Meetings & Conventions
Vanessa Orr
Explore Fairbanks Pulls Off Bucket-list Conference
More than 70 travel journalists learn more about the Last Frontier
By Vanessa Orr

hile conferences take a lot of planning, it’s not often that such an event—even in Alaska—is four years in the making. But the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) conference, held this past May in Fairbanks, seemingly went off without a hitch—a pleasure for more than seventy journalists and destination marketing organizations (DMOs) that attended.

2 women on a bus smiling
Vanessa Orr
The logistics of getting writers and photographers from all across the United States and Canada to the Golden Heart City was a feat in itself; entertaining them and teaching them about all that Fairbanks and surrounding areas had to offer for five days—plus pre- and post-trips—added even more challenges. The goal for the event was to provide journalists with such memorable experiences that they would go out and spread the word about why travelers should make this epic journey—and the city’s DMO, Explore Fairbanks, delivered.

According to Helen Hernandez, NATJA CEO, choosing Fairbanks turned out to be the right decision. “We look for locations where journalists will get a unique experience that they might not otherwise get,” she says. In past years the annual conference has been held in Shreveport, Louisiana; Syracuse, New York; Branson, Missouri; Oxnard, California; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. “These may not be destinations that people normally think about going to until they’ve been there,” Hernandez adds.

The conference not only lets journalists level up their professional skills but presents the host city as a subject for their writing. “Taking travel media to these destinations provides them with the opportunity to write about these cities, which in turn, helps tourism within those areas,” Hernandez says. “A lot of these cities, like Fairbanks, are hidden gems.”

Explore Fairbanks had been a member of NATJA for years and thought that inviting journalists to the 49th State would benefit its marketing efforts.

“Our staff had traveled to past NATJA conferences and found value in the group, and we knew it was a size we could host,” says Kasey Gillam, director of communications at Explore Fairbanks. “The fact that it was a 75-to-100-person conference was doable for us, and knowing that travel writers would be showcasing the best of Fairbanks and sharing their stories with their readers and followers would allow us to reap the benefits.”

As a journalist who attended this conference and formerly lived in Alaska, I was impressed by how much effort went into highlighting the wonders of the Last Frontier. The experiences offered—from gold panning and riding a riverboat to visiting with sled dogs, sampling food and beverages made in Alaska, and watching a dance performance by Indigenous Alaskans—were an immersive and impressive way to introduce those from Outside to everything Alaska.

Putting the Plan in Place
The conference was originally supposed to take place in March of 2021 so that writers could enjoy the aurora borealis season, but it was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When it finally came time to welcome the writers, Explore Fairbanks chose to focus on midnight sun season instead.

“Instead of a wintertime conference, we decided to go for the start of Midnight Sun season and host NATJA the third week of May,” says Scott McCrea, president and CEO of Explore Fairbanks. “While we have conferences in the winter all of the time, it does add another layer of logistics.”

McCrea laughs as he recalls concerns about the weather. “Old Man Winter stuck around until the first week of May, and we were getting pretty nervous. Over the next two weeks, the temperatures got warmer, and the entire week of the conference, we couldn’t have asked for better conditions. We hope that helped add to the quality of the experience,” he says.

“The fact that it was a 75-to-100-person conference was doable for us, and knowing that travel writers would be showcasing the best of Fairbanks and sharing their stories with their readers and followers would allow us to reap the benefits.”
Kasey Gillam,
Director of Communications, Explore Fairbanks
The Alaska Railroad was a natural partner with Explore Fairbanks, carrying attendees back to the conference after a day trip to Denali National Park and Preserve.

Vanessa Orr

A man and woman smiling while on the bus
2 woman smiling for the camera
Panning for gold with Gold Daughters was a highlight for travel journalists visiting Fairbanks.

Vanessa Orr

While a little wind or rain wouldn’t have been a big deal, the fact that the Chena River was still partially frozen was a big concern. One of the main activities scheduled was a ride on the Riverboat Discovery and a visit to the Chena Village Living Museum, with a stop on the water to visit with Dave Monson and his dog team at Susan Butcher’s Trail Breaker Kennel team on shore.

As it turned out, that event was one of the highlights of the conference, as journalists not only got to enjoy breathtaking views but also to learn more about Athabascan life through information shared by Indigenous Alaskans who demonstrated their culture and traditions to the rapt audience.

“When people think of Alaska, a lot of their perceptions have to do with the great outdoors, the Last Frontier, and Mother Nature,” says McCrea. “But we wanted to highlight the human part, too, especially since we’re known as the Golden Heart City. We wanted to showcase our hospitality as well as the people who live here, and that includes introducing those who attended to the rich and diverse culture of the Alaska Native people.”

A trip to the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center provided writers with even more opportunities to learn about Indigenous culture, and a special dance performance by an Indigenous dance troupe—which included learning the moves to a traditional song—had them dancing in the aisles. A catered dinner at the venue also gave them the opportunity to sample local delicacies.

close up of husky
Travel journalists were introduced to an authentic Alaska sled dog at the annual conference in May.

Vanessa Orr

Sled dogs outside on the grass
“I expect to see a lot of stories coming out of the experience, and not just the same old, ‘I went there, here’s what it cost, here’s where I stayed, and here’s what to expect’… This experience was so unique that I think we’ll see more in-depth stories filled with the heart and soul of what the experience was.”
Helen Hernandez
North American Travel Journalists Association
From Gold Panning to the Great One
While all of the conference attendees were associated with North American travel, in some cases that was all they had in common. Each writer or photographer was looking for those stories that would interest their particular audiences and outlets, which meant that Explore Fairbanks needed to offer a number of options when scheduling FAM (familiarization) tours.

“What we ended up with was a diversity of activities to showcase not just the Fairbanks region but a huge geographic scope that stretched 200 miles north to the Arctic and 150 miles south to Denali National Park,” says McCrea. Pre- and post-trips scheduled around the conference week included an Arctic Circle Midnight Sun Drive Adventure and Arctic Circle Fly Drive Adventure with Northern Alaska Tour Company; an afternoon at Chena Hot Springs Resort; and an overnight at the Lodge at Black Rapids.

During the conference itself, guests could choose from an array of events around town, including gold panning with the experts at Gold Daughters; a visit to the University of Alaska Museum of the North and UAF Geophysical Institute; a Midnight Sun pub crawl featuring HooDoo Brewing Company, Latitude 65 Brewing Company, and Fairbanks Distilling Company; and a guided walk through the taiga with reindeer at Running Reindeer Ranch.

Conference goers also got to experience an impressive cocktail hour among vintage clothes and cars at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum and participate in a dine-around that included Lavelle’s Bistro, The Pump House, Big Daddy’s BarB-Q Alaska, and Lemongrass Thai Cuisine. A closing night dinner at Wedgewood Resort even included a special appearance by Santa, direct from the Santa Claus House in North Pole!

“Our business partners were amazing; they came through in droves on the pre- and post- conference tours and afternoon tours. Everyone was really warm and accommodating when we said we wanted to bring travel writers to meet them,” says Gillam. “We couldn’t have done it without the support of our business partners who opened their doors early, stayed open late, and thought outside the box to make this the best experience possible.”

McCrea agrees. “Fortunately, our business partners understand the value of a conference like this and what it could mean for their business and this destination. It didn’t take a lot of arm-twisting to get them on board,” he says. “It comes down to hometown pride. They were all more than happy to showcase their tours and products to a great group of travel journalists.”

woman wearing red
man standing next to boats steering
By inviting travel journalists to experience attractions like Chena Village Living Museum and Riverboat Discovery, Explore Fairbanks benefits from word-of-mouth marketing.

Vanessa Orr

woman holding fish
So Many Stories
On the final day, which included a bus ride to Denali National Park & Preserve, attendees had the opportunity to hike the Mountain Vista Trail, watch a sled-dog demonstration, and try—successfully—to catch a glimpse of Denali, The Great One—as it emerged majestically from behind smaller snow-covered mountains. The return trip to Fairbanks was provided by the Alaska Railroad, which included dinner, drinks, and stunning scenery.

“There were so many opportunities to explore, from the art shops in downtown Fairbanks to panning for gold at Gold Daughters,” says Donna Adinolfi, founder of Mindful Adventures, a wellness-focused travel planning website. “My favorite experience on this bucket-list journey was going to Denali National Park and getting a glimpse of 20,310-foot Denali, North America’s tallest peak. It certainly puts things in perspective.”

Like Denali, more and more stories began to emerge as journalists took part in different activities. A visit to the Gold Daughters, for example, not only introduced writers to the gold panning experience but enabled them to see a massive array of mammoth tusks and Ice Age fossils, which were found while panning for gold on the company’s land.

“The exhilaration of shaking, swirling, and sifting through water, dirt, and gravel, uncovering glimmers of gold, and feeling like a modern-day prospector made it an adventure I’ll never forget,” says Liz Mays of North Carolina, who documents her travels on her website, Get Lost in the USA. “Gold panning in Alaska was an absolute thrill!”

According to Hernandez, NATJA was pleased with the activities provided to attendees, and members are still raving about the experience. “We heard the term ‘bucket-list trip’ a lot,” she laughs.

“I expect to see a lot of stories coming out of the experience, and not just the same old, ‘I went there, here’s what it cost, here’s where I stayed, and here’s what to expect,’” she adds. “This experience was so unique that I think we’ll see more in-depth stories filled with the heart and soul of what the experience was—something you don’t normally get from traditional travel stories.”

According to Gillam, while NATJA members overwhelmingly enjoyed the activities, the local businesses who provided them seemed to benefit as well.

“Everyone had a great experience with the groups that were at their businesses,” she says. “The groups were very courteous and respectful of everyone’s time, and they were invested in the experiences. They spent time talking to fifth-generation river boat captain Wade Binkley about his experiences, for example, and talking to the owners of Gold Daughters about their business. They spent time learning more about the people themselves, rather than just showing up, doing the tour, and leaving.”

Gillam has collected some resoundingly positive comments. “I have thank you cards and emails from journalists who wrote to tell me they enjoyed the tours and especially enjoyed the weather—which was miraculously awesome for the conference,” she says. “Many people also mentioned that they enjoyed being here during green up, and they hope to come back to see the aurora or visit during the winter.”

The reporters become the reported, as journalists ride a bus from Fairbanks to Denali National Park & Preserve.

Vanessa Orr

several people smiling for a photo on the bus
What Happens Next
Now that the NATJA members have returned home, many will be posting their experiences on their own sites as well as pitching stories to the media worldwide.

“We do our best to keep track of what our members do so that when we send the Request for Proposal out, we can include impressions of media exposure,” says Hernandez. “We’re not just there and gone; we take it seriously with our partners in regards to what their ROI [return on investment] is.”

She adds that within a couple weeks of the conference, there were already numerous stories online about the writers’ experiences in Fairbanks, Denali, and the Arctic Circle, and there were more to come.

“We’re hoping to see great stories come out of this,” says McCrea. “We work with travel journalists all the time, and any journalist who comes through here tells us that the problem isn’t deciding what to write about but what not to write about. We’re also hoping to see new angles—not just the tried-and-true travel stories but the stories of the people who live, work, and play here year-round.”

As a DMO, that’s precisely what Explore Fairbanks lives for. “The reason we do this is that stories entice other visitors to come here, and if we get great coverage that brings people here, we’ll be happy with that,” McCrea says. “Knowing that we represent such an amazing destination that is so well appreciated is also a reward as well.”