MAKing It: For Alaska Destination Specialists, no event is too challenging

SPONSORED: How one event management business thrives in a changing world.

Presented by First National Bank Alaska

As an event management professional, Char McClelland has experienced incredible moments while helping visitors tour Alaska, including one Prince William Sound glacier cruise that left her team speechless.

The cruise, chartered as part of an incentive trip for an automotive company, featured a harpist playing for guests onboard. At one point, a pod of orca whales surrounded the vessel and breached again and again.

“We finally had to leave, or else the guests wouldn’t see the glacier,” McClelland said. “Even us locals on the boat had never seen that.”

A longtime Alaskan, McClelland helped create a new industry in the state when she founded Alaska Destination Specialists in the 1990s, filling a unique need in the community and helping companies and groups have spectacular experiences while visiting the Great Land.

A self-professed “crisis control queen,” she navigates everything life throws at her, including two years of cancellations and challenges due to global pandemic shutdowns.

Beach parties and outdoor winter celebrations

As a destination management company, Alaska Destination Specialists’ biggest focus is incentive travel planning; companies use these incentives to reward top-performing employees with paid trips to exceptional locations like Alaska.

McClelland’s team meets these groups at the airport, takes them to their lodging, and plans all the meals, events and outdoor excursions.

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Her exclusive packages vary depending on her client’s needs. Sometimes she rents private venues or restaurants. Sometimes she charters boats and cruises. Her guests could enjoy a stay at a high-end fishing lodge or a private concert with a band and barbeque on a beach.

“Instead of having an event at a convention center, we use Alaska as a backdrop,” McClelland said.

Her itineraries range across Alaska – from Anchorage and Fairbanks, to Juneau and Sitka, to Kodiak and other destinations. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies, international corporations and a wide variety of other organizations.

In 2006, Alaska Destination Specialists planned and produced the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, the world’s largest annual wheelchair sports event solely for military veterans. McClelland’s team handled nearly every component of the event, a sports competition for more than 600 veterans in wheelchairs.

“When it was over, we were told by the athletes, the sponsors, and our client that we had produced the best games in the (then) 26-year history,” McClelland said.

The company also works with Alaska businesses and nonprofits to create, plan and produce their events year-round, from client appreciation events to holiday parties, anniversary celebrations, galas, fundraisers and more.

“We do just about anything event-related,” McClelland said. “If we can’t do it, we find someone who can and connect our client with them.”

Last winter McClelland got creative with outdoor party planning for First National Bank Alaska’s Employee Centennial Celebration. With pandemic restrictions still in effect, the bank needed to find a way to gather safely and comfortably in the dead of Alaska winter.

On January 29, 2022, several hundred employees and their guests gathered outside at Cuddy Family Midtown Park in Anchorage to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the bank, founded on January 30, 1922.

The party featured food trucks, fire dancers, a photo booth, heaters, hot chocolate, music, and a massive fireworks display against a backdrop of the snow-covered Chugach Mountains.

“It was about bringing together their whole team,” McClelland said of the celebration. “People from all over the state came to this event and it was heartwarming to see the culture they create within their community.”

International honors

McClelland was born in British Columbia and her family moved to Alaska in 1969. In 1994, she started Alaska Destination Specialists, and over the years built her brand. Her business has since been honored with a SITE Crystal Award, considered the highest honor in the event-planning industry.

“Going up against the best of the best companies nationally and having our little Alaskan company selected as a winner for this prestigious award was such an honor for our entire team,” McClelland said.

McClelland has faced unexpected challenges before. When a global SARS outbreak resulted in visitor cancellations to Alaska in 2003, McClelland went to First National Bank Alaska for guidance. The bank helped answer all her questions and decide whether to get financial assistance or “ride out the storm,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, took the meaning of crisis to another level. In 2020, McClelland faced waves of cancellations and struggled alongside thousands of other Alaska businesses. The early days of the pandemic were particularly tough for McClelland.

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“When COVID hit, all industries were devastated,” said McClelland. “And this particularly applied to tourism, and to our company.”

Between April and December of 2020, visitors to Alaska dropped 82% compared with the same period in 2019, according to an Alaska Travel Industry Association report, and spending plummeted by $2.2 billion. Event planning also took a massive hit, dropping by more than $1 billion in the U.S. in 2020.

“As an event-planning company, if you can’t hold an event, it makes survival a challenge,” McClelland said.

Businesses scrambled to apply for government relief funds, especially from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). But sifting through all the information was its own challenge.

“You’re trying to keep yourself afloat because all your groups are canceling and clients can’t do events,” McClelland said. “Then you’re also trying to figure out programs to apply for.”

Already a longtime customer at First National, McClelland sought out the bank’s guidance — from questions about eligibility, loan repayment and loan forgiveness, to other types of available aid. Ultimately, McClelland applied for relief and was able to keep her company’s doors open through the most challenging part of the pandemic.

“Having a banker in our corner was invaluable,” McClelland said.

Local lifelines

Guiding customers through uncertainty was crucial during the early days of the pandemic, said First National Loan Officer and Vice President Mike Scott.

“It was about being there as a shoulder and sounding board,” Scott said.

Staff quickly learned the details of new federal aid programs and guided clients towards solutions, all while shifting to remote work for the very first time.

Scott said the bank experienced the heaviest call volume he had ever seen, from customers and non-customers alike. Though hectic, the process helped the bank connect with the community.

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“We’re essentially a family of our own here,” he said of First National. “So when businesses have a relationship with one specific individual here, they’re working with all of us together as a team.”

Thousands of Alaska businesses tapped into PPP funds for support — $1.3 billion was distributed to about 12,000 Alaska businesses in the spring and summer of 2020, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

In 2021, First National processed the highest volume and dollar amount of any financial institution in Alaska – more than 3,000 PPP loans, totaling more than $238 million.

Since 2020, First National has managed more than 5,500 PPP applications, helping to bring more than $585 million in financial assistance to Alaska businesses.

Along with the loan, Alaska Destination Specialists was able to navigate hardships thanks to several successful years before the pandemic, McClelland said.

“I attribute our success partially to First National,” she said. “I felt very fortunate because my guy at First National was right there with every answer I needed.”

McClelland is optimistic about the future. During pandemic restrictions, she caught up on projects, revamped the website and reassessed the company’s marketing programs. Now, her business is booking into 2023 and 2024, and she is excited for the return of cruise ships and travelers.

“We are so, so busy,” she said. “It’s exciting.”

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to help Alaskans shape a brighter tomorrow by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

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This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.