Bus tours could be growing presence

Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2001

Tour bus stops in Kenai and Soldotna this summer will last just a few hours apiece. But next summer, the buses may stay longer.

'We're not going to go away. So, whether or not you want us here, we're going to come here.'

--Stefanie Gorder, Premier Alaska Tours

"This is our first year on the central and southern Kenai Peninsula," said Stefanie Gorder, senior vice president for marketing and sales with Anchorage-based Premier Alaska Tours. "We've done the eastern peninsula from the beginning, for eight years. Next year, we'll overnight in Soldotna -- I'm not sure if it will be for one or two nights -- at the Aspen Hotel."

The Aspen is the 63-bed hotel a Seattle firm plans to build this year behind Johnson Tire in Soldotna, she said after addressing Tuesday's meeting of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce.

She said Premier is now negotiating a contract to bring weekly tours including overnight stays to the central peninsula in 2002. Package bus tours -- which in the past have had little presence on the central peninsula -- are coming, she said.

"I do promise you that 2002 will be bigger and better, a lot more resonance down here," she told the chamber. "We're not going to go away. So, whether or not you want us here, we're going to come here."

Gorder, a former director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, said there are three main branches to Premier's business. Premier creates, sells and operates its own tours, creates and operates tour packages for other companies, and offers charter motor coach service.

To provide activities for tour passengers, Premier forms partnerships with local operators, such as canoe rental companies, restaurants, hotels and fishing charters.

Premier has eight permanent employees and hires 50 or 60 seasonal employees each year as tour directors, bus driver-guides and luggage handlers, she said. It has 12 buses now, but the fleet could expand.

"In 2002, we'll have more motor coaches, and vans. We're moving into the adventure market -- eight to 10 people with activities like fishing," she said.

Regular cruise ship traffic made building business in the Seward area easy, she said. Premier's western peninsula tours arose after Gorder met a representative of Wisconsin-based World Wide Country Tours at a 1999 convention. Gorder said she arranged for him to visit the peninsula, then worked with Kenai, Soldotna and Homer chambers of commerce and tourism marketing groups to assemble an action-packed agenda.

Premier landed a two-year contract with World Wide Country Tours, and will make six trips this summer to the western and southern peninsula, she said. Premier also will run two additional tours for Michigan-based Parrot's Tours and Texas-based Incredible Journeys.

Each tour will bring a bus carrying about 40 people, a mix of seniors and baby boomers, Gorder said. Kenai and Soldotna will be short stops along the route to Homer.

"We'll be coming from Anchorage or Seward and do lunch at the Old Town Village Restaurant in Kenai," she said.

Tour participants will get a quick introduction to Kenai, then walk through Old Town Kenai, visit the "2001: A Fish Odyssey" art show at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center and depart for a two-night stay in Homer.

"We'll have breakfast on the famous Homer Spit, a narrow manmade peninsula built in the 19th century to carry coal to freight ships," reads the description on the World Wide Country Tours Web page. "You'll find it's easy to get into Alaska's languid rhythm as you greet fishermen and watch their boats head out to sea. We'll also have a local guide take us on a narrated walking tour of Homer's colorful fishing village."

Actually, the spit is the terminal moraine left by a glacier that occupied much of Kachemak Bay about 16,000 years ago, said Ed Berg, an adjunct instructor who has taught geology at Kenai Peninsula College since 1983.

World Wide Country Tours says its clients will have time in Homer to shop, visit an art gallery or take a tour.

"Ply the pristine waters on a fishing charter, helicopter to a glacier, see the Katmai National Reserve by plane or cruise Kachemak Bay on a pleasure boat," its Web page reads.

Gorder said tour groups will stop the following morning at the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce visitor center for muffins, coffee and an introduction to Soldotna. They will tour walkways by the Kenai River and stop at the Soldotna Historical Society Museum by Centennial Park. Then they will have lunch at the Sterling Senior Center and hear stories from senior citizens.

"Alaskans have some very fascinating tales to tell, and these local descendants of the first settlers are no exception," the World Wide Country Tours description reads.

Gorder said one tour will come on July 28, during the Soldotna Progress Days celebration.

"We'll be in the parade," she said.

She said Kenai and Soldotna also will see visits this summer from another 20 or 25 Premier buses chartered to other companies.

"I encourage them to stop, but I have no control. Those are charters only," she said.

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