Convening in the Arctic
Event planners, conference organizers discuss Alaska and conventions
By Vanessa Orr

laska is a bucket-list destination, making it the perfect place to host a meeting or convention. But while planners certainly won’t have any issues getting people interested in the location, there are factors that need to be taken into consideration when planning to bring a large group to the 49th state.“While the demand curve is consistent in Fairbanks and for the state of Alaska, planners do need to remember that it is a long-haul destination,” explains Helen Renfrew, director of meetings and conventions for Explore Fairbanks. “It is a fair bit away, and it takes a lot to get to us. If you need to ship things up, it takes a little longer to get from Dubuque, Iowa, to Fairbanks, Alaska.

“On the plus side, you get all the benefits of traveling internationally without worrying about needing a passport or having to exchange money,” she adds. “And the weather can play in your favor; a lot of people get excited about the opportunity to meet in a place where it gets really cold.

“The best meetings take place when it’s -30˚F,” she laughs. “No one is skipping out to go shopping. Everyone hangs out in the restaurants and bars, which make for prime off-time networking opportunities.”

Selling the State

People come from all over the nation and the world to attend meetings in Alaska, but groups also come from in-state too. According to Renfrew, approximately 60 percent of the meetings hosted in Fairbanks are for in-state groups, with 20 percent regional and national, and 20 percent international groups.

“We have a fairly high international percentage for the size of our community, but that is because many of our guests are connected to the university and circumpolar groups,” she explains. “We really take a localized focus on bringing meetings to Fairbanks because we find that our best ROI comes when someone local agrees to invite a group that they are affiliated with. We call these people our Golden Heart Meeting Ambassadors, and most of our meetings come to us through that method.”

Collaboration is the name of the game when it comes to selling any individual destination or the state as a whole.

“While in-state meetings are not a focus of our marketing efforts, we do partner with regional destination marketing organizations like Visit Anchorage, Explore Fairbanks, and Travel Juneau to help highlight the state and add value to what they are doing,” says Sarah Leonard, president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA). “We’re happy to provide our state vacation planner, or other resources they need, to help them promote the area to meeting planners and convention groups who are looking for information—for example, for pre- or post tours.”

“The best meetings take place when it’s -30˚F,” she laughs. “No one is skipping out to go shopping. Everyone hangs out in the restaurants and bars, which make for prime off-time networking opportunities.”
Helen Renfrew, Director of Meetings and Conventions, Explore Fairbanks

Leonard gives the example of when Visit Anchorage approached the Adventure Travel Trade Association for its world summit a couple of years ago. “We partnered to provide information and to promote Alaska as a statewide destination,” says Leonard. “Though the group was going to meet in Anchorage, Visit Anchorage really promoted other opportunities beyond the city for attendees to experience a statewide perspective.”

As part of the Alaska Destination Marketing program, ATIA hosts the Alaska Media Road Show in Las Vegas, in which they invite specific media representatives and individual tourism companies to learn more about the Last Frontier. “Our goal is to get them to follow this up with a visit to Alaska so that they will write stories that highlight the state as a destination,” says Leonard.

ATIA also hosts its own meetings and events for members, with an annual industry convention and trade show rotating between Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau each year.

“We work with each community to bring our attendees to that event, which can attract between 400 and 700 people,” she says. “We also sometimes travel to smaller communities; for example, two years ago, we met in Kodiak. Because some folks in the tourism industry had never been to Kodiak, it was super easy to get them excited, and we provided them with information on experiences that they could have beyond attending the conference. This adds even more value to our community partners.”

Planning 101

While there are many facets to hosting a successful convention the first and probably most important tip for planners is to allow enough time to get everything in place.

“Timelines vary; sometimes we hear from a planner who says that they need a place next week, and others may plan three to four years out,” says Renfrew.

After receiving a lead or request for proposal, Explore Fairbanks will compile a group’s information and send it out to its partners, which range from transportation companies and meeting spaces to hotels and caterers. Once that information is complete, it is sent to the meeting planner, who selects the businesses that they think will work best for them.

“We don’t get involved in negotiations, but we are available for assistance and to answer questions,” says Renfrew.

The organization also has materials on its website ( that are helpful for planners who may be arranging meetings on a volunteer or “voluntold” basis.

“While in-state meetings are not a focus of our marketing efforts, we do partner with regional destination marketing organizations like Visit Anchorage, Explore Fairbanks, and Travel Juneau to help highlight the state and add value to what they are doing.”
Sarah Leonard, President/CEO Alaska Travel Industry Association

“We have different PDFs to help, which range from a list of the services that a meeting will require to translating what different things mean in a contract,” says Renfrew. “We explain what a hotel means when they talk about ‘crescent rounds or banquet style.’ We also include a very comprehensive checklist, which really gives planners a great place to start.”

Planners are wise to talk to convention and visitor bureaus early, as they can help take some of the pressure off planning a meeting long-distance. “We can connect planners with the paid staff, local volunteers, and businesses that they need,” says Renfrew. “We are their boots on the ground.”

While many meeting and convention planners first work with convention and visitor bureaus to decide whether an Alaska location is right for them, once the decision is made, it’s important to have an open line of communication with local facilities as well.

“We attract people who are willing to travel and who like the idea of being in the wilderness with all of the creature comforts.”
Helen Renfrew, Director of Meetings and Conventions, Explore Fairbanks
Greg Spears, general manager of the Anchorage Convention Centers, operated by SMG, and Phyllis Rice, the director of sales and marketing, work closely with clients who have booked meetings and conventions in the Dena’ina Civic & Convention Center and the William A. Egan Civic & Convention Center.

“SMG operates 242 venues around the world and is the largest public facilities management company on the planet, so meeting planners have a comfort level when they come to Anchorage because many of them are familiar with the level of service we provide,” says Spears. “They realize that they’re not coming to a place where people are living in igloos and using dial-up.”

According to Spears, the conference centers hosted four conventions last year, though some years that number might be as high as twelve. The Anchorage convention and visitor bureaus usually book the longer term, multi-day conventions, which have a huge economic impact on the area.

“A few weeks ago we had 3,100 delegates in for KDD, a robotics, computer programming, and data mining convention; they had to actually shut off registration because so many people wanted to come,” says Spears, estimating that the conference and its pre- and post tours had an approximately $5 million economic impact.

“One thing that attendees should definitely think about when they consider coming to a conference in Alaska is that they’re going to want to extend their stay and probably also bring family members because there are so many activities here that they can do before or after the event,” says Rice.

“Planners should come to the facility prior to the event and do a familiarization tour so that they know all that there is to do and can share it with their members,” she adds. “They should plan to stay four or five days and visit the hotels, convention centers, and local businesses.”

As for why they should choose Anchorage and Alaska, Spears says the landscape speaks for itself.

“If you were looking out the window this morning at my view, you would know the answer,” he laughs. “Dena’ina has the most scenic views of any convention center in the world, with a panoramic view of the Chugach Mountains.”

Functionality is important as well, and planners should take advantage of the expertise of facility managers to make sure that the sites can be designed to fit meeting needs. For example, the Dena’ina Center, at nearly 200,000 square feet, can fit 274 10-by-10-foot exhibition booths and also has a ballroom, six meeting rooms, and flexible, combinable space. The Egan Center, at 45,000 square feet, has the ability to fit 134 8-by-10-foot exhibition booths, as well as fourteen different spaces that can be configured into different rooms of varying size.

“We work really hard to keep the lines of communication flowing; not just with meeting and convention planners but with the local restaurants, parking facilities, and more to let them know about how many people will be in the building at any given time and whether they are local or from out of state,” says Spears.

He adds that while the number of conventions has not increased on average, the size of conventions has steadily been inching upwards. “We see far greater attendance at conventions that involve wildlife, nature, and tourism,” he says. “And because of our location on the Pacific Rim, we are also seeing an increase in the number of attendees from the Orient.

“With the amount of lift available into Anchorage and the reasonable airfares—and the number of hotel rooms that we have for a city of this size—I can’t imagine why anyone would book a convention in Peoria,” he adds.Renfrew agrees that Alaska has the room to host larger conventions, as well as the expertise.

“The Fairbanks community has all the expected services for larger conferences and conventions, while still embodying the mystique of Alaska by being so close to the frontier and wilderness,” she says. “The only thing we don’t advise is having a meeting here if your members don’t want to go anywhere colder than 70˚F—we are not the market for them.”

In October, Fairbanks hosted the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference and the Alaska Federation of Natives’ annual convention—the largest convention in the state—both in the same week. The First Alaskans conference attracted between 800 and 1,200 people; the AFN conference, roughly 4,000 to 5,000 participants.

The borough has also hosted a couple of different gardeners’ conferences focused on the region’s unique growing season; the National Railway Historical Society, whose members wanted to study the steam-operated narrow gauge rail in Pioneer Park; and the North American Mycological Association, who were interested in the area’s mushroom-growing environment.

“We attract people who are willing to travel and who like the idea of being in the wilderness with all of the creature comforts,” says Renfrew. “And we want to make getting them here as easy on the planners as possible.”

ATIA Convention
ATIA hosts its own annual industry convention and trade show each year, rotating between Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. The event attracts between 400 and 700 people.