John Hall’s Alaska is marking its 40th anniversary by recreating the 18-day trip that started the popular Alaska motorcoach touring operation.
“It shows people parts of Alaska that nobody else gets to see,” explained John Hall Sr., the company’s namesake founder. “We’ve got a lot of people who have actually traveled with us five times on that trip. They’re almost all repeat clients that are doing this 18-day trip with us.
“We’re going to stop at places not even on the map. I want people to see what we did 40 years ago.”
At 78, Hall remains president and CEO of the family business, although his three adult children, Elizabeth, Joe and John, all have leadership roles.
His daughter was 6 and his twin sons were 8 when they first traveled with their dad to Alaska on a tour in 1983.
Next generation spent lifetime in business
“They’d all probably made more trips to Alaska by the time they graduated from high school than most of the people in their whole lives,” Hall said. “They all worked through high school in the tour company. Joe spent a lot of time in the bus garage. He’d come home full of grease. Joe is now in charge of all our motorcoach fleet.”
Elizabeth, who has an MBA, is the company’s chief operating officer and oversees the operation.
He’s proud that his children had an opportunity to expand into other fields before returning to the family business. They missed Alaska.
“They’re avid fishing people. Liz usually out-fishes all the guys,” he said.
The celebration of the milestone also featured a big brunch in Anchorage, Alaska, attended in person and virtually by hundreds of family, friends and clients.
“Now Joe is driving, and I’m going to be with him,” said Hall. “He used to bring coffee to all our clients up and down the aisles. Now it’s my turn to do that.”
This special tour will bring back traditions from earlier trips.
“Any time anybody refers to our motorcoach as a bus they have to put in a quarter, and that’s what we did 40 years ago. At the end of the trip, we’d have a farewell party with the money,” Hall said. “We had hundreds of dollars in there, and it was just a lot of fun. So we’re going to try to do everything the same way as we did 40 years ago.”
Started with a long delivery trip
His connection to Alaska started in 1954 when his father’s good friend, a Piggly Wiggly store manager in Minneapolis, was transferred to a store in Fairbanks, Alaska. He asked Hall’s father, who was in the wholesale grocery business, to deliver eggs up to his new store.
“My dad drove the Alaska Highway,” said Hall, referring to the famed roadway connecting Canada and Alaska. “In 1954, it was 1,450 miles of gravel. We carried 500 cases of eggs from Holy, Minnesota, up the Alaskan highway to Fairbanks.
“My father asked me if I’d like to ride with him. I was 12 years old at the time, and I was just amazed. We drove up in June. My curfew was when the streetlights came on. In Fairbanks, the sun was in the sky until midnight. I was amazed at all the animals we saw – bears, caribou and bighorn sheep. A lot of times we had to stop on the highway because moose were out on the road, and you don’t move a moose.
“I was just thoroughly amazed at the state of Alaska and what I saw along the highway.”
As an adult, he worked for the Sheraton hotel chain and other hotels, which kept him busy traveling from Hawaii to Alaska.
He bought Anderson House in Wabasha, which is Minnesota’s oldest bed-and-breakfast. Built in 1856, the historic hotel has been in Hall’s family since 1890. He ran the hotel for 25 years and raised his children there. The hotel’s season ranges from May through October.
Tours were way to add income
In 1982, he decided to buy a motorcoach to create another stream of revenue during the cooler months. He started organizing group travel to Minnesota Twins and Viking games and other athletic events as Anderson House Tours. Soon, he expanded into over-the-road trips, first to Florida and then Alaska.
“The first tour to Alaska was 31 days. We came across from Minnesota through North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Washington. In Seattle, we took the ferry up the Inside Passage to Skagway and then to Whitehorse and Fairbanks down to Anchorage, over to Valdez and then back up the highway. And then we came down through the Canadian Rockies to Lake Louise in Banff National Park before returning to Minnesota. Many said they wished it was a week longer,” Hall said.
The company has a fleet of eight coaches in Alaska. They’ll bring half of them back to Minnesota for charter work over the winter.
The company often works with other tour companies, such as Timi’s Tours in central Illinois.
During the winter, the company operates a two-week Idarod tour, where the passengers get an up-close look at the iconic dogsled race across Alaska’s frozen tundra.
It begins at Fairbanks with the musher’s banquet, where Idarod participants get their numbers drawn determining their place at the starting line, and the ceremonial start of the race on Fairbank’s Fourth Avenue. The event draws a crowd of 10,000. The official start in Willow draws a crowd of 1,500.
“Then we go up to north of Fairbanks where there’s a place called Borealis Basecamp, and the northern lights at that time of year are unbelievable. They spend two nights in the yurts with plexiglass domes so they can lay in bed and see the Northern Lights. We stop at checkpoints. We’ve been really lucky the last four or five years, where we’ve had a couple of mushers doing their 24-hour breaks when we’re at a checkpoint. They get to spend about two hours seeing how the mushers bed their dogs down, feed them and how they treat them.”
‘The real Alaska’
Hall says he offers a different experience than cruise ships which have bus trips.
“Their passengers don’t really get to experience the real Alaska because they’re going through that commercial belt,” said Hall, who estimates that 25% of his passengers are repeat clients.
“We give people these blue and gold Alaska jackets with the Alaska State Flag, which is the Big Dipper and the North Star that’s embroidered on the back of the jacket. On the front is our logo.
“People want to know where they got a jacket. Their answer is, ‘We paid $6,000 for the jacket and got a free trip to Alaska,” Hall said.
The price tag for the 14-day tour includes gratuities and activities at the stops.
The business nearly came to a halt during the pandemic, but is rebounding.
“We probably went from $8 million to $400,000 in revenues. This year, we will hopefully be back up to more of 2019,” he said.