“Our staff migrates with the whales—literally,” says Brent Bitterman, President & COO of Alaska Luxury Tours, which earned a 5-star Trip Advisor rating after just two summers in business. While COVID did not stop the whale migration, it sunk the travel plans for his staff of world-class naturalists and captains who typically move between Hawaii and Alaska following the whales. And it cut off the oxygen from his number one revenue source: the major cruise lines who they contract with to provide small group adventures on one of their three yachts.
While Brent will tell you that this gave him more time for his favorite pastime, fishing, he also used this time for introspection and innovation to find new revenue streams and new ways to invest in his business, process and people. Reinvention is what Brent does best.
By 2017, Brent Bitterman had built an eclectic resume including: US Coast Guard licensed captain; activities director with Cunard Cruise lines on the Queen Elizabeth II & Queen Mary 2; and sales rep at a tech start-up. The connective tissue: his appetite for adventure and an eye for opportunity. So when he eventually travelled to Alaska at the urging of his friend and later business partner, they immediately saw a hole in the tourism market. While the norm in Juneau at that time was big scale adventure tours, there was an opportunity to create a product tailoring to guests that prefer smaller groups, more personal and more exclusive experiences.
“I saw a great opportunity, but what did I know about starting a company?” says Brent.
It turns out that he did know quite a bit about creating a strong, compliant and scalable foundation for hiring and growing staff for a new business, based on one of his earlier jobs – working at Zenefits in business development.
“As soon as I started hiring, I knew the complexities I would face like dealing with W-9’s and 1099’s and W2’s—and so much more. I also knew how to solve this problem since I’d been successful in a prior role selling the Zenefits solution.”
“With Zenefits I can now effortlessly hire, onboard and pay our employees. It is a great experience from beginning to end for our number one customers: our employees.”
“Zenefits makes it easier for me, knowing that HR and payroll is covered. Compliance is a huge thing once you realize there is zero room for error when it comes to paying people. And the all-in-one mobile app also makes it easy for our employees. We’re the only company in Juneau I know of using technology to attract and quickly onboard employees in this industry. It’s another way we differentiate our company.”
Zenefits is a great experience from beginning to end with our number one customers: our employees.
President and COO
Alaska Luxury Tours
Creating Memorable Experiences
Brent has a whale of a tale about his personal journey and the lessons he’s learned in dealing with the unknown.
Brent’s career started after college when he bought the book: How to get a job on a cruise ship. He landed a job on the most famous ship on the planet, the Queen Elizabeth II, before ever having seen one. There, he planned activities for passengers during their 110-day cruise around the world.
“I wore a tuxedo every night. That’s where I learned the difference between tourists and travelers and the power of creating memorable experiences.”
Fast forward 20 years, 89 countries, 200+ ports and a decade as a licensed captain. When Brent arrived in Alaska he saw the limitations of putting more and more people in bigger and bigger boats to maximize a short season. He saw something else: that less is more.
“In starting a company, there are so many roles that we didn’t even know existed, until we had to do them. Everything to support a phenomenal experience. I knew it would work, but I didn’t know it would work so well.
“As we started to scale, we hired great people that we trusted to take things off of my plate. The type of people who are passionate about wildlife and providing impactful experiences. We rarely have to recruit, as our team grows organically through referrals from current employees.
“Now we’ve built our entire business around our employees who provide exceptional guest experiences. When they feel valued, safe and fulfilled, they deliver more than we could ever imagine.
“So, with Zenefits, one less worry is the HR part of it.”
A Whale of An Obstacle
One less worry was a very good thing in 2020. Based on the phenomenal growth early on in their business, Alaska Luxury Tours purchased their third yacht in early 2020. Plans were in place to relocate it to Alaska as the pandemic hit: the Canadian border closed as they drew near. That was just the beginning. Travel businesses—and the cruise industry in particular—were among the earliest and hardest-hit businesses.
“In the spring of 2020, the momentum of 10 years of Alaskan tourism growth came to a stop one day. The 2019 cruise season brought 1.3 million visitors to Juneau. Here, we consider it both controlled chaos and our livelihood.”
But for Brent’s business, 2020 wasn’t a total loss—it was an opportunity to pivot and focus on a new product: superyacht chase boat charters. The superyacht industry was continuing to grow in Alaska and seeking guides and captains with local knowledge.
“Our smaller vessels can extend their range for more remote fishing and get them closer to glaciers and wildlife. We’ve even made quick trips into town for provisions.” Building the same sort of business pipeline he’d methodically developed with 12 cruise lines over the prior three years, Brent focused on the superyacht associations in 2020.
This agility— indeed scrappiness—is keeping a pulse for Alaska Luxury Tours’ business. But it’s certainly not all caviar and champagne for the company owners.
“We’re one of the lucky ones. The bread and butter of our business disappeared for two years. But we found a market last year that we didn’t know existed, that has helped us survive.
“I worry about next year. Like the ‘Roaring 20’s’ following the pandemic in 1918-1919, we expect pent up demand. We’ll need to navigate numerous constraints of a short season, limited availability, uncertain cruise market and a potential confluence of demand.”
So Brent is doing what captains do best: charting a course for uncertain conditions.
“Now that we’re getting our feet under us, I’m spending more time building out our people operations infrastructure: policies, repeatable procedures, a handbook and training to more easily support and sustain scale. Our team appreciates the platform we provide and the opportunity to share their expertise. My job is to build partnerships, a pipeline and practices that will make an experience with us feel special on the first day, last day and any day of the season.
“Onboarding our team using Zenefits sets the stage for this, explaining who we are and how we do things. With Zenefits support in my corner, I have a team of HR and payroll specialists behind me, which is one less worry.
“This is a time for innovation, for reinventing ourselves and our businesses…and for finding silver linings. The better we get at riding the waves, the healthier we stay.”
Aye, aye captain. Words to live by and words to learn from. In fact, Brent’s re-invention of his business and his approach to his team earned him a Zenefits 2021 POPS Star Innovation Award.
If you’re vaccinated and starting to dream of an adventure, maybe you can add a trip to Alaska on your bucket list. Alaska Luxury Tours offers the only exclusive whale watch & land tours in Juneau and Icy Strait Point, Alaska.