason Bickling, community development director for the City of Seward, said the situation extends beyond the seasonal workforce. Local schools are having a hard time hiring teachers, he said, which could have consequences on enrollment. Providence Seward Medical Center currently is advertising 21 open positions on its website. Lack of available homes impacts the hospital’s ability to recruit and retain caregivers, according to spokesman Mikal Canfield.

“It’s pretty dire, I would say,” Bickling said.

Housing has long been a challenge in Seward. The growth of the short-term rental market — typically through Airbnb and VRBO — further stresses an already tight housing market.

Short-term rentals aren’t all bad, he said. In Seward, they have expanded visitor capacity beyond a limited number of hotel rooms. But it’s a problem when Seward reaches the point where workers consistently have trouble finding housing and the visitor experience is soured because restaurants can’t open or keep up.

“Our number one priority right now is to get our head wrapped around the situation and do what we can as a city to play our role,” Bickling said.

Those efforts include working to find developable land and looking at city codes to see what adjustments might help, Bickling said. It may also mean capping the number of short-term rentals allowed. Bickling said there were roughly 326 short-term rental properties in the greater Seward last July, 125 of which were in city limits.

“When a property goes up for sale, we get a lot of calls saying, ‘Can I use it for short-term rentals?’” Bickling said. “When our local people here don’t have enough housing, we try to deter that type of land speculation, especially that stuff that comes from someone who doesn’t live here.”

Seward companies that provide employee housing are often best positioned to rise with the tourism tide, according to Tom Tougas, owner of Major Marine Tours. In scattered complexes and homes around town, Major Marine houses 85 people of the company’s 160-person summer workforce. The company runs a fleet of tour vessels and two hotels.

“I always say those people that have the best employee housing also have the best employees,” Tougas said.

Major Marine is currently remodeling a former church to house soon-to-arrive seasonal workers from Bulgaria and Kazakhstan traveling under the U.S. State Department’s J-1 visa program. Providing employee housing alone isn’t profitable, he said, but he considers it the cost of doing business in Seward.

“Most of the construction that’s going on right now is businesses who have to build (housing) to keep the rest of their businesses operating, and they’re willing to take the risk of spending to get it done,” Tougas said.

Rolling with the punches

As days grow longer and visitor volume increases, some Seward businesses say they’ve made adjustments to mitigate problems.

SeaLife Center visitors now buy tickets for a specified time slot to spread out crowds and shorten lines. J-Dock stocked a year’s supply of boxes to make sure it can ship its customers’ fish. Keenan Prochazka, co-owner of Smoke Shack restaurant said they’ll keep their pick-up window format and forgo dine-in service.

“It’s faster. More people can eat in a period of time,” he said.

Others hope money will talk to job-seekers. The SeaLife Center is offering $2,000 to $4,500 signing bonuses for several of its full-time year-round positions.

The Chamber of Commerce is also lending a hand to maximize a valuable segment of the seasonal community: people living in Seward who are looking for a second, or third, job.

Last week, the organization hosted its annual ice cream social at the SeaLife Center. In years past, the event was a chance for frontline workers to become familiar with other businesses for the purpose of informing their customers. This year, the Double Scoops event functioned primarily as a job fair.

“If they’re already here, then they’ve already solved the housing crisis,” said Bekah Banse, human resources manager for the SeaLife Center.

The job-seekers, clutching cones and creamsicles, seemed to have the luxury of choices.

Georgina Rodney came to Seward with a group of five J-1 visa workers from Jamaica to work as a housekeeper at the Seward Windsong Lodge. In her first week, she adjusted to the relative cold, she said. “It’s my first time in an environment completely opposite from where I’m from, so I’m just here for what it brings,” Rodney said. It might bring a second job at the Safeway grocery store. She and her colleagues spoke to its representatives about the 25 jobs it was looking to fill.

Zhamoyani McMillan, a deckhand for Major Marine, checked out openings at Firebrand Barbecue and aboard the research vessel Sikuliaq.

“I kind of came for the ice cream, but I mean, all of these other jobs look interesting,” he said.

In a corner of the room, Ashley Coons recruited for the soon-to-open Flamingo Lounge, a downtown bar and restaurant. Coons, who works as property manager for Salted Roots Cabins and also plans to work as a server when the Flamingo opens, can appreciate the creative problem solving often required for working and living in Seward. Coons solved her own housing dilemma by buying a 28-foot Newport sailboat, even though she has no background in sailing and the craft was a bit of a fixer-upper.

“The name of the boat is Reality Check, and that’s definitely what it is,” she said.

Coons had the engine repaired and fixed multiple leaks. She also had to rip out and replace its mildewy upholstery. It was more than she planned for, but the price was right and, for now, it’s her home in the town where she’s determined to live year round.

“I’ve learned a lot. I’ll put it that way,” she said.

At the job fair, Coons met Gavin “Chap” Lamont, who arrived in Seward earlier that day. Lamont was hired by the Flamingo soon after, thanks in part to his thinking about housing. He’s prepared to live in his vehicle if necessary.

Lamont, who recently drove to Alaska from Utah, tricked out his SUV with a pad for sleeping, a cooler for his food and totes and bins to sort his belongings. He planned to start work right away.

“I think Seward’s going to be the spot for me,” he said.

Adaptability like Coons’ and Lamont’s will benefit the lounge at a crucial time. Owners Matt Cope and KellyAnn Cavaretta recently opened to the public for the first time since they bought the well-known Thorn’s Showcase Lounge.

Housing is “the No. 1 limiting factor into growth of businesses,” Cope said. Seward is a resilient town that works together to solve problems. Still, he said, he could use about five more employees.

“I don’t think there’s something that sums up summer more than rolling with the punches,” Cope said. “So are we ready? We’re about to find out.”

[Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Alaska SeaLife Center president and CEO Tara Riemer’s last name and incorrectly described her as the organization’s executive director. This story has also been updated to reflect that Bekah Banse is the SeaLife Center’s human resources manager, not human resources director.]

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Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at