O’Hara Shipe

Trade group leaders adapt as COVID-19 again upends fall conference season

In 2020, the Resource Development Council for Alaska planned to celebrate its 41st anniversary at its yearly fall conference. The organization’s largest event, usually held the week before Thanksgiving, features 1,200 guests, 125 exhibitors and 28 high-level speakers. COVID-19 had other plans. “We did a virtual program in 2020, but we lost a lot by doing that. Where we lost out was in networking and hearing from our exhibitors,” said RDC Executive Director Marlenna Hall. Known for its diverse membership, Hall says that what makes the RDC conference unique is that it brings together leaders from Alaska’s five major industries: fishing, forestry, mining, oil and gas and tourism. Without the ability to meet in person, Hall says that her organization lost a valuable opportunity to hear both project and industry updates. A year later, RDC is once again facing the same prospect. As Alaska’s hospitals continue to struggle to combat short staffing and limited capacity caused by the current COVID-19 surge, many organizations are grappling with deciding the right course of action. “What to do about this year’s conference is probably the hardest question I’ve had to answer in my entire career,” said Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Skibinski. After polling her membership, lengthy discussions with her board, and months of planning, Skibinski has decided to move forward with AMA’s convention and trade show. Slated for Nov. 1-6 at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center, the event will come with some caveats. In an email sent to AMA’s membership, Skibinski outlined potential mitigation plans, including required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, mandatory masking, and the cancelation of luncheons, breakfasts and the banquet. “From our member survey, it was very clear that whatever we decided to do, we weren’t going to make everyone happy. But we are doing our best to balance public safety with the desire many of our members have to meet in person. It is a hard tightrope to walk,” Skibinski said. Hall is in a similar position. Prior to the explosion of the Delta variant, Hall’s membership expressed their dislike for teleconferencing and advocated for an in-person event. Now, Hall isn’t sure RDC would even be able to provide the resources that people have come to expect of their conference. “Where the challenge comes in is getting the high-level speakers to participate in person because many of them come from companies which are nationally managed, and they have instituted travel bans,” Hall said. “So, for us, if we don’t have those high-level speakers, then what are people coming to us for? Today, I can’t tell you almost anything with confidence because we just don’t know what our conference might look like.” Alicia Siira, Executive Director of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska, echoed Hall’s concerns. “It’s really uncharted territory for everyone. As an organization, we want to make sure that we’re still providing value to our members, but also not just doing something because we always do,” Siira said. For now, Siira is working with her team to determine what portions, if any, of their planned conference they can move forward currently scheduled for Nov. 10-13 at the Hotel Captain Cook. Still, Siira said that things are changing every day, so it’s too soon to know what the future holds. While Hall and Siira continue to weigh their options, others have decided to postpone. “We actually made the very difficult decision just last week to go ahead and postpone our conference, which was originally scheduled for the last week of September (28-30 in Girdwood),” said Alaska Chamber President and CEO Kati Capozzi. “We were going to require vaccination or negative COVID tests, but with everything going on and our hospitals completely overwhelmed, we didn’t feel like we could have a safe and responsible in person event at this time.” Citing feedback from members, Capozzi said that the Alaska Chamber will not transition to a virtual-only conference. “We feel like it is a kind of been-there-done-that with virtual conferencing. Our members are ready for in-person, but they are prepared to wait the appropriate amount of time before we actually do meet in person,” she said. After 18 months of virtual conferencing, employees worldwide are struggling with the newly minted term “Zoom Fatigue.” Last April, Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, wrote in an Opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal in which he outlined the five types of fatigue associated with video conferencing: general (overall tiredness), social (wanting to be alone), emotional (being overwhelmed and “used up”), visual (symptoms of stress on one’s eyes) and motivational (lacking the drive to start new activities). “I think the prevalent themes resonating throughout associations right now are uncertainty and adaptability,” said Alaska Travel Industry Association CEO Sarah Leonard, whose annual conference was scheduled for Oct. 11-14 at the Dena’ina Center. “I think this is just the world we live in right now. We’re all trying to absorb the idea that events are probably going to have to be hybrids of in-person and virtual.” However, Leonard remains optimistic that there will be safe ways to have in-person events in the near future. “I think or, at least I hope, that in the next like, three or four months, or six months, that there’s a way that we can host in person events safely, or at least with mitigating health concerns,” Leonard said. Up for another challenge As challenging as navigating the ever-changing pandemic landscape has been, for Hall, Skibinski, Siira, Leonard, and Capozzi, it’s just another opportunity to put their adaptability and ingenuity on display. When Skibinski assumed the executive director position at AMA in 2012, the organization did not have a website, social media, or even a communications strategy. They did, however, have one piece of outdated technology. “Believe it or not, our office actually had a typewriter in it,” she laughed. “AMA represented this really modern mining industry where, you know, there’s technological advances all the time. There’s always a bunch of research that’s being done to grow the industry and find efficiencies and find more environmentally friendly ways to do things. “But they didn’t have a communications plan to talk about all the good work they were doing.” Skibinski had developed a high-level knowledge about the industry from her seven years as a Projects Coordinator with RDC. However, she was reticent to take on a leadership role within the organization. “Typically, (AMA) has been led by geologists and engineers, and that wasn’t my background. So I really didn’t think that it was something I could do. But the board was confident they could teach me, so I decided to trust their faith in me,” she recalled. Although Skibinski said she has had a positive experience working in typically male-dominated trade organizations, her hesitation in pursuing upper management may speak to a more significant issue concerning women occupying positions within the C-Suite. According to a 2019 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise just 15.7 percent of all people employed in Mining, Quarrying, and Oil and Gas Extraction in the United States. The number is even bleaker when it comes to construction. Only 10.3 percent of those employed in the construction industry are women. Nationally, women account for 21 percent of C-Suite level executives across all occupations. “I think sometimes in trade industries there is a subtle undercurrent that can favor men over women, but I do think that is changing, and Alaska is on the pioneering end of that,” Leonard said. A testament to diversity in hiring, many of Alaska’s top trade industry groups are led by women. Besides Capozzi, Hall, Leonard, Siira and Skibinski, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association is headed by Kara Moriarty and the Alaska Support Industry Alliance by Rebecca Logan. “I feel like Alaska is a pretty progressive state, and I’ve had the good fortune of having incredible women role models since I entered into this arena,” Capozzi said. One such mentor is longtime Alaska Oil and Gas Association President and CEO Moriarty, whose organization has postponed its annual event from Sept. 2 to Jan. 12, 2022. “Kara took me under her wing and showed me the ropes, and I’d say she’s the ultimate promoter of women in business,” according to Capozzi. “I know she’s mentored a lot of us and taught us to lean in and be perfectly comfortable having a seat at the table.” A member of the Athena Society and a recipient of the Alaska Journal of Commerce Top Forty Under 40 (as have been Skibinski and Siira), Moriarty has been a role model to many and inspired a sense of collective success among her female counterparts. She’s led AOGA since 2012 after succeeding Skibinski’s mother Marilyn Crockett as president and CEO. “As industry leaders, we’re all close and each other’s cheerleaders because professionally, we’ve grown up together,” Siira said. “I think being close like that has been such an asset. But I think it’s also really important to say that we are only a few of Alaska’s mighty female leaders. There are a lot more out there.” Now, looking to the future, Siira, Hall, Capozzi, Leonard and Skibinski are poised to mentor the next generation. “We all need that person to help us understand that we can do anything we put our mind to. We need that person to pull us out of our shell and remind us not to be timid, know our stuff, and open our mouths because we have something to say, Skibinski said. “I was lucky to have a mentor like Carol Fraser (Regional Director of Sales and Marketing at Aspen Hotels of Alaska), and I hope I can do that for someone else.” O’Hara Shipe is a freelance writer and photographer based in Anchorage. She can be reached at [email protected]

Promoter aims to give Downtown a boost with two-day country festival

This past Wednesday night, live country music returned to Anchorage as Downtown's newest bar, The Broken Blender, hosted Nashville duo Love and Theft.  The noise of clinking glasses and excited chatter seemed to drown out the worries that plagued many small business owners in 2020. For The Broken Blender co-owner Brad Erickson, it was the start of what he hopes will be a small business revival Downtown.  "Everybody's COVID story is different. You know, some people lost friends and family members to it. Some people lost businesses; some people lost jobs. There's a lot of people in business that have profited because of COVID. So, everybody's COVID story is different," says Erickson. Not only a restaurateur but also the owner of Erickson Unlimited, an event promotions company, Erickson's own COVID story wasn't simple. Anchorage's health mandates forced him to cancel numerous events, and financial troubles with longtime vendor Brown Paper Tickets brought on by canceled events around the country left him out $200,000 in revenue from sales at previous shows.  While Erickson continued to produce smaller shows in Fairbanks, the Valley and the Kenai Peninsula, he faced an onslaught of public criticism for seemingly circumventing mandates on gathering sizes. "I know I was a hated man, but the reality is that there wasn't a single positive COVID case traced back to any of my shows in 2020. And we had shows in Soldotna, Fairbanks, Kodiak, and the Valley. The reality was that I did my due diligence. I talked to the state. I spent thousands of dollars on masks, hand sanitizer stations, and thermometers, and we really restricted the number of tickets sold," he said. But staying afloat during a global pandemic is just another thing that Erickson has had to contend with as a concert promoter.  "[It's] one of those things that people just don't understand. It takes months and months and months, if not a year, to plan stuff. You have to put all your money upfront and hope that you're going to sell enough tickets and enough people are going to come out to recoup the money," Erickson said. Apart from catering to artist requests, booking venues, and selling tickets, Erickson also has to accommodate the unique nature of concert promotions in Alaska. "I talk to promoters in Nashville, and they don't seem to get it. I ask them, 'Have you ever not sold tickets to a concert because the salmon were running?' Well, that happens here," he said with a laugh. But fishing season is only one of a slew of idiosyncrasies associated with being a promoter in the Last Frontier. Convincing top-tier touring acts to take two travel days to perform for a fickle Alaskan audience is a challenge in itself. "We are in the middle of nowhere, and artists make their money by touring," Erickson said. “It takes a lot of time to travel up here, and a lot of times, they look at that as a loss of revenue. We're also a small market and aren't going to sell the number of tickets places like Milwaukee and Minneapolis will.” The difficulty of enticing acts has forced Erickson to find ways to sweeten the deal. "In the Lower 48, a promoter takes care of the logistics, and as soon as the concert is done, the job is done. Up here, I'm taking artists fishing, or hunting, or on a glacier cruise. It's a lot more involved than you'd think," he said. Although the hours are long and the job often thankless, Erickson said it is worth it because of the impact it has on the state.  "The biggest thing that you hear, especially now that things are back open, is 'Wow! I feel human again. I feel alive,'" he said. With 2020 in the rearview mirror, Erickson is looking forward to bringing vitality back to Alaskan small businesses, starting with a two-day country music festival in Downtown Anchorage on June 26 and 27 at the EasyPark Chinook lot on Third Avenue and E Street.  A yearly event, the ninth Backyard Country BBQ promises to be the biggest one yet as it transitions from one night to a multi-day, multi-headliner festival featuring Sara Evans, 2011 American Idol winner Scotty McCreery, Easton Corbin and up-and-comers like Lainey Wilson, whose “Things a Man Outta Know” recently hit No. 14 on the country charts.  "I really, really wanted to do this Downtown because of how badly hurt the businesses, hotels, bars, and restaurants were in 2020," Erickson said. He says his goal is to flood Downtown with thousands of excited festival-goers. "Hopefully, people will stay downtown all day and go to the restaurants or go shopping. Maybe they will also stay at the hotels for the night. I think the atmosphere is going to be awesome, and I'm hopeful it can reenergize the area as we go into summer," says Erickson. However, Erickson is not alone in his venture. McCreery is lending a hand by bringing his entire band and crew to the festival.  "Yeah, we're bringing everybody because playing Alaska has been a bucket list trip for all of us. It's the last state for basically all of us, so once we saw we were going, we were like, 'We all have to go on this one," said McCreery, who will headline Sunday.  McCreery's full band making the trip is a significant departure from most musical acts that travel to Alaska with skeleton crews to keep costs down. But McCreery says that his band has been itching to perform again, so it was a no-brainer.  "Last week, we put together a whole new show, and we have a new album coming out later this summer, so Alaska is gonna hear some new music that's not out there yet. We'll play some old stuff as well, but it's gonna be a fresh show. And the guys will be locked-in and excited to play that stuff. You know, sometimes you get to playing the same songs every night, so when you finally get to play some new stuff, it feels so good," McCreery said. Saturday night headliner Sara Evans echoed McCreery's enthusiasm. "I love doing live shows. I love interacting with my fans. I love being on the road! My kids travel with me; my son Avery plays guitar for me, and my daughter, Olivia, sings harmony for me. My brother Matt is my bass player, and my daughter Audrey travels with us also. So we are just one big family. We literally are taking our home on the road," says Evans. Both McCreery and Evans plan to play tourist for a few days after the festival.  "I think I heard Miranda Lambert say it a year or two ago. She said something like, 'I've basically been everywhere, but I haven't seen anything because all I see is the airport and the backstage.' That's how it is in a lot of cities we tour,” McCreery said. “So I'm excited that we're gonna be able to spend some time and really get to see Alaska." The Backyard Country BBQ begins on Saturday, June 26 at 3 p.m. with opening acts Lilly Winwood, Lewis Brice, Texas Hill, and Kendell Marvel. Easton Corbin is slated to take the stage at 7:15 p.m., followed by Sara Evans at 8:45. Doors open again at 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 27 with opening acts Josh Melton, Elvis Monroe, and Lainey Wilson. Headliner Scotty McCreery plays at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $55 per day or $100 for both days and are available at EricksonEvents.com.
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