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Sled-dog race stirs up business; the economic impact of the Yukon Quest.

We're a small business that comes up with $100,000 profit every year, says Debbie Rork, business manager of Yukon International Ltd. in Fairbanks. But this organization calls its profit a purse and gives it away.

The Yukon Quest is a 1,000-mile sled-dog race held each February between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Race starts alternate between the two cities. The grueling long-distance event, conceived by LeRoy Shank and Roger Williams in 1983, was first run in 1984 and has been growing in stature and impact ever since.

Often known as 'that other long distance race,' the Quest has a unique twist: While mushers drive their teams through some of the most sparsely populated and undeveloped country in North America, race fans enjoy the unequaled luxury of being able to drive on winter-maintained roads to six of the race's seven checkpoints.

The impact of the Quest on the checkpoint communities of Central, Circle and Eagle in Alaska, and Dawson and Carmacks in the Yukon Territory, is substantial - and growing. Jim Crabb, who runs Crabb's Comer in Central, says, That's definitely my winter." Dog handlers, media and race followers fill all available rooms in Central, and some people even bring their motorhomes.

The boost in income that occurs in late February and early March eases the annual springtime crunch in finances felt by small-town businesses along the Quest route. Customers are scarce over the winter months, and Crabb says the Quest income gives him extra dollars to fill up his fuel tanks and get ready for summer.

Dan Pearson of Yukon Trading Post in Circle agrees: The Quest helps you get going in the spring.' Many of Pearson's local customers work only during the summer, and their money gets tighter as the previous summer's income is depleted over the long winter break. But the post's cafe is able to open up for the Quest, and business increases three- or fourfold. 'It's definitely a boost for us," Pearson adds.

In Dawson, the Quest is part of a three-event extravaganza, along with a curling bonspiel and the Old-Timers Hockey Tour. 'It's the busiest weekend throughout the winter," says Charlotte Burian, manager of the El Dorado Hotel. She notes that for two or three days, "two hundred rooms wouldn't be enough." But Burian explains that although the volume of people brought in by the Quest is high, the amount of money spent is not tremendous. Quest handlers, in particular, usually don't have major discretionary funds. Recognizing this, Burian says her hotel allows multiple occupancies and sometimes offers special Quest deals.

Fletcher Hunston, games manager for Diamond Tooth Gertie's, a nonprofit casino that reopens for the Quest celebration, says the Quest definitely generates extra revenue for the town. It's a favorable weekend both for the casino and for fundraising dances held by local non-profit organizations. The dances are deliberately scheduled on the same weekend as the Quest, Hunston says; otherwise, the events wouldn't be as profitable.

In Carmacks, the impact of the Quest greatly depends on whether Carmacks is the last checkpoint before the finish line or the first after the starting line. When the start is in Whitehorse, "the Quest zips through really fast," says Kendell Tracey of Tatchun Center. But when the race starts in Fairbanks, handlers, racers and spectators tend to hang around quite a bit longer.

The end of February is usually pretty quiet, but business picks up considerably for the Quest - mostly in hotel rooms and the restaurant, Tracey says. Like Dawson, Carmacks also holds an annual curling bonspiel around the same time as the Quest, and the two events offset some of the seasonal lag in revenue. "It does help after a long, slow winter. That's for sure,' Tracey adds.

Eagle is the only checkpoint not on a winter-maintained road, and far fewer people and dollars come through during the Quest. Still, Dennis Layman of Eagle Trading says it helps, particularly in the otherwise dismally slow month of February. His motel is pretty much dormant from October 15 until spring, but it opens up for two or three days during the Quest. Even without the large number of spectators, Layman accommodates a crowd of racers, handlers, the media and a few hardy race followers.

Race support crew and the media also account for three or four planeloads into Eagle. Layman says air charters and aircraft fuel sales add up, so that 'everybody sees a little increase.'

Communities along the race route benefit from more than just the flow of spectators and participants. Trail-setting work generates a certain amount of income over the course of the whole winter. Trailbreakers spend money on gas and snowmachine parts, and while the total dollar amount is not earth-shaking, every little bit of added income is appreciated.

Psychological benefits factor in, too. The Quest is basically the one big happening during the off season. We look forward to it all winter long,' Circle's Pearson says.

Hunston adds that for Dawson residents, the race is a benchmark that winter is passing. We're glad it comes through every year,' he says.

In Eagle, after the road closes for the winter, the town sees few strangers. The Quest becomes kind of a prelude to spring,' Layman says. 'Everyone gets out and around.' Although it's hard to assign a dollar value to such intangible benefits, they are certainly significant to the people who live in relative isolation six months of the year.

Off the Trail. In Fairbanks, Yukon Quest International is a year-round business operation, with an annual budget of more than $300,000 and an economic impact that extends far beyond the 10 to 14 days of the race. Logistical preparations go on for months prior to the race start, and the Quest office also puts on 12 special fundraising events each year. These range from an annual winter "pigout," officially titled the Alascom Yukon Quest Crab Feed, to the renowned Midnight Sun Fun Run, a 10-kilometer people race held each summer.

The events pump significant dollars into the economy, both locally and statewide, according to business manager Rork. She says, Take the crab feed: $14,000 in crab that has to be air-freighted into Fairbanks, thousands of dollars in produce, a venue that works for three days, their full staff, six different bands, and a $10,000 bar - soda pop and beer.' Roughly 1,500 people attend the crab feed each year, and last year's venue, the Fox Roadhouse, was filled to capacity.

The Midnight Sun Fun Run, the largest 10-K race in Alaska, has gained national recognition. The event attracts about 3,500 entrants, all of whom receive printed T-shirts. Rork sums up the costs: $1,500 per year for bibs, $1,200 for race insurance, $4,000 for trophies and awards, $1,000 for produce, and $2,000 for ice cream. Invited runners from the Lower 48 account for another 'couple thousand' in travel and tourist-related expenses.

Sponsors play a crucial role in these events. Dollar for dollar, the Quest's return on expenses often is relatively low. The key to the profitability of the Alascom Yukon Quest Crab Feed is in its title, which represents Alascom's willingness to pay a significant amount of money for the right to have its name attached to the event; likewise for the Princess Tours Monte Carlo Night and several other events. Rork estimates last year's total sponsorships at about $70,000 to $75,000 in cash receipts. Special events alone accounted for $32,421 in income in 1990.

Rork is responsible for organizing these events, as well as for managing the office. The second of two permanent full-time employees at Quest headquarters in Fairbanks is the store manager, who oversees the retail outlet located beneath Quest business offices on Second Avenue.

The Yukon Quest Store sells a wide array of mushing-related merchandise, publications, prints and sundries. The store helps to pay the rent and promote the race, and is self-supporting if not wildly profitable. (Last year it contributed a modest $7,640 to the Quest's income.)

Instead of a large paid staff, the Quest depends on volunteers to accomplish the myriad tasks of putting together its race and special events. This is reflected in the budget, of which only 17 percent is dedicated to payroll. Most of the Quest's expenditures go directly into the community rather than into salaries, as demonstrated in such fiscal-year-1990 line items as promotions ($6,274), travel ($1,950), supplies ($4,763), advertising ($1,675), rent ($12,000), food ($14,125) and insurance ($1,741). Prizes, trophies and awards are the biggest expense at $89,000.

The bulk of the Quest's income comes from sponsorships, merchandise sales, race entry fees, gaming revenue, and - until this year grants. (The state axed its $50,000 grant to the Quest, and the organization has been scrambling to make up those revenues in other areas.)

What the budget doesn't show is approximately $200,000 worth of in-kind donations. Businesses and individuals from Fairbanks to Whitehorse donate hotel rooms, trail maintenance, equipment, supplies and services. There's very little in this community I can't go out and ask for in-kind and not get,' Rork says. She notes those efforts are supported and assisted by the work of the board of directors and other volunteers.

Many Fairbanks businesses benefit from sales either directly to the Quest organization or to Quest mushers. For example, the Great Alaskan Shirt Co. produces 5,000 T-shirts and 200 jackets for the Quest, and Raven Screens produces 5,000 pins, 3,000 patches and 1,500 hats. New Horizons Gallery sells official Quest prints, and Commercial Printing produces Quest stationery supplies and the Quest Annual.

Apocalypse Design, a Fairbanks custom sewing business, manufactures and sells mushing-related gear such as sled bags, mittens and parkas. John Cooper, owner of Kipmik Products in Anchorage and an advertiser in Quest publications, estimates that the Quest makes up 40 percent of his overall business. The supplier of dog booties for long-distance competitive mushing has expanded his sales to include Alaska souvenirs and plush toys.

Ken Ulz of Kobuk International Feed Co. in Fairbanks credits the Yukon Quest with helping to establish his company's reputation as a high-quality dog food manufacturer. In 1987, Bill Cotter won the race while feeding Kobuk brand dog foods. Ulz says because Cotter's win changed Kobuk's image from a local pet-food manufacturer to a business making a high-enough-quality food to be used in competitive racing, sales increased.

We've geared our business toward perfecting and manufacturing foods for the high-stress (competitive) dog," Ulz says. Access to the racing sled dog has enabled Kobuk to sell dog food worldwide. Ulz says the Quest continues to be a local proving ground for Kobuk's feeds. The brand is this year's official dog food' for the Quest - a status paid for in sponsorship dollars.

Ulz estimates a Quest competitor with a small kennel of 30 dogs spends at least $5,000 annually on dog food and another $6,000 to $7,000 on hardware, meats, sleds and other equipment. Multiply that by 30 local teams, and it equals local spending of $330,000 a year. Frank Ganley, Quest race manager and a distance musher himself, estimates kennel costs much higher, at $25,000 to $30,000 per year.

The tourist dollars of Quest spectators also benefit Fairbanks' economy. Although numbers aren't available, general consensus is that the number of Quest-related visitors to Alaska grows yearly. Central and Circle have both seen significant increases in visitors over the years, and even remote Eagle has seen more traffic. Many Lower 48 tourists plan their winter vacation around the race.

Enjoying a burst of popularity in Europe, the sport of dog mushing is attracting European tourists. Pfeifer Touristik, a German tour group, hosts an annual tour called Yukon Quest: Winter in Alaska.' Several European publications have sent journalists here to cover the race, and one of 1990's European visitors, Ruedi Indermuhle of Switzerland, has signed up to race in the 1991 Quest.

Janet Halvarson, executive director of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, expects Quest related tourism will continue to increase. She notes that the number of Canadians visiting Fairbanks to witness the beginning or end of the race has increased and adds that the international event has significant untapped potential.

Karl Kassel, president of the Quest's board, believes dog mushing is a vastly underrated winter resource for Alaska. He points out that mushing's economic impact, coming during the winter, is more significant than dollars generated during the summer. The Quest has played a role in the fact that several Alaskan mushers are breeding and selling sled dogs to European and Lower 48 mushers, and it has helped put Fairbanks on the sled-dog map.

In 1991, an annual Fairbanks sled dog symposium will host the yearly trade fair of the International Council of Sleddog Sports, an organization of mushing-related businesses. Kassel sees this as an ideal opportunity for Alaska to capitalize on its mushing support industry and expand international sales. He notes the increasing demand in Europe and in the Lower 48 for mushing-related products exceeds supply.

Organizers and operators of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest have played a trailbreaking role in creating winter jobs and other economic impact in Alaska's Interior and in Canada's Yukon Territory. The annual mushing event is just one of many enterprises discovering profitability and opportunity in the dog mushing market.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Kaynor, Carol
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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