PUBLISHED: 6:06 PM on Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Small businesses missed out on millions this year
A business marketing consultant masquerading as a tourism guide offers an outsider's opinion on tourism spending in Alaska's capital city
Editor's note: This is the first of a three part series. Look for part two in next week's CCW.

A community develops over time with hard work by a lot of people. People working together and sometimes struggling with each other builds a certain sense of community.

illustration by Lawrence Diggs
  Tourists are shown loading onto buses heading to the Mendenhall Glacier and other Juneau tourism hot spots.
The community may not have the most beautiful buildings or tree-lined streets, but it possesses its own unique charm. It may be slow by some people's clock, but it has its own rhythm, and somehow things get done. It may not be monetarily rich, but it is rich in human experience and relationships. Somehow it finds that certain balance that defines it as a community.

And then, something or someone, by either accident or design, disrupts the balance.

Tourism, as much as it is beneficial to the economy, can and does disrupt the dance of Juneau. Some people benefit enormously from this disruption, some realize moderate benefit, many do not understand how they benefit, and some actually don't benefit at all.

As a micro business marketing consultant masquerading as an operator and guide for Discover Alaska Tours, I can see firsthand that many small businesses are watching millions of dollars flow right past them. They are experiencing the pressure of out-of-town businesses, with the other stores' markup prices pushing them out of business by increasing fixed operating cost. They have watched their friends be forced to leave their community because they cannot find a way to level the playing field.

illustration by Lawrence Diggs
  Tourists stop by a tourism booth next to the cruise ship terminal in downtown Juneau.
Juneau store owners are trying to fight back with promotional programs to direct tourists to Alaskan family-owned businesses, but their spokespeople have not learned how to deliver this message without sounding like whiners.

There are areas where the out-of-towners would be at a competitive disadvantage, but the local businesses have not discovered how to exploit these opportunities.

The cruise ship companies desperately need things only the local people can deliver, but many of the local people have not recognized or exploited many of these opportunities.

It is indeed sad that more Juneau residents are not reaping more of the benefits from the tourist industry. Judging from the many signs in the windows of businesses, complaints heard on the street, and people begging tourists to support locally-owned businesses, there is a painful awareness that the residents of Juneau are getting left out.

Out-of-towners, like me, are eating the lunch of local residents while they sit enviously on the sidelines. We swoop in from the lower 48 states and even foreign countries, size up the market, suck in the money, and leave in the wake of the last tourist ship.

Much of that money could and should be in the hands of local residents at the end of the tourist season. I'm going to offer a few observations as to why I think this problem persists and try to point out a few tactics that should be doable by most micro businesses.

At the core of any tactics I suggest has to be the notion of excellent customer service. It doesn't matter how much money you spend on an advertising campaign or how nice you fix up your shop, if you don't have good customer service that money will be wasted

To demonstrate the weakness in this area I want to point to a few personal experiences.

As I was planning to come to Juneau, I phoned a number of businesses, including the U.S. Postal Service, seeking to do business with them. Though I called during normal business hours I got a machine. I left messages with all of them with a toll-free number for a response. Not one of them returned my call. It is important to note here that my calls were specific and I clearly mentioned my intent to spend money with these enterprises.

I wanted to buy a product from one of the major department stores but was having a difficult time finding it in the store. I asked one of the employees where I could find the product, and he pointed down the aisle and said, "Over there somewhere." When I indicated that I couldn't see exactly where he was pointing and certainly couldn't see the item I was looking for, he sucked his teeth in disapproval and then walked down the aisle and around a corner to show me where the item should have been. Since they didn't have the item I was looking for, I asked for rain check and to be notified when the item was in stock again. I never received that telephone call.

Not returning phone calls seems to be a cultural thing in Juneau. And if maintaining this cultural feature is more important than getting more business, you don't need to change that.

The tourist business is all about customer service. If the residents of Juneau are going to compete for the tourist dollars, improvement in customer service has to be high on the list of things to improve.

Next week: Contrary to local mythology, the cruise ship companies need local people to succeed and benefit from the tourists they bring to Juneau.