As Jesse Carlstrom, M.B.A. ’12, explains his job as Alaska’s international tourism marketer, you might get a little envious. But you’ll also realize this business-minded Fairbanks kid is an excellent person for the job. And you’ll really want to see his passport.
Though oil is the dominant economic driver (and current headline-grabber) in Alaska, there’s no denying tourism plays a major role, too. Whether you live in the cruise-soaked communities of Southeast or the Alaska Native villages of the Interior, Alaskans can rely on death, taxes and tourism.
Take a look at the numbers from the State’s Division of Commerce and Economic Development where Jesse works: tourism created 47,000 peak season jobs and generated a $3.5-billion economic impact for the state in 2013 (including $1.8 billion of visitor spending). Last year, annual visitors topped 2 million for the first time, and the influx is projected higher this year. While Alaska’s economy staggers with the oil slowdown, millions of folks Outside are still ready to spend their money to reach their dream destination.
Seeing and skiing the world
Jesse grew up in Fairbanks in a travel-oriented family. His dad promoted Fairbanks International Airport for international cargo and passenger flights, increasing revenue for the airport and tourism dollars for the city. When Jesse was 13, his dad invited him along for on a business trip to Hong Kong. “Let me check my calendar, Dad. Okay, I don’t have anything else going on,” Jesse jokingly recalls.
The trip was great—yes, even schmoozing at fancy receptions that would pain most teens—and Jesse was hooked on international business. “It was just fun. From that point on, that was what I wanted to do.”
Jesse earned a marketing degree at University of Nevada, Reno, where he also skied for the Wolf Pack on a full ride athletic scholarship and won two-time All-American honors. “The only downside of skiing every day—well, there is no downside,” he laughed. “The only tradeoff was not being able to study abroad.” That didn’t keep him grounded long, though. After graduation, he received an NCAA post-grad scholarship to attend graduate school. But, first there was a world to see.
He traveled around Argentina’s Patagonia region for a few months with a friend, then applied for a working holiday visa to New Zealand. A family friend from Fairbanks connected him with a place to stay and an office job at an aluminum factory near Mount Maunganui, a North Island beach town on the pleasingly named Bay of Plenty. The surfing was great. The job… not so much. It was a business abroad, not an international business, and that was a big difference.
While still in New Zealand, Jesse got wind of a tourism sales coordinator position in Fairbanks. The job description, as he remembers, asked, “Do you love Alaska? Do you love travel? Can you promote Fairbanks to the world ?” “Yes, yes, and yes,… that’s me!” He flew home for the final interview and, happily, got the job. He’s promoted Alaska as a visitor destination ever since.
When that Fairbanks job led to a statewide role, Jesse moved to Anchorage, where he could ski and bike to work on the greenbelt. He still planned to attend grad school on his use-it-or-lose-it in three years NCAA scholarship but, as he says, “I ended up in Anchorage in Airport Heights, a fun neighborhood with an awesome job just down the street. Time ticked by and, all of a sudden, my three years were up. NCAA graciously gave me a one-year extension. And then that year was up … I had such a sweet gig here, great friends, great community, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just start at UAA to use the scholarship, and see how it goes.’”
He admits he planned to transfer. “I had this perception that the M.B.A. experience would be better at an out-of-state ‘big name’ school, that it would be worth it to quit my job, move from my home and rack up 100 grand in debt.”
UAA changed his mind. “At UAA I had great professors that first semester. I continued to work at an awesome job as well as grow in a community I love.”
As an Alaska resident, in-state tuition made the degree “a hell of a value,” plus it introduced him to young professionals from across the economy. “I love tourism, but destination marketing is a pretty narrow niche,” he said. “I didn’t want to get pigeonholed and just be known as a tourism guy. One of my goals in the M.B.A. program was to connect with other Alaskans working in other industries—fishing, oil and gas, exports, engineering, Native corporations, retail, everything.”
Now, he’s an avid advocate for the program. “Friends and acquaintances ask what I think of UAA, would I do it again? And my answer is ‘Yes, it was a great program.’” A green and gold UAA pennant now hangs at his desk on the 17th floor of the Atwood Building along with calendars and mementos from around the world.
Bringing the world to Alaska
While promoting his home state, Jesse enjoys the opportunity to engage with a worldwide audience. From Anchorage, Jesse is in constant contact with colleagues in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, German-speaking Europe, Japan, China and South Korea. He may start his morning calling a contractor in Switzerland, finalize an ad project for an American magazine, then end the day as a Japanese colleague fires emails his way from a Tokyo-bound bullet train. His hours, mercifully, are flexible (good news for Jesse, who is also a new first-time father).
He finds the personal connections around the world especially rewarding. For one, he now works with airline executives he first met as a teen tagalong on his dad’s work trips. For another, his colleagues around the world have become close friends (when the meetings end in Seoul, the Korean barbecues and karaoke begin).
“It’s great fun and it’s diverse. For me personally, it’s just such a wide range of activities with a wide range of people in wide segments of the industry,” he said.
“A bright spot in Alaska’s economy”
As Alaska slogs through one of its worst fiscal downturns, Jesse sees a renewed opportunity to emphasize his work. “Tourism is a bright spot in Alaska’s economy,” he said, citing how international tourism balances the North American market. For example, the 2008 crash didn’t deter Australians with their mining dollars from visiting. While Americans pile onto cruise ships, Germans generally rent a vehicle and spend weeks plying the Interior. And when the summer season ends, the Japanese market supplies thousands of Aurora-viewing tourists all winter long. Though international tourists account for just 10 percent of Great Land visitors, they add valuable diversity to the state’s tourism portfolio.
So whether your definition of adventure includes climbing Denali or taking that seven-day cruise, Alaska has you covered. “Coming to Alaska is a really big deal,” Jesse noted. “This is as far away from home as many travelers go.”
As another summer starts, Jesse has the energy for the job. “It’s not for everybody,” he said. “I’ve been jetlagged all week—but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement