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June 14, 2016

UAA alumni behind the wheel of Alaska tourism

In a calendar year, tourists could soon outnumber Alaska residents three to one. As daunting as it sounds, that’s good news given the current oil slump. In 2014, tourism generated a $3.9 billion economic impact in Alaska through services and summer jobs. It’s a reliable industry heading into an uncertain future.

How does UAA play into all this? Graduates find careers in tourism from a variety of angles, from transportation (professional piloting, logistics) to culture (anthropology, dance) to the wild outdoors (physical education, outdoor leadership). Here, we highlight just a few of those departments.

Read on and learn how hospitality, theater, and, yes, even civil engineering, alumni help support Alaska’s mighty tourism industry.

Culinary Arts, Hospitality & Restaurant Management: Setting out the welcome mat

Culinary Arts, Hospitality and Restaurant Management is an obvious place to start; the department is tailored to fit Alaska’s tourism economy and the professors are especially well connected.

That’s a direct benefit for the four-year students, who complete a one-semester 500-hour paid internship. Recent graduate Pricilla Keith, B.A. ’16, spent all of spring semester interning with Anchorage Convention Centers, following department managers in administration, kitchen prep, sales… even maintenance. She was on hand for this February’s Go West Summit, an annual convention that brings worldwide tour providers face-to-face with Western U.S. tour suppliers. “That was a pretty international event,” she said, citing the dual American and Asian breakfast buffets they set up each morning. She graduated with a wide range of industry experience on May 1—primetime for hospitality graduates to leave UAA and dive into the tourism field.

The Hotel Captain Cook serves as another intern incubator. “We’re very well-connected to UAA and we have a lot of internships that go on throughout the year,” explained Clayton Damm, A.A.S. ’09, a former student intern who now serves as catering director for the Captain Cook’s 12 bustling event spaces. In addition, Clayton is one of several alumni on UAA’s culinary and hospitality advisory board, along with local chef Riza Brown, B.A. ’12 and Sysco Alaska marketer Don Ellis, A.A.S. ’04.

Clayton Damm, A.A.S. ’09, started as a student intern at Hotel Captain Cook. Now, he’s the catering director for the building’s 12 busy event spaces. (Photo by Ted Kincaid, University of Alaska Anchorage)
Clayton Damm, A.A.S. ’09, started as a student intern at
Hotel Captain Cook. Now, he’s the catering director for the
building’s 12 busy event spaces.
(Photo by Ted Kincaid, University of Alaska Anchorage)
“The instructors are very pro-Alaska and are heavily involved in the community,” noted Brittney Johnsen, B.A. ’14, currently the front office manager at Embassy Suites Anchorage.

And Brittney’s pro-Alaska as well. Originally from Tucson, she moved to Anchorage specifically for UAA’s hospitality program. As an enthusiastic Alaska transplant responsible for making the most of her guest’s experience, she’s both perfectly suited and academically prepared to welcome guests to Alaska.

“I was the tourist when I moved up here, doing all the things tourists love to do. It’s really fun for me now to share my experiences,” she noted. “That’s really the peak of my days when I can tell somebody something to do and see them come back so excited at the end of the day.”

Theater: All the world’s a stage

Theater graduates are trained to entertain, making them key players in the supporting cast of Alaska’s tourism providers. Much like tour guides, actors are confident in the spotlight, adept at memorization, able to project their voices and—importantly—pros at commanding an audience.

“The performer in me just likes to make sure everybody is having a good time and is entertained,” said Justin Oller, B.A. ’15, a three-year guide for Salmon Berry Tours (founded by alumna Candice McDonald, B.B.A. ’05, M.S. 08). Each day, he shuttles international guests across Southcentral Alaska—Seward, Matanuska Glacier, Talkeetna—sharing stories and info from the driver seat and the trails. “More than anything else, that’s really what it is—I put on a show for 8 hours.”

Chloe Akers and Justin Oller, both 2015 theater graduates, now apply those performance skills as guides at Salmon Berry Tours. (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)
Chloe Akers and Justin Oller, both 2015 theater graduates,
now apply those performance skills as guides
at Salmon Berry Tours.
Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)
His Salmon Berry co-worker Chloe Akers, B.A. ’15, adds that, as actors, they’re trained in the art of adaptability. Even if a moose blocks the trail or a rockslide closes the highway, the show must go on. “You have to think on your feet and adjust to changes,” she said. “That adaptability is a big thing that I brought from theater.”

For Peter Wallack, B.A. ’08, his technical theater training helps as well. As a guide with Circumpolar Expeditions, Peter coordinates challenging logistics for scientists and thrill seekers alike.

He’s worked with a remarkable range of clients in incredibly out-there locations (for example, the South Africans who wanted to swim the Bering Strait) and he credits his theater training—specifically from professor Dan Anteau, B.A. ’96—with his success. “He taught me a lot about the technical side of theater… being prepared, knowing how to design things,” Peter said of Dan, who now serves as department chair. “He teaches to be out in front of problems rather than let problems be out in front of you.” In other words, “Drive the bus, don’t ride the bus.” As a guide with guests counting on him for safety, comfort, local know-how and camaraderie, that’s an incredibly useful skill to have.

Chris Evans and Devin Frey appear in ‘Stalking the Bogeyman,’ which travels the state this summer, closing in June at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez. (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)
Chris Evans and Devin Frey appear in ‘Stalking the
Bogeyman,’ which travels the state this summer, closing in
June at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez.
(Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)
And of course there’s still theater in the theater. Look for the traveling roadshow of UAA’s Stalking the Bogeyman across the state this summer, starring Devin Frey, B.A. ’15, and Chris Evans, B.A. ’16. The play closes at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference, an artistic festival that brings hundreds of Alaskans (and a few out-of-state theater tourists) to Valdez in June.

For one final alumni connection, Dawson Moore, B.A. 97, a theater professor at Prince William Sound College, organizes the annual conference.

Civil engineering: If you build it, they will come

Tourists don’t often think about civil engineers. That just means they’ve done an excellent job.

“Tourism and civil engineering very much go hand in hand,” noted Audrey Russo, B.S. ’16, who worked in tourism before earning her engineering degree. “You cannot travel anywhere in this state without civil engineering; you cannot even get here without using it unless you pull an Into the Wild,” she added. And she’s right—whether you enter Alaska via airport, boat dock, or driving up the AlCan, engineers designed that transportation infrastructure.

Zach Baker’s team of four designed potential boat haulouts on the Kasilof River (including this sharkskin design) for Alaska State Parks. (Image courtesy Zach Baker)
Zach Baker’s team of four designed potential boat haulouts
on the Kasilof River (including this sharkskin design)
for Alaska State Parks.
(Image courtesy Zach Baker)
For years, engineering seniors have enrolled in a senior capstone, where they serve as design consultants on real-life projects. Each group partners with a local engineer, who guides their class assignment, and tasks often highlight tourism infrastructure (this year’s projects included trail connections in Bicentennial Park and piping fresh water to Eagle Glacier). Recent grad Zach Baker, B.S. ’16, gathered input from Kenai communities to design a drift boat takeout that opened four more miles of the Kasilof River for fishing. “Our team had to come up with a system that allowed boats to be removed but not launched at the river, while keeping it simple enough for a single user to operate,” he said. You may just see his team’s sharkskin ramp in action soon.

The capstone requirement, overall, is a résumé-boosting networking boon. “It’s like having a free semester-long interview, which is huge,” said mentor Anne Brooks, B.S. ’88, owner of Brooks & Associates.

Case in point: Sarah Mobley, B.S. ’11, who designed a visitor’s center for Alaska State Parks as part of her senior capstone. After graduation—surprise!—she landed a job with Alaska State Parks and served as lead engineer for the K’esugi Ken campground, the largest state parks project ever completed (yes, it just happened to be the project she worked on as an undergraduate, too).

Sarah Mobley helped design the K’esugi Ken campground for Alaska State Parks as an undergrad. As an alumna, she helmed the project as an employee. (Photo by Emily Angel, Alaska State Parks)
Sarah Mobley helped design the K’esugi Ken campground
for Alaska State Parks as an undergrad. As an alumna, she
helmed the project as an employee.
(Photo by Emily Angel, Alaska State Parks)
For his senior capstone, Mahear Aboueid, B.S. ’09, worked on early designs for the recently completed West Dowling expansion. He’s now a project engineer for the Department of Transportation, currently expanding the parking at Lake Hood, a buzzing summertime lifeline for tourism. “Our AK DOT motto is ‘Keeping Alaska moving through service and infrastructure,’” he noted. “I am proud to help maintain and improve Alaska for residents, tourism and businesses.”

“We would not have tourism without civil engineering,” added Audrey. With a degree in hand, she’s optimistic about the future. “Most of the infrastructure in this state is over 50 years old or coming up on it,” she noted. “That is about the lifespan for a lot of structures.  There will be a need in the near future to update a lot of the infrastructure in Alaska, which hopefully means a lot of jobs for civil engineers.”

So no matter where you (or your guests) travel in Alaska this summer, know that UAA had a helping hand in the process. And if you’ve moved Outside, come back and see us! There’s always a chance your pilot is a UAA graduate, too.

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement. This story originally appeared in Green & Gold News on May 11, 2016.