MAKING IT: Showcasing Denali by trail and treetop

SPONSORED: Adventure company owners adapt business knowledge to rugged Alaska terrain.

When Kyle Davis came to Alaska in 2006 the trip was meant to be a visit with his father, Mike. But a sojourn to Denali and an off-the-cuff comment about how cool it would be to start an adventure company in the shadow of the mountain ended up launching a business. They're celebrating a decade of success this year.

"It was a crazy idea, but after more talking about it and discussing the possibilities, we realized it might actually be a good idea," Kyle said.

Denali ATV Adventures officially started leading ATV tours in 2007. They took visitors to the Denali-area wilderness, riding over bogs, bumping over rugged terrain and enjoying scenic vistas.

"It blew up from there," Kyle said.

According to Mike, two elements have been key to the company's success. First, their combined business knowledge: Kyle managed a mobile communications store in southern California prior to this venture and Mike is a professor of accounting at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They understood how to develop business relationships. The second tactic that put them out in front: "guerilla marketing."

"We made sure we were highly visible," Kyle said. "We put our logo all over our vehicles, put a TV with a slideshow of our tours outside our shop and made a lot of fliers."

Initially, the duo thought they would be the only outfit operating ATV tours in Denali. When they discovered another company was also running tours – primarily for cruise ship passengers – they saw it as an opportunity.

"We tried to collect everybody they were missing out on," Kyle said, so they looked to customers who were unable to book through cruise lines. "We focused on all the small booking companies and walk-ins. It took a lot of hard work and talking to as many people as possible."

In 2012, they decided the next move was to open Denali Jeep Excursions, a company that would show customers the Denali Highway (a stunning stretch of road where most rental vehicles aren't allowed).

Other Denali businesses where they had fostered relationships in their early years were quick to understand the appeal of the Jeep tours and include them as an option in their adventure packages, said Kyle.

But they weren't done launching new ventures. In the last year, the company opened a zipline course, Denali Park Zipline, and started another business, Denali Park Adventures, that acts as a parent company to the three adventure tour businesses (ATVs, Jeeps and ziplines) and operates as a booking agent. Through that company, customers can book any of the Davis' tours. They can also book package tours, combining their excursions with those offered by other outfits, like an ATV and rafting combo.

"We want people to think of us as the company to come to for adventure travel in Denali," Kyle said. "We want to show people a part of Alaska that, if they didn't go out with us, they'd never see."

What makes the company unique compared to other businesses in their industry, Kyle said, is that they're constantly upgrading their equipment. ATVs are used for just one summer and then replaced the following season. Jeeps are used for about 25,000 miles and then sold for newer models.

"Obviously safety is number one, so it's good to have new equipment, but it also means there's no downtime for our guests," Kyle said. "Beyond that, with our volume of guests, if we have an ATV down for a week, the revenue lost would have bought a new one."

Though buying new each year is a decidedly more expensive business decision than repairing broken equipment, Kyle said for them it's worth it.

The companies remain family-owned. Kyle and Mike act as directors of operations and finances, respectively and Kyle's wife, Emily, is the director of sales.

Emily has a doctorate in neuroscience and has used her problem-solving and analysis skills to help the trio make smart business decisions.

Mike uses the family's businesses as practical examples in his business classes at UAF. He's quick to mention how frequently family-run businesses don't work out in the long term. His businesses are the exception.

"Honestly, I've been floored over the years at how well we've been able to work together," Mike said.

For Kyle, Mike and Emily, there is no off-season; they work year-round. Kyle says it's one more key to their company's success. Each fall the owners work to update their websites, brochures, staffing and itineraries.

"We're also one of the few companies that if you call in December, we'll answer, " Kyle said. They've learned through experience that many of their customers start planning their Denali adventures in the winter. They don't want folks to be met with just a voicemail. "We're constantly focusing on the future of this business."

 

This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with FNBA. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.