The Last Frontier at Age 51

Hotels & Destinations

“People always want to come to Alaska, and conferences here give them that opportunity,” says Karen Zak, general manager of Visions Meeting & Event Management in Anchorage. Delegates often bring spouses to events and, she adds, they tend to come early or stay late to explore. “In general, we see a 20% increase in attendance for national events in Alaska, because it’s such a draw.”

Planners also appreciate the state’s no-nonsense appeal. Shoulder-season deals offer cost savings (some attractions and accommodations are seasonal, so always confirm before visiting), while major venues trade neon lights for mountain views, educational exhibits and authentic cultural experiences.


   Alaskan wildlife.

You’ll find extreme cold and short days if you’d like, but mild weather is common too, particularly in the southeast. And, Alaska is surprisingly accessible. Direct flights link Anchorage and Fairbanks with America’s major mainland cities, and the trip from Seattle to Juneau only takes about two hours by air.

“For years, people have been going to Hawaii or traveling from the west coast to the east coast for conferences. But we’re only seven hours from Atlanta, nonstop, and once you get here it’s all worth it,” Zak says.
 

Southeast: Inside Passage (Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka)

Tucked in the Tongass National Forest, downtown Juneau sits between the Gastineau Channel and 3,800-foot mountain peaks. Because the water and a 1,500-square-mile glacial ice field encircle Alaska’s state capital, guests arrive by ferry or flight.

“Just about everything people want to see on a trip to Alaska is right here in town,” says Ken Hill, convention sales manager for the Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We have whale watching, the auroras in the winter, the nature that everyone wants to see, the mining history...and what really stands out is the Alaskan Native culture. It’s such a big part of the Southeast, and it’s very accessible here.”

Native and Russian relics are on display at the Alaska State Museum, and the Juneau-Douglas City Museum holds up to 285 for receptions. Each is a short walk from Juneau’s main event venue, the 20,000-square-foot Centennial Hall Convention Center. Inside, the Sheffield Ballroom seats 700 for banquets, while several smaller rooms accommodate receptions and breakout affairs.

Nearby, The Silverbow Inn and Westmark Baranof Juneau are among downtown properties with meeting space, while surrounding restaurants serve up local fare and are well situated for group dine-around events.


   Ice Cave on Mendenhall Glacier.

Nature is another big Inside Passage draw. In Juneau, hop on the Mount Roberts Tramway to reach a visitor complex 1,800 feet above town (May–September only). Take a car, coach or helicopter to the Mendenhall Glacier. Embark on whale-watching, wildlife-viewing and glacier tours for up to 150 with Allen Marine Tours, or customize kayak outings and glacier treks for smaller groups with Above & Beyond Alaska.

Planners can get the best deals by being flexible with dates. Hill suggests booking in April and May, after the legislative season, or September and October, after the summer tourist push. “Regardless of the time of year, you’ll see something here that you wouldn’t at another destination,” he says.

To the south, Ketchikan maintains its historic fishing and frontier-town feel. Walking tour maps available from the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau introduce downtown, while floatplane tours and cruises explore the region and provide access to the 2.3-million acre Misty Fjords National Monument. Sport-fishing opportunities abound from May to September, and vendors such as Anglers Adventures & Outfitters can assist with cleaning, processing and shipping of the day’s catch.

Natural light pours through dormers in Ketchikan’s main meeting facility, the Ted Ferry Civic Center, which has a 4,500-square-foot ballroom and an adjoining 1,500-foot stage. The Cape Fox Lodge and Best Western Landing Hotel each hold up to 250 for events.

On the outer coast of the Inside Passage, winding waterways and dense forests surround scenic Sitka. Harrigan Centennial Hall overlooks Sitka Sound and houses a historical museum, wildlife display and 18,000 sq. ft.  of meeting space. Its main auditorium holds 500. Native artifacts and traditions take center stage at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House, which accommodates up to 300.

You’ll find plenty of spousal activities and post-trip options in Sitka, too. Start with displays that honor the region’s Native, Russian and American cultures at the Sitka National Historic Park, which includes the meticulously restored Russian Bishop’s House. Enjoy up-close access to bald eagles and other birds at the Alaska Raptor Center. Hiking, ATV and boat excursions are ideal for exploring and snapping photos of Mt. Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano that dominates the local skyline.
 

Interior: Fairbanks and Denali

Jennifer Jolis, director of meetings and conventions of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau (explorefairbanks.com), calls Fairbanks “the jumping off place for so much of the Alaska experience.”

“We have 24 hours of daylight in the summer; we have the high and low temperatures. People who come here are energized by the quality of light. It’s a very exciting place, with a spirit and warmth that set us apart,” she says.

Outings here include skiing, hiking and gold panning tours, plus opportunities to watch birds, polar bears and, of course, the northern lights. PAWS for Adventure’s dog-mushing classes make for a truly memorable team-building option. Riverboat Discovery’s summertime sternwheeler cruises take guests for a leisurely trip down the Chena and Tanana Rivers.

Fairbanks trades traditional convention center facilities for a selection of distinctive venues. The newest is the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, a riverfront facility celebrating the character and citizens of Alaska’s interior. Visitor information, a theater, classroom facilities and space for artisan demonstrations are among interior highlights.

A 35,000-square-foot arena and 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting facilities are offered at the Carlson Center, while the University of Alaska Museum of the North holds up to 800 reception guests. A narrow-gauge train, several museums, mini-golf and several restaurants surround 15,000 sq. ft. of meeting space at Fairbanks’ Pioneer Park.

Of the local hotels with function rooms, several stand out with exceptional amenities. The 105-degree waters at Chena Hot Springs Resort once soothed prospectors’ sore muscles. Today, guests soak in the springs, which generate geothermal power for the resort and heat greenhouses where produce flourishes year-round. Also on-site, the Aurora Ice Museum has intricate ice sculptures and martinis served in carved ice glasses. The 30,000-square-foot Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, at the Wedgewood Resort, offers event space and a scenic location adjacent to the 75-acre Wedgewood Wildlife Sanctuary.

When folks from the lower 48 think of Alaska, they often picture the diverse wildlife and majestic peaks of Denali National Park and Preserve. With herds of moose and caribou, curly-horned Dall rams and grizzly bears that feast on plump berries, plus more than 1,500 species of plants, lichens and mosses, the park’s living marvels alone impress. Add to that an assortment of glaciers, lakes and mountain streams, and the 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley (locally, North America’s highest peak is referred to as Denali or just “the mountain”), and you’ve got an awe-inspiring getaway.

The redesigned Eielson Visitor Center, which reopened in 2008, is one of several showcasing Denali’s history, ecology and highlights. Private vehicles are only allowed on 15 miles of the 90-mile Denali Park Road, but buses and trains make for easy exploration. A cluster of hotels sits near the park entrance, 120 miles south of Fairbanks. The McKinley Chalet Resort has 345 rooms and several dining venues. A dinner theater and outdoor hot tubs are among amenities at the 656-room Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.

Jolis says some groups fly into Anchorage and take the Alaska Railroad north, with a two- or three-day stop in Denali. Then, they end up in Fairbanks for their meeting. The train is a potential conference venue on the rails, as well.


   Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center, Anchorage.

“We’ve had groups who got two cars on the train and had their meeting on the way up from Anchorage to Fairbanks,” says Jolis, noting that train schedules vary by season. “It’s the most incredible scenery. The railroad goes where cars don’t run.”
 


Southcentral: Anchorage and Valdez

Recently, 700 American Association of Port Authorities conference delegates were treated to a formal evening on the Alaska Railroad.

“We chartered 20 rail cars with huge, panorama-view windows, and guests enjoyed a sit-down dinner as we traveled along Turnagain Arm,” says event planner Karen Zak. After dinner, attendees wandered through entertainment cars outfitted with live music, desserts and dancing. “It was spectacular. It was the highlight of our conference.”

Based at the Hilton Anchorage, the five-day convention also featured a last frontier-themed opening reception, tours and a salmon bake at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and a northern lights gala at Anchorage’s new Dena’ina Civic & Convention Center. Among the facility’s 200,000 sq. ft. of function space are a 50,000-square-foot exhibit hall, 25,000-square-foot mountain-view ballroom and heated outdoor deck. The Dena’ina Center also features enclosed access to the William A. Egan Convention Center and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, and ups the city’s convention capacity by 300%. Remarkable views and grand art installations, including one with 660 strands of beads and 4,000 pieces of stained glass, add to the allure.

“The new facility was designed with the idea that since attendees are in Alaska, they should see Alaska. The exhibit hall has huge windows and skylights, so there’s lots of natural light, and one whole wall of windows looks at the Chugach Mountains,” says Julie Dodds, director of convention sales for the Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau.


   Guestroom at Captain Hook.

A short stroll from the convention district is the 547-room Hotel Captain Cook, which recently completed $2 million in room upgrades and athletic club renovations. Nearby, the Sheraton Anchorage Hotel & Spa wrapped up a $15-million project that refreshed the business center and Ptarmigan Lounge, brought new flat-screen, high-definition televisions to all guest rooms and created a new steak and seafood restaurant. The property also introduced the new 5,500-square-foot Ice Spa. A 165-room Crowne Plaza Hotel opened in Anchorage last fall.

Forty miles down the road, the full-service Alyeska Resort has 15,000 sq. ft. of meeting facilities, chic chateau-style accommodations, a spa and fitness center and year-round skiing and recreation in the Chugach Mountains.

Set against those same mountains in Prince William Sound, the community of Valdez is pure backcountry beauty with glaciers, waterfalls, rivers and deepwater fjords. More than 300 inches of snow blanket Valdez each winter, while the average annual snowfall doubles just 30 miles away at Thompson Pass. With the arrival of warm spring temperatures, however, hiking, white-water rafting and fishing replace skiing, snowboarding and ice climbing.

The Valdez Convention & Civic Center accommodates groups of up to 450. A three-section ballroom and 487-seat theater are at the center of the 20,000-square-foot facility. Three conference rooms overlooking Port Valdez accommodate breakouts, and a commercial kitchen is available for catering.

For off-site meetings and spousal activities, the Valdez Museum & Historical Archive hosts receptions and tours of exhibits exploring the gold rush, the 1964 Alaska Earthquake and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, as well as Native culture and Alaska’s first highway. Art, artifacts and dramatic wildlife mounts fill the Maxine & Jesse Whitney Museum at Prince William Sound Community College. Pangea Adventures leads kayak trips, glacier hikes and multiday backpacking excursions in the Chugach Mountains and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve.
 

Distant Destinations: Fox Island, Kodiak and Nome

For a more edge-of-the-world experience, consider one of the state’s more secluded destinations. Southwest of Valdez, about 45 minutes from Seward by boat, Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge occupies prime Fox Island waterfront. The three-square-mile island in Resurrection Bay, near Kenai Fjords National Park, houses a day lodge that holds up to 300 guests and a wilderness lodge that accommodates 22 for board meetings and executive work sessions. Facilities are available between mid-May and mid-September.

Small groups can sleep on the island in comfortable television- and telephone-free cabins. Larger conventions often overnight at the Seward Windsong Lodge, a 180-room property that recently introduced a new 120-person conference room. From there, they travel to Fox Island by catamaran. Popular island meeting packages include a lunch buffet with wild Alaskan salmon, prime rib or Alaskan King Crab, plus kayak outings, rock-skipping contests, wildlife viewing and beach combing.

“Fox Island has a 24- to 27-foot tide change every 24 hours, so you’ll see sea stars and jellyfish washed up on shore,” says Lisa Frye, sales and marketing manager for Ciri Alaska Tourism. “It’s quite common to see river otters and sea otters. Orcas swim right along the cove and the beach.”

Brown bears are the big draw on Kodiak Island, in the Gulf of Alaska. The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge covers two-thirds of the island; the Kodiak Island Convention & Visitors Bureau connects groups with outfitters who run bear-viewing excursions. Lush hills and bustling harbors surround this small port city, which shakes off winter with the lively Kodiak Crab Festival each May.

Kodiak’s Best Western and Comfort Inn offer harbor- and river-view event rooms. Additional meeting venues here include the Fishery Industrial Technology Center and the United States Coast Guard’s Golden Anchor banquet facility.

About 100 miles from the Arctic Circle, Nome is classic, remote Alaska, complete with reindeer, gold panning, Eskimo villages and more than 21 hours of daylight on the year’s longest day. The annual Iditarod sled dog race finishes here, so several small inns stand ready to host spectators and visitors who venture north to explore unspoiled wilderness. The 54-room Aurora Inn & Suites seats 50 in a 600-square-foot conference room. Larger groups can book Pioneer Hall, which has a 250-person capacity.

Downtown, the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum chronicles the region’s past. Nome Discovery Tours leads excursions focused on Native culture, Gold Rush history and flora and fauna. The June Midnight Sun Festival celebrates the solstice, and the community draws avid bird watchers in July, says Mitch Erickson, head of the Nome Convention & Visitors Bureau. The bureau website suggests activities by season, directing guests to annual events, outdoor recreation, mining displays and historic landmarks.

Erickson recommends visiting during the April–May and September–October shoulder seasons.

“April is my favorite time here,” Erickson says. “There is no wind, we have 18 hours of sunshine and it’s not so beastly cold—but it’s still below 30, so you can still go outside for snowmobiling, dog sledding, skiing and fishing for King Crab through the ice.”

Freelance writer Renee Brincks lived in Iowa, Alaska, Australia and Spain before settling in California, where she writes for travel and lifestyle publications.

For more information on properties, venues and attractions in Alaska, visit smartmeetings.com/showcases/alaska.