Tour operator's troubles felt statewide

Posted: Friday, July 25, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) A tour company's financial mess has angered vendors and employees who are demanding payment.

The company, Ask Alaska Travel & Tours, laid off its employees this week after having trouble paying its bills, according to several business owners who say they are owed money.

Ask Alaska president Jennifer Christensen said she was advised not to talk to the media.

''It's unfortunate for the whole industry. And it's really unfortunate for the customers,'' said Eric Downey, vice president of sales and marketing for Denali Lodges, a company that did business with Ask Alaska.

Downey and several other business owners said they have had difficulty receiving payment from Ask Alaska, which books tours for visitors, accepts payment and then passes on money to the hotels, air taxis, day-cruise operators and others businesses that cater to the tourists.

In recent weeks, several Denali Lodges guests have shown up with Ask Alaska vouchers only to be told that they must pay up front because the tour company's credit was no good.

''We're letting them know that their reservation was not guaranteed and that if they want to continue on with us they'll have to make reservations and payment with us directly,'' Downey said.

Managers of hotels in Seward, air taxis in Talkeetna, and tour boat companies based in Anchorage had similar comments.

Sandra White, manager of Talkeetna Air Taxi, said some customers have been understanding but many have gotten angry when told they must pay twice and then seek a refund from Ask Alaska.

''Some people say, 'I'm from Israel. You deal with them!' '' White said.

''It's left us in a bind. We're out a bit of money,'' said Danny Seavey, who runs his family's mushing tour business, IdidaRide, in Seward. Ask Alaska provided transportation for clients between Anchorage and Seward.

The Better Business Bureau has given Ask Alaska an unsatisfactory rank because of the volume of complaints it has received and the company's lack of response, said Carol Lakhdar, a consumer representative. And the Alaska Travel Industry Association staff is poised to recommend that the board remove Ask Alaska from the travel group's membership roster, executive director Ron Peck said.

''There have been problems with payments or with customers showing up and there being no record of a reservation being made,'' Peck said.

Vincent Shinohara said he was one of about a dozen employees laid off. Two paychecks he received this summer bounced, he said. But when he told Christensen's husband, James Bowers, what happened, Bowers went to the bank and paid him in cash.

''He's been paying it out of his pocket,'' Shinohara said.

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