It's High Time for Meetings in Anchorage, Alaska

Anchorage, AK, may not be on every meeting planner's destination radar, but the destination, in fact, gets a good share of corporate and association groups from the Lower 48, as well as Europe and Asia. Jack Bonney, public relations manager for the Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau, says that with summer approaching, the largest city in the largest U.S. state is entering peak season, in a recent visit to Successful Meetings' headquarters in New York. 

Located in the south-central part of the state, Anchorage, the size of Delaware, is a three-hour flight from Seattle and five hours from Los Angeles. Groups from Tokyo and Frankfurt can reach the gateway to one of the last great frontiers in seven to nine hours, flying over the North Pole. It's little wonder, then, that Anchorage hosts western U.S. and European groups in the summer, when temperatures reach up to a comfortable 70 degrees and attendees can bask in 17-plus hours of daylight. With scientific and aerospace, engineering, and beauty-industry groups coming, Bonney likes to quip, "We've got everything from space exploration to hair restoration."

Groups in Anchorage typically range from 600 to 800 attendees, though the destination gets much smaller and much larger confabs on occasion. Amid the stunning Chugach Mountains, which serve as the city's backdrop, along with the sparkling Cook Inlet, Anchorage requires little introduction to its abundant outdoors for fishing, hiking, ATV tours, and getting up close and personal with wildlife like moose, bear, and fox. There are 120 miles of paved bike and multi-use trails, and six breathtaking mountain ranges can be seen from the city.

Many of its group venues are interwoven with the local natural and cultural history, such as the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, which is filled with 10,000 years of Alaskan history and has undergone an 80,000-square-foot expansion. Spaces that are available for group rental include The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, Imaginarium Discovery Center, and Thomas Planetarium.

Fitting groups of 50 to 100 attendees, the Alaska Native Heritage Center honors the state's 11 native cultural groups through resounding live dance and drumming performances by native peoples in their colorful traditional regalia. Located 10 minutes from downtown, the venue, a wood-cabin-style longhouse, is where "history comes alive" for group visitors keen on learning more about Anchorage's origins and tribal heritage. In January, the venue opened a new meeting space in the form of the Athabascan ceremonial house, which is also an exhibit and location for future native language classes.

Made up of four venues (two halls and two theaters), the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, in contrast, has "a kind of Art Deco feel to it," says Bonney. A venue for ballet performances and concerts, the facility also serves small trade shows and conventions, as well as banquets and dinners.

The dominant group venue in Anchorage is the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center, with a 50,000-square-foot exhibit hall—the largest in Alaska—plus a nearly 25,000-square-foot ballroom. The Dena'ina Center eclipses the older William A. Egan Civic & Convention Center, which has two exhibit halls totaling about 30,000 square feet of show space, in addition to meeting rooms and a boardroom. The two facilities are connected by covered walkways. "We now have the ability to cater larger groups," Bonney notes, with the Dena'ina Center.

When Bonney visited SM in mid-April, the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had recently occurred, running over 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome, but groups this summer still have plenty of signature outdoor activities, among which is a multi-day flightseeing trip to Denali National Park (the third largest U.S. state park) via Rust's Flying Service. The excursion includes roundtrip airlift from Lake Hood Seaplane Base to the foot of Mount McKinley, hiking outings inside the national park, and meals and equipment.

"This is good for very small groups," says Bonney, including incentives. He adds that the Anchorage bureau has put more focus on incentive meetings in the last couple of years, as that segment has grown.

In June, Anchorage will kick off summer solstice festivities under 23 hours of daylight, including informal gatherings among hikers around and atop Flattop Mountain, the Slam'n Salm'n Derby king salmon fishing contest, and the Anchorage Market & Festival, a food and crafts show that runs on Saturdays and Sundays until September. As well as the Hero Games, made up of friendly contests between local police, fire, and military units; the Midnight Bike Ride; and the Solstice Showdown women's roller derby, these public events provide free to low-cost entertainment and diversions for group visitors.

Back in town, the inaugural Ghost Tours of Anchorage will begin in May. It is a 90-minute walking tour, with guide and co-owner Rick Goodfellow pontificating on personally collected firsthand accounts of historical events, ghostly apparitions, and weird happenings. Bonney notes that Goodfellow, in hauling around town recently, has been hard at work preparing his tour.

This year, the Alaska Marine Highway System, also known as the state ferry, is running a route every other week from Bellingham, WA, to Whittier, AK, providing unprecedented accessibility to Anchorage via water. And JetBlue will soon begin its seasonal service from Long Beach, CA. The destination has a guest room inventory of 8,000.

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