From reindeer tourism to accessible fishing, Alaska entrepreneurs throw new ideas into the Shark Tank

Last week I manned a booth at a convention fair in Sitka.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association’s end-of-season gathering offers insiders a sneak peek at some of the new travel opportunities across the state.

There is an event called “Shark Tank” based on the popular TV show. Here, travel and tourism executives consider new ideas from Alaskan entrepreneurs.

Ryne Olson of the Chena Outdoor Collective in Fairbanks wants to develop what she calls “reindeer tourism”.

“Reindeer have a unique history in Alaska,” Olson said.

Olson is better known as a musher who has fielded teams in the Iditarod and Yukon Quest.

“We already offer short reindeer walks for $65 per person,” she said.

But Olson wants to offer more options, including reindeer sleigh rides, backpacking, and a “destination” setting for larger groups.

Their goal is to make the Chena Outdoor Collective a hub for reindeer tourism.

Haley Johnston has been conducting wilderness tours for more than 10 years. However, she now has her own company called Tundra Travels.

Johnston specializes in backpacking some of Alaska’s more remote areas: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

I asked her if she took groups down the scenic rivers in ANWR and Gates of the Arctic. “Oh yes,” she said. “I directed these trips. But we’re hikers, not swimmers,” she said with a smile.

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As she grew her travels, she added components that were important to her. She wanted her guides to live in Alaska year-round. She also wanted to develop a model to donate a significant amount to non-profit organizations dedicated to conservation.

Johnston came to Shark Tank to fund more gear for more guides to offer more trips.

Down in Juneau, Peter Nave was following the story at Eaglecrest Ski Resort. Eaglecrest recently purchased a gondola to take visitors up the mountain year-round.

Nave thought Eaglecrest would be a good spot for a “via ferrata,” which he describes as a “combination of hiking and rock climbing.”

More precisely, a via ferrata is a course over steep, exposed mountain routes with fixed cables, chains and ladders. Literally translated as “Iron Path”, climbers strap on a climbing harness and make their way through the course.

“Our proposed course is about half a mile long and would be very family friendly,” Nave said.

Nave is still working out some details with Eaglecrest, but looks forward to delivering a “mountain culture-rich experience.”

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Captain Jack Finnegan has offered fishing trips in Ketchikan for many years. But Finnegan also has years of experience working with adults with a variety of disabilities.

Those two skills eventually blended in Finnegan’s mind when it became clear that his fishing boats were not wheelchair accessible. The idea for “Fishability Alaska” was born.

Finnegan’s aim is to construct a custom boat with accessibility as a key design component. Travelers using wheelchairs are just one group of visitors. “Not all disabilities are visible,” Flannigan said. “Sometimes visitors with disabilities have hearing or visual impairments or PTSD,” he said. “Many travelers are on the autism spectrum.”

Flannigan has some good stories about helping blind visitors catch fish. But with the Buglander on his dream boat, he could run to the beach for people to beachcomb, tide collect, or explore wilderness trails on an island far away.

The audience in the tourist shark tank listened intently. Many of the ideas presented offered entirely new categories for travelers, such as via ferrata and reindeer backpacking.

This made it difficult for the jury to choose the winners, who received between $8,000 and $10,000 for their idea.

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“These entrepreneurs really put their hearts into this,” said Dale Wade, director of marketing for the Alaska Railroad. “There is an application process, then a pre-meeting review, and finally the presentation at the show. I really admire her.”

Shark Tank contest winners include Ryne Olson and her wandering reindeer and Haley Johnston and her arctic backpacking company. The judges based their decision in part on how much of a difference Shark Tank funding would make to overall success.

Most of the Shark Tank attendees were involved in a variety of other fundraising efforts, including personal savings, funds from friends and family, and other crowdfunding sources.

The Shark Tank participants did not have a monopoly on new activities and adventures in Alaska. There are many new adventures, including new cruises to new ports, a new focus on Alaska Native cultural tourism, and new attention to Alaska’s unique culinary offerings, including microbreweries.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association operates, which produces an annual travel planner. It’s a new catalog of year-round tours and adventures. Most planners are sent outside to potential visitors. But you can order one yourself and plan a visit to some new parts of Alaska.


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