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Allen Marine Tours goes small-ship cruising

SITKA, ALASKA
Allen Marine’s announcement was a surprise only to people outside the company. Jamey Cagle, vice-president of Allen Marine tours, says they’ve been considering offering extended tours for some time.

“We had made a move prior to Cruise West’s announcement that they were having problems and weren’t going to be operating. We had bought a boat, and it’s been in town since June. It’s not an ex-Cruise West vessel but it had come to Southeast Alaska since she was built back in ’86. It’s the old Executive Explorer, now named the Contessa, and we’re going to rename her the Alaskan Dream. So we’ve been working on this overnight project since early summer, and with the opportunity of these other vessels becoming available, we decided to acquire those as well.”

The Alaskan Dream has a capacity of about forty guests. Allen is acquiring two Cruise West ships for the tours: The Spirit of Alaska and the Spirit of Columbia. Both have seen service in the region, and with capacities of seventy-eight guests, both are slightly smaller than the two other Cruise West ships to most recently call in Sitka, the Spirit of Endeavor and the Spirit of Discovery. The ships will be renamed the Admiralty Dream and the Baranof Dream.

Cagle says the local branding is part of Allen’s overall strategy.

“We are local Alaskans, and part of our marketing niche is that we’re going to be showing off people our backyard – an area that is dear to our hearts. I think there are people who will want that aspect of cruising in Southeast Alaska.”

Allen plans to offer tours beginning in May of 2011, starting with two of the ships, and adding the third if needed. The cruises will begin and end on Saturdays in Sitka, with planned stops at Icy Straits Point in Hoonah, Glacier Bay, Juneau, Tracy Arm, and Hobart Bay, where Allen plans to partner with Goldbelt Incorporated to offer kayaking, skiff rides, and bike tours.

Cagle says the ships will explore the eastern shore of Baranof Island, and there are pre- and post-cruise activities planned during the ship turnarounds in Sitka.

Allen Marine has been operating day cruises in Sitka since 1970. Their business exploded in 1994, when the company began to offer day tours aboard high speed monohulls and catamarans they built themselves in Sitka. The tour business has since expanded to Juneau and Ketchikan, with a fleet of over twenty vessels.

In some ways, Allen Marine and Cruise West are alike: both durable family businesses, with strong ties to their home communities. Industry experts are still trying to figure out what went wrong for Cruise West in Seattle. Cagle says Allen Marine does not believe that it was a lack of interest in Alaska cruising.

“There was a lot of demand still out there even with Cruise West. There were people coming up on these ships into Southeast Alaska. And just because Cruise West has gotten out of the market doesn’t mean the demand has completely gone away. It’s a matter of getting out to those customers and telling them we do have a good option. It may be a little bit different, but different for the better as far as experience goes.”

Cagle says Allen is being assisted in its transition to the small ship cruise market by some industry veterans in the region, along with a small ship marketing group in Seattle. He expects some former Cruise West staff familiar with the ships may be hired, but he is not sure yet what the new business will mean for overall staffing at Allen Marine.

The company hopes to roll out a new website for the cruise business in the next few weeks.

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