Research group aims for more specialized visitor information

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Want to know how fly-fishing tourists spend their money when they're in Alaska? Or how RV travelers research their trips?

Veteran Alaska travel research company McDowell Group spent the summer amassing juicy bits of information to win customers in niche markets not covered by the state's more general tourism survey, whose results are free.

Tina Lindgren, president of the state's major tourism marketing group Alaska Travel Industry Association, said her members are thirsty for new information.

McDowell Group, based in Juneau, in 1993 did the state's most recently published visitor survey. However, a consortium of Alaska and Outside companies won a 2001 contract for visitor research. Results are due this month and next.

So the McDowell Group shifted its focus. Eric McDowell, owner and senior partner, said he asked clients and potential clients what they'd put on a fantasy survey: ''If you could have anything you wanted to know about your visitor market, what would it be?''

The result was the Alaska Travelers Survey. Uniformed staff polled 4,500 visitors as they left the state this year, in airports and gas stations, on ferries and docks, said the group's senior project manager Susan Bell.

''We went for big so we could break out niche markets,'' Bell said about the number of interviews. The idea is to be able to build profiles of people who stayed in Haines, who went on cultural tours, who came to view bears -- just about any group imaginable.

Communities or businesses can even add their own questions to what McDowell said will become an annual survey.

Sharon Gaiptman, marketing manager for the Alaska Marine Highway, did just that. She asked the group to tag on questions following up on an earlier study the group had done for the ferry system.

''I was totally thrilled with the results,'' Gaiptman said. ''We definitely made some major improvements over the last two years.''

The state survey overlaps considerably with McDowell's Alaska Travelers Survey, said Hart Hodges, senior economist for Anchorage-based economic consulting firm Northern Economics, part of the group that displaced McDowell to win the contract for state tourist research. But, he added, the state survey is not as precise.

''You can only slice that data so thin'' before facing its limits, he said.

The state survey also has a different methodology and a lower response rate.

It's a tough call whether to pay for the McDowell information, said Chris Haigh, engineer for the city of Fairbanks. The city has teamed with the local convention and visitors bureau and Native nonprofit Tanana Chiefs Conference on a new building targeting visitors, in part, and needs good information to decide how big it can be.

''The cost was very high'' for information the McDowell Group offered, said project manager Haigh. One option was $29,000. Now, he said, the partners are deciding if they can get by with information they already have. ''We haven't decided completely.''

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