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Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge prepares for the 2014 season

by Phillip Manning ~ May 14th, 2014

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For the last fifteen years, the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge has been a major part of Talkeetna’s summer economy.  Each year, more than 30,000 people are estimated to stay the night at the lodge, and that number could grow again this year. There are also a few changes in the works to link the lodge and the community closer together. K-T-N-A’s Phillip Manning paid a visit to the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge and has this report:

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For those who haven’t seen it up close, the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge is very big, especially when compared to most buildings in the Upper Valley.  Even the fireplace is big, forty-six feet tall, in fact.

“We get more guests that ask us about the fireplace than ask us about the mountain…”

That’s Matt Herod, who manages the rooms at Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge and is serving as my guide.  The fireplace is rather impressive, and it is the first thing that the more than 30,000 annual guests see as they enter the lodge.  Beyond that, there are large windows that, on clear days like Wednesday, provide a great view of the Alaska Range and Denali.  In front of the windows, there is a large photograph that identifies various peaks.  I was curious if Matt and his staff encountered the same sort of questions I did when I worked in the tourism industry.

“Phillip:  So, do you get a lot of, ‘Which one’s Denali and which one’s McKinley?’

Matt: Oh yeah, we get it all the time.  We have a joke at our front desk.  It’s called the ‘Cloud Removal Button.'”

Next, Matt takes me to something that many locals probably don’t see often, an actual guest room at the lodge.  Matt Herod is the Rooms Manager, so he gives me a great description of upgrades to amenities, modernization of bedding and decor, and a lot of the practicalities of a room stay at the lodge, and he does a thorough job of it.  What strikes me, however, is the view, where Denali practically fills the North-facing window.

“Phillip:  How many rooms do you have with this view?

Matt:  On our view side, we have approximately seventy-five view rooms in our main lodge.”

You will pay a premium for that view, however.  A quick check of the lodge website says a night in a double room on the mountain side will run you $415, clear view or no.  All in all, it is a nice room, even without the view.

Matt says that the lodge is on pace to fill more of those rooms than last year, and while it’s rare that all 212 rooms are filled, the staff could see a lot more busy days this year.  In addition to the overnight guests, the lodge is trying to attract Upper Valley residents to its two restaurants.  Beyond that, however, there’s a larger challenge of having a big lodge in a small town.  How does that lodge, which is owned by an even larger company, integrate itself?  Matt Herod says that one thing that is currently being done is trying to get locals onto the payroll.

“We’ve really gone out and reached out to a lot of people in town and made sure that they know that we are looking to hire locally.  It’s a big deal to us, because we want to be able to relieve some of the pressure on employee housing, but also help the local community as well.”

Right now, Matt Herod estimates that about fifty of the 180 employees at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge live locally.  Beyond local hires, Matt says the lodge gives to a number of youth programs, including local school sports. Another new tactic to integrate more with the community is sourcing local foods for the lodge’s restaurants.

“A few things we are doing this year is that we are working with four local farmers, and we’re sourcing produce from those guys when that’s available.   We are also working with the birch syrup folks, and we’re also doing rhubarb syrup from a local client here in town.”

While those contracts may not be all that large, there are others.  The lodge is planning a joint event with Denali Brewing Company later this month, and Matt Herod says that the lodge’s bread will now be baked locally at Mountain High Pizza Pie.  I spoke with Mountain High owner Todd Basilone about what that means for his business.

“It’s going to be a lot of bread, obviously.  There’s a lot of people who come and go from that place up there.  We’re going to be baking here every morning.”

To say “it’s a lot of bread” may be a bit of an understatement.  With nearly ten varieties of bread and rolls, Todd says baking for the lodge  will likely mean more staff.

“We’ll be bringing in other people to do work as well, absolutely.”

Back at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, Matt Herod is outlining one more piece of the lodge’s business strategy that has also been pushed for by the Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce.

“Our average guest is only a one-night stay, so we’ve been trying to do some things to entice people to stay for two nights, which obviously gives them a better chance at the Mountain.”

Matt says it also gives them more chances to fly, take a river tour, fish, or visit downtown.  Throughout the tour with Matt Herod, I saw multiple groups of employees undergoing various training and orientation sessions.  With the busy season ahead of them, most looked happy to be part of Talkeetna’s community, even if just for a few months.

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