The Superlative State

Hotels & Destinations

According to planners, the state also draws record numbers for meetings. “For the majority of meetings and conventions that come to Alaska, attendance is higher than normal,” says Toni Walker, president of Logistics, LLC, a convention and meeting management company based in Anchorage. “It’s not just a meeting. It’s a destination that people have on their bucket list. It’s an opportunity for them to come with their family and spend pre- or post-days enjoying Alaska.”

Citing research from the Alaska Travel Industry Association, Walker says that most visitors come to the Frontier State in search of three particular sights: mountains, glaciers and wildlife. The state offers much more, of course—Native Alaskan culture, exotic culinary indulgences, historical attractions and recreational adventures, for starters.

When Walker plans meetings and incentives for clients, she aims to include it all. That means chartering helicopters to carry guests, gear and guides to remote riverfront lodges for white-water rafting trips and salmon bakes. Or flying tents and tables to the top of a glacier and hosting high-end luncheons followed by dog-sledding tours. Or reserving Alaska Railroad dome cars and transporting guests from Anchorage to Seward to catch a wildlife-watching cruise before cocktails and a crab dinner on Fox Island.

Whatever the audience and whatever the interest, Alaska has an option.

“Alaska has everything to offer for everyone, and I truly believe that,” Walker says. “From family-oriented activities, we have it all.”

Denali & Fairbanks

Dynamic beauty and diverse wildlife make Denali National Park and Preserve one of Alaska’s most treasured—and most visited—destinations. Stop at the visitor center for an introduction, and then head out to explore. With some 200 types of birds and mammals and more than 1,500 plant species, plus glaciers, forests and the magnificent Mount McKinley, the park is the highlight of many an Alaskan adventure.

Visitors often choose Denali as a pre- or post-trip addition to meetings in Alaska. Lodging inside the park is limited, but nearby campgrounds, cabins and resorts provide plenty of convenient options. Set on a ridge on the south side of Mount McKinley 113 miles north of Anchorage, the 212-room Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge has mountain-view outdoor venues and three indoor meeting spaces that accommodate up to 170 for receptions. From mid-May to mid-September, the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge offers easy park access and several dining and entertainment choices.

Staying in Fairbanks, 120 miles north of Denali, is another option. From there, travelers take a four-hour Alaska Railroad journey to the park. Passing through deep canyons and dense forests, the train ride is an unforgettable experience. And Fairbanks welcomes guests with small-town friendliness and rustic charm.

   Northern Lights, Fairbanks.

“People choose to meet in Fairbanks when they want more of an authentically Alaskan experience,” explains Helen Renfrew, meetings and conventions director at the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. She says the destination really suits groups with a connection to the landscape: sustainable energy and fossil fuel professionals, earthquake and volcano researchers, cold-weather growers and those coming to view the aurora borealis.

Fairbanks also pleases planners looking for a bargain. Values abound in the fall, winter and spring, when prices for the city’s 3,300 hotel rooms are sometimes 50% less than in the summer. Even the high season can be a steal for groups with flexibility.

“Our pattern in the summer generally leaves space available on Fridays and Saturdays,” says Renfrew. “If it’s the kind of meeting that’s going to be here just a couple of days and they have enough flexibility, we’re finding that Friday and Saturday nights offer some steep discounts on standard summer rates.”

The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center has introduced a new exhibit hall spotlighting life in the Alaska Interior, and the center’s theater, classroom and conference spaces hold up to 350 for receptions. A fresh alternative for off-site events is the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum at Wedgewood Resort. The 30,000-square-foot facility displays 60 vintage vehicles along with period fashions and historical artifacts.

South Central: Anchorage & Valdez

Because so many people dream of visiting Alaska, it makes sense to hold meetings here, says Julie Dodds, director of convention sales for the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau. The destination has several distinct advantages.

“You have your meeting, and you offer delegates something different and exciting, while still being affordable and in the United States,” she says. “We offer the best of both worlds.”

In Anchorage, the best of both worlds also means big-city event facilities bordered by spectacular natural beauty. The 200,000-square-foot Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center opened in late 2008, and has floor-to-ceiling windows, skylights and views of the Chugach Mountains. Alaska Native artwork and modern design distinguish three levels of ballrooms and meeting venues; a 50,000-square-foot exhibit hall holds nearly 300 trade-show booths or seats 5,000 theater-style. Recent interior renovations updated Anchorage’s other main facility, the William A. Egan Civic and Convention Center, a venue with 45,000 sq. ft. of versatile function space.

Downtown Anchorage has more than 3,000 hotel rooms, many in the four main convention properties: the 547-room Hotel Captain Cook, 600-room Hilton Anchorage, 390-room Anchorage Marriott Downtown and 370-room Sheraton Anchorage Hotel and Spa. Steps away are endless cultural and recreational outings.

“What’s nice about Anchorage is that you can experience Alaska whether you have one day, three days, five days or seven days. It just depends on how far out you want to go,” Dodds says.

For starters, the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center opened its new Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center last year. It features 600 never-before-displayed artifacts. Nearby, the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail stretches 11 miles from downtown to Kincaid Park, and a new audio tour by Lifetime Adventures Alaska details sites along the way. Salmon Berry Tours’ two-hour Chocolate City Circuit showcases the city’s sweet side with a tour and truffle tastings. The company is also among several operating outdoor excursions in the area.

Attendees save by meeting in Anchorage in the off-season, Dodds says, and groups convening in March might catch the start of the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Winter also attracts guests to Alyeska Resort, 40 miles from Anchorage, where 1,400 skiable acres, 304 guest rooms, a spa, several restaurants and 24,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space await.

Valdez is tucked along a deepwater fjord in picturesque Prince William Sound, a 300-mile drive east of Anchorage. Adventure tours keep visitors busy here, as do exhibits at the Valdez Museum & Historical Archive.

   Alaska Railroad.

New theater seats were part of renovations completed at the 20,000-square-foot Valdez Civic Center in March. The facility seats up to 450 and has exhibit, ballroom and reception spaces. A covered outdoor venue at the city’s John Kelsey Municipal Dock is also available for summer banquets and events.

Southeast: Inside Passage (Juneau, Sitka & Ketchikan)

Juneau is just a two-hour flight from Seattle, five hours from Chicago and seven hours from Orlando, and that makes Alaska’s capital city a convenient point of entry for exploring.

“Groups that meet here have very easy access to all those iconic Alaskan experiences,” says Ken Hill, convention sales manager for the Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau. “This is particularly important for people who are attending from out of state for national or regional events.”

Surrounded by the Tongass National Forest and a 1,500-square-mile glacial ice field, Juneau earns headlines for its remarkable landscapes. The Mendenhall Glacier is a top stop, and guests take the Mount Roberts Tramway to private events at 1,800 feet. Alaska Powder Descents’ winter heli-ski outings and Alaska Zipline Adventures’ canopy tour are two of the area’s most exciting new alternatives for team-building outings.

Juneau’s downtown is friendly for those traveling on foot, and many whale-watching, dog-sledding and fishing tours depart from the docks here. Centennial Hall Convention Center is Juneau’s major gathering point for groups. It has four meeting rooms, and its 12,389-square-foot Sheffield Ballroom can be divided into three separate venues.

Many inns and eateries have event space as well, including the Hangar on the Wharf, Prospector Hotel and Westmark Baranof Hotel, as do the Alaska State Museum, Glacier Gardens and other cultural favorites.

Hill dispels the myth that summer cruise ships mean a shortage of visitor opportunities in Juneau.

“The people who are on the cruise ships sleep on [them], and they leave every night. A lot of people don’t look at summer events here because they’re concerned about access to hotel rooms, but that’s not really a problem,” he says, adding that discounted rates are common in September, October and November.

Nearby, the small towns of Skagway and Haines celebrate local culture, gold rush history and wildlife with an array of enticing tours and museums.
Sitka, also small and stunning, was once the capital of Russian America and retains that character in several of its architectural gems. Native Tlingit culture is evident in totem displays at Alaska’s oldest national park, Sitka National Historical Park, and at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House, which welcomes groups for dance performances and presentations.

Sitka is set along the Pacific Ocean side of the Inside Passage. The city’s waterfront meeting facility, Harrigan Centennial Hall, has a 500-seat auditorium and several smaller venues for dinners and board retreats. Off-site alternatives include the Alaska Raptor Center and the Sheldon Jackson Museum.

    Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center, Anchorage.

Down south in the Inside Passage, the 4,500-square-foot Ted Ferry Civic Center in Ketchikan serves as a central meeting point for groups. Highlights include a stage overlooking 550 seats, plus conference and pre-function spaces with wide windows and high ceilings. Meeting delegates at the Sunny Point Conference Center in the Best Western Landing Hotel enjoy complimentary wireless Internet access and two on-site restaurants.

When business is done for the day, Ketchikan offers harbor tours, sea kayaking, floatplane trips to Misty Fjords National Monument and more. Fans of the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch can climb aboard the Aleutian Ballad, a crab boat that appeared on the show, for a fishing trip off the Ketchikan coast. As they learn about the local fishing industry, participants might also spot whales, seals and bald eagles.

Worth the Journey: Kodiak

For quintessential Alaska, complete with brown bears, stunning water vistas and beautiful wilderness, fly or ferry to picturesque Kodiak. The town is rich with Alutiiq, Russian and military history—all three of which you can explore at the Baranov Museum. Alaska’s largest island is also an outdoor paradise for meetings.

“We’re good for groups who like to have some extracurricular activities,” says Susan Johnson, Kodiak Island Convention & Visitors Bureau board member and general manager of the Best Western Kodiak Inn.

Outdoor fun here includes kayaking local coves and channels, biking in Fort Abercrombie State Park, hiking, walking along the harbor, tidepooling, salt-water fishing and heading out on all-terrain vehicles. Several operators run bear-viewing trips to Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, which covers two-thirds of the island and is home to more than 3,000 bears.

Back in town, several of Kodiak’s community venues accommodate groups of 100 people or fewer. For larger get-togethers, the 3,200-square-foot Harbor Pavilion Room at the Kodiak Harbor Convention Center holds up to 450 in theater-style setups or 270 at seated rounds. The facility, which opened next to the Kodiak Inn in 2009, also has two smaller venues and offers water and mountain views.

Johnson advises meeting planners to book Kodiak events at least a year in advance, and she recommends looking for budget-friendly rates between November and April. Depending on the day, skies during that season might be snowy, rainy, chilly or clear.

“There’s definitely a mix of everything, but we’re fairly temperate, so we stay warmer than other Alaskan communities,” says Johnson.

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