The city of Kenai is in the midst of an identity crisis at least as far as tourism is concerned, according to Michelle Glass, director of the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.
The problem is that many of the places of interest on the Kenai Peninsula, such as parks and refuges, have "Kenai" as part of their name including the peninsula itself. However, these places of interest may be located many miles away from the city itself. Even the upper Kenai River is relatively far from the city. All the "Kenais" confuse tourists and make it difficult for the city to stand out as a tourist destination in its own right, Glass told members of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce last Wednesday.
To support her assertion, Glass reported some comments she's heard visitors make about Kenai.
"Oh, I love Kenai; I go to Homer all the time," one visitor said, referring to the Kenai Peninsula as opposed to the city of Kenai.
"Kenai, yeah, I took a great cruise to the glaciers from there," said another visitor, confusing the city of Kenai with Seward.
Glass recently answered the phone at the visitors center and spent much longer than she'd planned trying to explain the geography of the peninsula to a woman calling from New Jersey.
"It literally took 45 minutes to explain the differences between Kenais," Glass said.
The women's response to the long explanation summed up the problem, Glass said.
"Sometimes a name is a blessing as well as a curse," the woman said.
Glass who directed the visitors center in Haines before taking the reins of the Kenai center in February said the city of Kenai needs to figure out how to differentiate itself from all the other Kenais on the peninsula.
"We need to come up with some kind of branding that denotes us as the city of Kenai," she said.
The challenge in getting visitors to come to Kenai is to get travelers along the Sterling Highway to turn off in Soldotna and take the Kenai Spur Highway to get to the city. That's where marketing the city of Kenai "brand" can make a difference, she said.
"(Tourists) don't have to turn," she said. "To get them to turn that's what marketing is."
The newest reason tourists have to make the turn and come to Kenai is the recently opened Kenai Landing. Renovations of the 35-building, 90-year-old cannery complex still are under way.
But Glass is excited about the potential of the development which she called a "destination resort" to draw tourists and their dollars to Kenai.
One small cruise line already plans to include Kenai Landing as an excursion for passengers about $125 per trip, Glass said.
Funding the visitors center is a challenge of its own. Almost half the annual budget is supplied by revenue from a bingo gaming operation the visitors center sponsors in partnership with the Peninsula Oilers.
Glass is grateful for the income without which the center couldn't operate. However, she said she would like to see the center funded in the same way many visitors centers are funded in other parts of the country: through a "bed tax." Some of the revenue from the tax on overnight lodging could be designated to go to the visitors center, she said.
Glass suggested a boroughwide bed tax of 5 to 6 percent.
Some lodge owners and politicians have opposed a bed tax of any percentage in the past for various reasons. However, it is a common practice and nothing to be afraid of, Glass said.
"Bed tax is something that is accepted everywhere you go," she said. "It's no big deal. It's not scary."
Glass outlined several ways she and the visitors center's staff have been working to improve the center and better market the city of Kenai:
July 15, the visitors center launched a companion to its main Web site. The new site, www.sportfishingkenai.com, is designed to be a comprehensive guide to sport fishing on the Kenai Peninsula in general, and the Kenai River in particular.
The center is in the process of applying for grants to expand its museum over the next three to five years. The expanded museum will tell a more thorough story of Kenai's history, including a more in-depth look at the history of Native Alaskans in the area.
The visitors center actively is recruiting potential clients for it conference facilities. For example, the center will host the 2006 Alaska Highway Neighbors conference. About 100 are expected to attend the meeting of tourism industry professionals representing towns on Alaska's road system.
Glass, who has 13 years of experience in the tourism industry, told those attending the chamber meeting at Paradisos that Kenai's visitors center is an exceptional facility.
"I hope you all realize that building across the street is the most beautiful visitors center I've seen in the state of Alaska," Glass said. "Kenai should be extremely proud to have that building."
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