At the Copper Whale Inn in downtown Anchorage, light streams through windows looking out on Cook Inlet. Candice McDonald Kotyk bought the inn in May 2019, “less than a year before we ended up shutting down during the pandemic,” Kotyk said.
Kotyk is also the co-owner of Salmon Berry Tours, one of many businesses left scrambling when the pandemic wiped out 2020’s tourism season. Suddenly, Kotyk and co-owner Mandy Garcia were faced with figuring out how to keep a business running when their main source of income was gone.
For Salmon Berry Tours, the answer was complicated. They had to get creative and take on a number of odd jobs.
The company runs day tours and longer multi-day packages in Southcentral and Fairbanks. Kotyk has been at the helm of the business since it started 15 years ago. The company began seeing hints of the pandemic in early March.
“Our first cancellation came, and it still wasn’t super alarming to us,” said Kotyk. “But then after the first two weeks in March things just sped up. The effects of the pandemic for everyone in our industry in Alaska just hit really hard and fast about the middle of March.”
By the middle of the month, Salmon Berry Tours and the Copper Whale were closed, and tours were canceled for all of March. Soon, Kotyk said, they realized the pandemic wasn’t going to be a short-term problem. But she was still paying her employees, and really didn’t want to lose any of them.
“At the end of March we started really looking into what our options were,” said Kotyk. “We were looking for RFPs, contracts, creative ideas. Anything we could do to keep our people busy.”
Kotyk said, to start, they got their employees set up to volunteer at the Food Bank of Alaska.
The company made use of its fleet of tour vehicles. They removed the seats and started delivering groceries to Girdwood. They partnered with Alaska Mill and Feed to deliver plants throughout the summer. In the winter, they delivered Christmas trees.
Kotyk said they had the opportunity to run tours and a store at the Independence Mine State Historical Park in Hatcher Pass. It was so successful, Kotyk said, they’ve extended that contract for three years, and hope to keep it as a permanent part of the business.
Co-owner Mandy Garcia said the successes of 2020 were real: They were able to keep most of their guides on staff, with some temporary layoffs and some volunteering. But she said financially, it was still a really difficult year.
“I think the goal was to keep the vehicles moving, and to keep the guides and the team employed. So if you look at it from that perspective, it was successful,” said Garcia. “If you look at it from a profit perspective, not all of those panned out.”
The company operates year-round, and Garcia said they prioritized retaining their current guides.
“You can’t have a tour company with brand new tour guides,” said Garcia. “So we knew we had to keep the tour guide team fresh and active and with us, because when people were coming back to travel we needed people to be able to get in a van and give a very high-quality tour.”
They’re still running tours, though far fewer than during a typical year. Kotyk and Garcia modified their vans to allow 6 feet of space between guests, and limited the vans to two parties at a time. Guests are required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to participating in a tour.
“There needs to be something for people that do follow the rules,” said Garcia. “(People) that do come to Alaska and make sure they’ve got their declaration form and they’ve got their testing. There needs to be some life here. But they want to know that they’re going to be able to do these activities and be 6 feet apart from people.”
Kotyk and Garcia said they’ve become experts in Alaska’s travel mandates. After 2020, the two said, they know they’ll make it through whatever this year throws at them — but they will be grateful if it’s a little easier.