Guided Tours Through the Pristine Waters of Alaska
My role as an Alaska SBDC Business Advisor is exciting and intriguing. We never know who will walk through our doors looking for assistance with starting their businesses. One year ago, October 2022 – Steve Full, walked through our Anchorage Center doors and I drew the lucky card to become his business advisor. What I learned after a few sessions was that my most important job would be to convince Steve what I already believed; his experience was more than enough to launch his coastal rowing touring business concept – in Alaska.
“When I visited Alaska for the first time in the summer of 2015,” Steve reminisces, “I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Chugach mountains, Resurrection Bay, and the Kenai Peninsula; huge emerald bodies of water surrounded by staggeringly steep mountains, filled with wildlife and glacier views. Every time I passed by or visited a lake or harbor, I just wanted to row.”
When Steve says row, he doesn’t mean paddle. He means rowing the kind of shell (a rower’s word for boat) you read about in “Boys in the Boat,” by Daniel James Brown.
“Being a former collegiate rower and collegiate rowing coach at the time, rowing was always on my mind (still is). I just couldn’t get over how little some of these fascinating lakes and places were used for any type of recreational sport in comparison to the Lower 48,” shares Steve. “When my partner Kaelan and I moved to Anchorage (her hometown) in 2020, I decided to take a flat water single out for a row on three different lakes in one day. It was one of those perfect sunny August days that Alaskans cherish. I was alone, but surrounded by the wild beauty that I loved.
“It was then that I knew this was an experience I wanted to share. I didn’t want to start a new Rowing Club in Anchorage or Seward; those already existed. I love rowing practice, but it has a time, a place, and a goal: to get faster. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be mobile and able to row wherever I wanted at any time. To not just drive past the Kenai, but row on it. The idea of guiding rowing trips began to take shape.”
For the next four months, Steve and I met on a regular basis working to translate his idea into a business. First, we pulled the budget projections Steve had already been calculating into our Alaska SBDC’s Financial Projection Model. When the Financial Projections were completed, and we knew how much capital the project would take to get Alaska Row Tours off the ground, Steve was able to fund most of his project from his job and personal savings, but happily accepted assistance from family when they offered. Next, we worked on logistics.
What I learned from Steve is that logistically, coastal rowing shells don’t exist in Alaska. And more than that, as a new iteration of an old sport, the shells are still hard to come by. Coastal rowing shells are “floatier” and as Steve describes “friendlier” to learn on. Their “sugar scoop sterns” allow any water that flows into the boat to flow back out. So Steve and Kaelan drove the Alcan to Seattle to pick up three coastal rowing shells: two doubles (rowed by two people) and a single (rowed by one person).
“I want people who come on these trips to be able to do the one thing every rowing coach has said not to do… ‘Look around.’ Rowing has long been associated with full-body workouts and intense fitness, but why not leisure? I love the idea of breaking away from the classic view of travel rowing — training and traveling for specific races — and make it something less intimidating and more of an experience than fitness,” shares Steve passionately.
While working full-time at Skinny Raven, Steve networked with people from rowing clubs all over the United States. We had developed questions that Steve would ask Lower 48 rowers and coaches to help determine the interest level, feasibility, price structure, etc., of what “Year Zero” (Steve’s affectionate term for his first summer iteration 2023) looked like. With this information, Steve and I developed a marketing strategy for Alaska Row Tours.
Steve developed his own website, and a local photographer and rower (who Steve taught to row earlier in the year) took action photos for the site. Steve began reaching out to local Alaskan hospitality businesses that he’d need to coordinate with during his planned multi-day, multi-excursion tours.
Steve’s goal from the beginning was to educate people on recreational Coastal Rowing; and he knew he was going to be one of the first Coastal Rowing tour operators in the nation, and even the world.
“Rowing tourism is a brand-new concept,” Steve points out. “There are a couple other operators around the world, but they’re not using their own equipment. They contract through rowing clubs and borrow or rent equipment that may or may not be in good condition. I believe I am the only rowing tour group that will be able to control the condition of equipment and provide flexible bookings, enabling a customizable experience that fits each group’s needs. During my rowing trips, you get photos and videos of your rowing, hiking excursions between rows, and private technical instruction.
So how did “Year Zero” (Alaska Row Tour’s trial summer 2023) go? Steve exceeded his own expectations receiving all positive reviews from his rowers, and finishing strong without major hiccups. A big success for such a complex activity in Alaskan waters.
When asked what “Year One” and subsequent summers will hold, Steve smiled and shared: “In the summer of 2024, my official ‘Year One,’ I plan to have all week-long tours fully booked. I really believe coastal rowing is the future of rowing, and I want to spend time with the local community and rowing community on building awareness for this new sport. I would love to spend more time expanding Alaskan’s athletic horizons and boundaries — and who knows — maybe somebody from Alaska could be that representative for the USA Olympic Team.
Long term, I want to add a junior rowing camp providing technical instruction, reading wind and water currents, and learning to understand bathymetry will be integral in my camps; but I really want my rowing camps to be about developing fitness and grit. I feel the moment you start rowing in a place as wild as Alaska, grit becomes a part of your identity.”
Steve’s success is exactly why I love my career as an Alaska SBDC advisor. This intelligent and driven young man came into our Anchorage offices a year ago with an idea – a dream. He went from dream to reality in less than a year. His business is not only set up as an LLC (Limited Liability Company) with an Alaska State Business license, but he has officially and successfully started his business by making his first sales in less than a year. He now has every reason to believe in himself after opening Alaska Row Tours, a first of its kind company in not just Alaska, but all of the United States.
When asked to share how the Alaska SBDC and his Business Advisor helped him in his success, Steve shared these words:
“The SBDC as a whole did a great job of refining and funneling my vision and business plan into something that I believed I could execute. My mentor, Misty, was and still is amazing. I remember our first meeting so vividly. We spoke for an hour about my goals, what I wanted to do, and I left feeling overwhelmed that someone who was a non-rower believed in my idea. And not only the idea for the business, but in me as a person. Her constant positive pushes enabled me to put something that was in my head onto paper and then into action. I always felt I had a support system that kept me accountable for getting Alaska Row Tours off the ground. I truly cannot express my gratitude enough towards Misty and the SBDC.”
Steve can envision experienced rowers renting shells for a long weekend to row and camp. He and Kaelan have already picked a few spots that people can only get to by water. And those grit building junior rowing camps are close on the horizon for year two.