Coming Back Stronger

Brent Bitterman, COO and Founder of Alaska Luxury Tours
Nov 10, 2021

The pandemic wreaked havoc on small, seasonal tourism businesses that rely on cruise ships to bring in business. But for Brent Bitterman, founder and COO Alaska Luxury Tours, things looked dire until an opportunity to pivot presented itself in a big way. On this episode of PIVOT, Brent joins the show to talk about how he doubled down on customer and employee experience to come back from the perfect storm stronger than ever.

The pandemic wreaked havoc on small, seasonal tourism businesses that rely on cruise ships to bring in business. In 2019, Alaska’s growing tourism industry brought in 1.3 million people. In 2020? Just 64 (yes, you read that right).

For Brent Bitterman, founder and COO of Alaska Luxury Tours, things looked dire as COVID forced much of the world into lock-down. But when an opportunity to pivot arose, some hard work and business agility paid off in a big way. On this episode of PIVOT, Brent joins the show to talk about how he doubled down on customer and employee experience to come back from the perfect storm stronger than ever. 

On this episode, you’ll hear:

  • [02:17-03:56] The unique challenges the pandemic created for seasonal tourism businesses
  • [04:08-06:05] The risks and rewards of relying on transient, seasonal workers
  • [06:23-13:16] How Brent pivoted his business when cruise ships stopped coming to Alaska
  • [13:26-15:21] How Brent re-engaged his staff post-pivot
  • [15:22-17:50] Tips for investing in your people while rebounding a business

After you listen: 

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POPS Star Bio

Brent Bitterman is the founder and COO of Alaska Luxury Tours, which provides the only exclusive whale watch and land tours in Juneau and Icy Strait Point, Alaska. 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, where he planned activities for passengers during their 110-day cruise around the world. After 20 years, 200+ ports, a decade as a licensed captain, and a stint in tech, Brent pivoted to entrepreneurship. He started Alaska Luxury Tours to address the need for high-end, private tours and experiences in Southeast Alaska.

Transcript

Didi: On this episode of PIVOT, a POPS show by Zenefits 

Brent: and being flexible is the key to survival for a lot of small businesses.

Didi: The People Ops Podcast from Zenefits, the only show dedicated to small businesses, sharing stories of pivotal people, moments. I’m your host, Didi D’Errico in 2019, Alaska’s growing tourism industry brought in 1.3 million people and over $2 billion in visitor spending in 2020, that number dropped to 64 people.

That’s right. 64 for Brent Bitterman. This is more than just a stat. It was his reality. Brent is the COO and founder of Alaska Luxury Tours. He joins the show to talk about business agility, sharing how he found a new opportunity in the midst of the pandemic and double down on customer and employee experience to come back from literally the perfect storm stronger than ever 

Brent: pandemic started.

It almost felt like I was mourning. I felt like. Everything that I worked for was being taken away. And I, there was nothing that I did to cause it, and so it was a really difficult dark time for sure. And then once that subsides a little bit, besides the uncertainty that we were all experienced, it was time to start to figure out what else could we do?

There’s this tiny little segment travel sectors that are travel sector that was still operating. There is a segment of society that. Somewhat recession-proof and a growing industry here in Alaska was the super yacht industry. They were definitely an underserved market. They have huge demands They have over the top standards and to be Frank, it was a perfect match with Alaska luxury.

Didi: With that background. Here’s Brent and I talking about how he looked at people programs differently as a result of 2020. 

Brent: I think it’s pretty unprecedented that the business just goes away. Right? That’s not very normal but we all witnessed it right in 2020, and it was widespread and it was without prejudice.

Being that we’re a seasonal business. We rely on the travel tourism sector to bring us our clients being in Alaska. We have a short operating season, typically it’s end of April early may until end of September, geographically, it’s the largest state in the us. Most people don’t realize it’s two and a half times the size of Texas.

It’s huge. And most places in Southeast Alaska, there is no way to get here other than by plane or by ship. So we’ve got a few more challenges than a typical tour company and say, California, these challenges, they create a fragile and difficult customer acquisition environment. We rely so heavily. On these cruise ships or different travel partners to bring our clients to Juno.

The timing of the pandemic was key for us because most of our employees migrate from Hawaii or other warm places to Alaska for the visitor season in the summer. And when the cruise industry shut down, Almost all travel sectors, shut down the work dried up instantly. I guess the biggest lesson learned here was sometimes you just have to get by with what you have.

You pull up those sleeves and get back to your grassroots and what, where you started. I felt like we had a lot of momentum and we were heading in a positive trajectory and then we had to start over. 

Didi: And tell me the impact now that you got back on your feet. You’re telling me that the season, this year it’s back.

So that’s great. It’s not as robust as it had been in the past, but talk a little bit about the great resignation that’s happening, And are you feeling any backlash too, on, on folks that are just like I’ve had it right across the globe and across the U S we’ve certainly seen.

Well just saying, I’m not going to do this anymore. Does it make it that much harder, especially on seasonal businesses, like yours to figure out how to continue to keep the migratory expertise coming back? 

Brent: Yeah, it was a huge challenge and I think we’ve suffered. Like most of our industry we’ve suffered by losing our momentum.

I work really hard at creating a company culture at Alaska, like to tour that rewards loyalty, because I see that our employees are our best brand ambassadors. So losing an entire season took its toll. For sure. In fact, it was actually more than a season because of our seasonal nature. We went 662 days.

Without a cruise ship. Not that I was counting or anything, but the interesting thing was when the ships returned in late July, we were constrained by staffing shortages as all tour operators in Alaska. Just like what you said, the start and stop mentality. There had been this machine of transient workers that come to Alaska.

It’s an amazing, beautiful place. The weather is amazing in the summer, but when the season was only going to be six, six or eight weeks for some of these ships, it just wasn’t viable for so many. The normal employees that make their way to Alaska. So his transient lifestyle has its risks and it has its rewards.

But because of the uncertainty of this season, most people weren’t willing to take that risk. We just made, do with what we had. And we had employees that live here in Alaska. And, and hopefully just with that short season that we get that momentum going again for 2020. 

Didi: So when you lose your business and you’re very invested in the experience of not only your customers, but also your employees.

What does one, do you find new business? So talk a little bit about how you found a new revenue stream during this perfect storm. 

Brent: When the pandemic started, it almost felt like I was mourning. I felt like. Everything that I worked for was being taken away. And I, there was nothing that I did to cause it, and so it was a really difficult dark time for sure.

And then once that subsides a little bit, besides the uncertainty that we were all experienced, it was time to start to figure out what else could we do? There’s this tiny little segment of travel sectors that are travel sector that was still operating. There is a segment of society that. Somewhat recession proof and a growing industry here in Alaska was the super yacht industry.

They were definitely an underserved market. They have huge demands They have over the top standards and to be Frank, it was a perfect match with Alaska luxury tours. So we pivoted a bit and focused more on using our different assets, our land assets, and just trying to. Problems for an industry that comes through Alaska and they most likely have never been here before and they have problems and challenges and they need help to create those are to solve those problems.

And so. Recognizing that was pivotal. That industry definitely kept us afloat in 2020, and really expanded and grew in 2021. And with the convergence of that part of our business and the returning cruise ships, we have a collision course coming in 2022. That is both frightening and exciting. And that’s what keeps me awake at night.

Talk 

Didi: for a minute about what that opportunity and that challenge looks like in terms of 

Brent: the majority of visitors that come to Alaska, they come via cruise ships. So it’s been a growing segment for about a decade. Now, I think social media has really opened the door to visiting places that you may or may not have ever been to.

People see pictures on Instagram or Facebook, and they are attracted to unique and amazing places. And before you may not have ever come to Alaska, unless you knew somebody and they showed you your, their pictures and so on. So now there’s this exponential growth of people that will wanting to come experience.

This amazing place. So the numbers have been increasingly building over the years in 2018. I think we had, it was the first time we broke a million cruise ship visitors in Southeast Alaska 2019. Brought 1.3 million 2020. Brought 64. And that number is pretty staggering, right? To go from 1.3 million to 64, 1 of the smaller cruise lines total for the entire summer.

And that that number it’s a staggering number. The revenue that cruise ships bring Southeast Alaska it’s $2.2 billion in visitor spending every second. 1.4 billion in payroll, 214 million and state and municipal revenue.

It’s a very crucial industry because we don’t produce a lot in Alaska because of the logistical and weather challenges. We produce memories and wonderful pictures and experiences. To have that number dropped so dramatically and you can imagine the disproportionate suffering of the industries and the people here that relies so heavily on it.

And we’re now the stage is set for a resounding comeback in 2021. I think we had around 130,000. Visitors like cruise ships, about 10% of what normally we get. So heading into next year, the projected numbers are 1.6 million, which is a record setting number, which is it’s going to be a lot for sure. But it’s exciting.

We have a huge pent up demand. There’s only so many. Seats our beds coming on ships to Alaska. And you’ve got people that have been waiting for two or three years and the demand is there. And people want to come and experience this place. 

Didi: A lot of companies that we’ve talked to talked about, what that downtime, during COVID actually helped them.

Talk a little bit about how you approach the downtime and, and then particularly how you use that time to think about ensuring better experiences, both for your customers as well as for your people 

Brent: prior to the pandemic. A lot of us had maybe. Oh, man. I could really use a reset. Like what would we do with a year off?

Be careful what you wish for, because that’s a scary, it’s a scary thing when it actually happens. But I think the unique, the really unique opportunity for me was a rebuilding process from the ground up. When you start a business, there’s a lot of missteps along the way, right? Like. The old saying you don’t know what you don’t know.

It bodes well here because we had this unprecedented opportunity to take those lessons learned on the bumpy road to building a company and like patching those potholes that just doesn’t happen. You just can live with those mistakes and you learn and you move on. But I really spent this summer of rebuilding this company from the bottom of.

And with it this summer, as the ships returned was new challenges and unintended consequences. They brought with them. Protocols. And so we had to conform and change our protocols. It wasn’t an option. It was a must. We had to ensure that we were still offering five-star experiences without compromising our employees or our guests.

Obviously we had to change cleaning and sanitizing protocols, temperature checks, reporting procedures. We had to change our food and drink offerings, but the most challenging part of it all was. That each cruise line and travel partner had their own different compliance expectations. And that’s where our employees really stepped up to the plate, organizing these various protocols, compiling them and incorporating them into our own training process.

And they couldn’t be more proud of them on how they handled it and rolled with it. It was a challenging environment to work in, but we, they rose to the occasion and then we got. You have 

Didi: a very unique staff. 

But is there anything in particular that you have done in addition to working together, managing your survival together that has helped to re-engage them as you are bringing your company back up and scaling for next year? I 

Brent: think the biggest thing to reengage our. The, the diversification of our clients and the business evolved in.

And we went in different directions that we hadn’t prior. I think that was a huge stepping stone in building our team, the opportunities that came with it. I talked a little bit about the superyacht industry and we had the opportunity this summer to work with a particularly large vessel as a guide for them for about two months.

And so with that gave off some of our employees that opportunity to visit places they’ve never been experienced and guide in ways they never had prior. So that’s great moving forward because it, it really places us in a really sweet spot, uh, for attracting and delivering these products in the future.

But it really got the guides and captains that we had this summer. It really got them excited about the future and the potential and the growth of this company. 

Didi: Yeah. That’s a whole different level of experience, both for the customers and for your team, if you’re spending instead of an afternoon. And I’m assuming that’s what a typical guide to be special.

If you’re on a cruise ship and you have to get back on versus a couple of months, that’s a very different, that’s a very different kind of expense. 

Brent: You think about it. There’s not a lot of products in the world that are tailored to billionaires, as well as affordable for just about anybody. That’s what’s really.

Uh, about our company as well, is that we can serve and provide amazing experiences to a vast array of people. 

Didi: So for listeners who are in the throws of rebounding their business right now, and listening to the show, what tips do you have on people, programs and measurement and engagement with your staff that they ought to be thinking about?

Brent: Investing in your people is everything without our guides and without our naturalists and captains, we’re just an idea. So thinking of unique ways to, to engage them unique ways to, to recognize them and just to make their lives easier. It’s sometimes it’s easy to forget where you came from and it w I’m not that far removed from actually.

Delivering our products. And so for me, I like to put myself in their position is often as possible to think about what I liked and what I didn’t like when I was a captain for other companies. And this company in particular, just improving their work environment is important. And it was one of the things that I spent a lot of time thinking about.

Didi: In wrapping up, Brent, you told me this awesome story. When I first met you about how you started your career and you read a book on how to get a job on a cruise ship and ended up on the QE to the ultimate opportunist to kind of have your finger in the air as the case may be of what might be around the corner.

So you have this keen eye for what’s possible. Is there something you’ve learned in the past 18 months that you’re going to really lean into differently in 2020? I don’t 

Brent: know that I’d think differently about it, but it’s pretty plain and simple to me. There’s no shortcut for hard work and determination.

The never give up attitude is paramount and key. In prior to the 2020 season, I felt like this company was turning a corner. Things went in reverse like very quickly. And there was no choice, but to roll up my sleeves and work harder than everybody else. And I think this is a lesson that perhaps we’ve all learned through this pandemic is those that thought outside the box in some ways thrived, I think on one of your earlier podcasts, Jay Fulcher had mentioned that one in five businesses.

I have failed during this pandemic and that’s sad and then some unfortunate, but it’s the reality, nonetheless. So staying nimble and being flexible is the key to survival for a lot of small businesses. 

Didi: I’m Didi. And this was pivot a pop show by Zenefits. If you want to learn more about inspiring people, operations stories, like Brent’s checkout, zenefits.com.

Backslash Pop’s dash podcast where you’ll find the bonus resources, profiles, and even a link to order our new book titled no, it people operations. Also, if you have questions, you want us to answer on our show, check out the link in our show notes below and we’ll get it covered.

 

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