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Would-be entrepreneur takes the test with touring tapes.

Would-Be Entrepreneur Takes The Test With Touring Tapes

Emily Davies was determined not to let another business idea die for lack of effort. In the last 15 years, the former university researcher and family therapist figures she's come up with her share of marketable ideas, only to be thwarted by skeptical friends or like-minded competitors.

First it was books on tape, an idea friends dismissed. The tapes would be too long, they said. Nobody would listen to them in their entirety.

Next came small activity boards to occupy restless tiny-tot commuters. A string with a crayon at the end for drawing. An indentation for a bottle or cup of juice. Davies made prototypes and gave them to friends with children, only to learn that someone else already was marketing a similar, more affordable product.

Davies hopes her third business idea will be a charm: audio cassette tapes that point out sites of interest along Alaska's highways and byways. Through their company, Blue Highways: Audio Tour Productions, Davies and partner Shelli Vacca in April began marketing their first production, "Alaska Audio Tours: Turnagain Arm," which covers Anchorage to Portage Glacier.

Listeners pop the first tape of the two-tape set into the car's cassette player, set the cruise control at 55 miles per hour and head down the Seward Highway with their own tour guide. The package, complete with map, is available at visitor centers and retail outlets throughout the state at a suggested retail price of $19.95.

The first hour-long tape is site specific, pointing out where to look for beluga whales or where to stop for a hike. The second tape, which can be played on the return trip to Anchorage or later at home, includes 30 stories that Davies says describe "the animals and people, places and events that give Turnagain Arm its unique character."

Recalls Davies, "The hardest thing for me was to figure out what to include and what not to include." Particularly challenging was the start of the trip, with so many interesting places: McHugh Creek, Beluga Point, Indian, Bird.

A 39-year-old mother of two pre-schoolers, Davies first came up with the idea of audio touring tapes 10 years ago, while working as a teaching assistant at the University of Washington. Much of her time was spent on field trips, listening to ecology students point out the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest.

The students would identify glacier moraines, explain why certain trees grew in certain places, or point out the telltale signs of a fire that had swept through the area 100 years earlier. Their knowledge made the trips much more interesting and sparked an idea that Davies says "just sort of sat for 10 years in my brain."

A few years ago, while vacationing with a friend in Hawaii, Davies learned that someone in Seattle also thought the tapes would be a good idea and had started working on them. That's all it took to convince Davies she'd better get going. She wasn't about to get scooped again.

Alaska, Davies decided, was tailor-made for the project. "Alaska's the perfect place, with the tourists and the very few roads and the real interesting wildlife and ecology," says Davies.

After teaming up with Vacca, Davies got to work. Davies explains, "Basically, she had more money and I had more time."

The two, neither of whom had any real business experience, began in 1989 by taking a small-business management class at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Their classwork included drafting a business plan for the tape venture.

"We decided that it looked like a potentially profitable idea," says Davies. "If it absolutely bombed it was money that we could afford to lose. We wouldn't lose our houses or our cars."

Davies and Vacca figure it will cost them $35,000 to produce 3,000 tapes. That number of tapes represents, according to their research, less than 1 percent of the estimated 360,000 visitors who each year "ooh" and "ah" at Portage Glacier.

The $35,000 budget includes Vacca's capital and Davies' time, calculated at $15 an hour. Davies has done everything from researching and writing the scripts to figuring out how best to package and market the finished product.

According to Davies and Vacca, they've managed to stay within their original budget, one third of which was paid to a St. Louis, Mo., firm for duplicating and packaging the tapes. The accompanying maps were locally produced, and the master tape was recorded at an Anchorage studio using local narrators. A local free-lance photographer provided the picture for the package's cover.

As the tapes sell, Davies and Vacca will be paid or reimbursed on an equal basis. Vacca says investing in Davies' idea (the two have been friends for years) and launching their Blue Highways: Audio Tour Productions didn't give her much pause. She was looking for a career change, thought the idea was a sound one, and figured the chances for at least breaking even were "pretty good." She views the success of Alaska-inspired video cassette tapes as a good sign.

Initial response from friends and potential retailers was favorable. "Overwhelmingly positive," says Davies of the early response. "Most people have said, |I can't believe nobody has done this before.' It's a real obvious idea."

Adds Vacca, "Everyone we've approached is supportive. Friends of friends think it sounds pretty good. Now whether that sells tapes ..."

If the first production, geared for tourists as well as for local residents and their visitors, is a success, Davies and Vacca plan to produce two more tape sets this year. Expected to be released in 1992, they would include a multitape set explaining sites on the drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks and a tape package narrating a trip from Anchorage to Valdez and then back to Whittier or Homer by ferry.

The next year, it's off to Hawaii. "Hawaii's the cream," says Davies. "Very few roads and millions of tourists and fascinating cultural and natural history. It's the ideal place to do this."

Branching out would require signing up additional investors or securing a loan, say Davies and Vacca. Ultimately, they hope Blue Highways will be able to support both of them, allowing Vacca to quit her job for an Anchorage environmental consulting firm.

When Davies and Vacca decided to go into business, their goals were clear: to make money, to support local artists, to donate 5 percent of their profits to environmental groups and to have fun. So far, they're optimistic they can achieve all four.

PHOTO : Emily Davies (left) and partner Shelli Vacca are selling audio cassettes that narrate Turnagain Arm sights.
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Title Annotation:Emily Davies and Shelli Vacca created Blue Highways: Audio Tour Productions, a company which sells audiotapes which narrate Alaskan sights
Author:Hill, Robin Mackey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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