Hear from small business owner Brent Bitterman on how to face challenges and change course in unknown conditions.
Editor’s note: Want to dive deeper? Listen or watch this episode of the POPS! The People Ops Podcast with Brent Bitterman, COO and Cofounder of Alaska Luxury Tours
The pandemic proved — literally — to be the perfect storm for Alaskan commerce, decimating tourism from 1.3 million visitors in 2019 to just 64 in 2020. Just 64 (yes, you read that right).
COO and Cofounder of Alaska Luxury Tours, Brent Bitterman, was caught in the eye of that storm. He was stopped at the Canadian border with a brand new yacht purchased for his 4-year old whale-watching company — as the border was closing to commercial maritime business due to COVID-19.
Following is a Q&A based on our podcast discussion (linked above). It is filled with transparency as well as tips on navigating small business change in unknown conditions.
Alaska Luxury Tour Business
Q: Describe your business, pre-COVID?
A: We offer small, bespoke whale-watching and regional adventure tours catering primarily to travelers who come to Alaska by cruise ship. We’re a seasonal business with a short operating season. In 4 years, we’d built a 5-Star rating on Trip Advisor and a 3-year advanced book of business. But due to our location, it was all reliant on the local travel and tourism industry. For most places in southeast Alaska, there is no way to get here other than by plane or by ship. So we rely heavily on these cruise ships or different travel partners to bring our clients to Juno.
Q: So, what happened when the border closed to the cruise industry?
A: The timing of the pandemic was key for us because most of our employees — which include marine biologists — migrate with the whales between Hawaii and Alaska. And when the cruise industry shut down, almost all travel sectors shut down and the work dried up instantly.
Like most in our industry, we suffered by losing our momentum. I work really hard at creating a company culture, because our employees, who have highly specialized skills, are our best brand ambassadors. We went 662 days without a cruise ship. When the ships returned in late July, we were constrained by staffing shortages since the transient workers to Alaska weren’t willing to take the risk in an uncertain reopening season.
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 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.
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 where you started.
Q: So where did you start, when your geographically inaccessible business dried up overnight?
A: It almost felt like I was mourning. I felt like everything that I worked for was being taken away. And there was nothing that I did to cause it — so it was a really difficult, dark time for sure. Then once that emotion subsided a little bit — besides the uncertainty that we all experienced — it was time to start to figure out what else we could do.
There’s this tiny little segment of the travel sector that was still operating and almost pandemic and recession proof. And it is a growing, yet underserved, industry here in Alaska: the “super yacht” industry. They have huge demands and over-the-top standards. To be frank, it was a perfect match with Alaska Luxury Tours.
So we pivoted a bit. Most likely, these super yachts have never been to Alaska. So we focused more on using our different assets, differently. For example, due to their size, these yachts have problems and challenges with access. We helped them solve problems ranging from using our land assets to bring them to more remote locations and offer unique experiences to being nimble with our water assets to get closer to wildlife and even get them to the grocery for provisions. In turn, we were able to support much longer, more interesting engagements which were good for our customers our business and our employees.
That super yacht 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 pent up demand for returning cruise ships, we have a collision course coming in 2022: Alaska is projecting 1.6 million tourists in 2022. That is both frightening and exciting. And that’s what keeps me awake at night.
Meeting the expansion challenge
Q: Given the seasonality of your business, what have you done with your downtime to continue to reinforce your business ability to change course?
A: I think 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? Now, we had this unprecedented opportunity to take those lessons learned on the bumpy road to building a company. I spent this summer rebuilding this company from the bottom up.
First, as the ships returned we had to adapt to new challenges and unintended consequences. 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, and 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.
We built this into our employee handbook and into our customer experience manuals to ensure we got it right and were consistent in meeting the changing needs of the market and our customers.
Tips for teams: Riding the waves of change
Q: For an entrepreneur who launched his career after reading a book “How to get a job on a cruise ship,” what are your biggest take-aways from the past 18 months?
staying nimble and being flexible is the key to survival for a lot of small businesses.
A: 3 things:
- There’s no shortcut for hard work and determination.
The “never give up attitude” is paramount and key. Prior to the 2020 season, I felt like this company was turning a corner. Things went in reverse 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: those that thought outside the box in some ways thrived. 1 in 5 failed. So staying nimble and being flexible is the key to survival for a lot of small businesses.
- Investing in your people is everything.
Without our guides and without our naturalists and captains, we’re just an idea. So think of unique ways to engage them, to recognize them and just to make their lives easier.
- Put yourself in their mindset.
Sometimes it is easy to forget where you came from. I’m not that far removed, and it’s helpful for me to think about what I liked and what I didn’t when I captained for other companies. Something I spend a lot of time thinking about is how to consistently improve the work environment and experience.
If all of this talk of whales and tours and adventure is making you pine for a cool summer trip in 2022, here’s Brent’s website: https://alaskaluxurytours.com/