DO: Stay afloat, even in rough seas
Presented by First National Bank Alaska
On a cold wintry day earlier this spring, sister-in-law duo Alex and Brad von Wichman found themselves in a place where they usually wouldn’t be at lunchtime at the start of the rental season: sitting together in Whittier , drinking coffee.
At this time of year they are usually on the water, each commanding a ship for Babkin Charters, the business they own and manage with Brad’s wife, Kjersti.
“I was supposed to start a trip today, but we have storm warnings in the sound,” Alex said.
It’s not often that a charter has to be postponed for weather reasons, but it does happen. It’s just the nature of the business when working on the ocean, while also making sure customers understand that their routes may be subject to change for safety reasons.
“You have to be completely frank and honest about the reality of the situation,” Brad said. “Tell them up front, ‘This is Alaska, and we’re working around the weather.'”
Captain of a ship is a bit like running a business – you hope for clear skies and smooth sailing, but when bad weather sets in you have to be prepared to close the hatches and weather the storm.
“It’s all part of the deal,” Brad said.
Von Wichmans’ corporate philosophy is deeply rooted in the values of flexibility and versatility. Over the past year in particular, they’ve been happy to take the advice Brad said he would give any small business owner: “Don’t just do one thing. Do as many things as you can. “
The von Wichmans fill just about every role in their business and have taught themselves to do anything from managing spreadsheets to applying for fishing licenses to solving plumbing issues, doing just as much. their own work as possible.
“It’s not boring,” Alex said.
This adaptability and willingness to try new things were the qualities that led to the launch of their charter business over 30 years ago. Alex and Brad grew up in Anchorage and spent summers exploring Prince William Sound and Resurrection Bay on their family’s 21ft fishing boat. As teenagers, they started fishing with their brother, pulling the pots in their hands. In 1981, the family switched to the 42-foot Alexandra, and Brad and Alex made their way through college fishing for halibut, sea urchins, shrimp and herring.
Then fate threw a key in the works.
In the spring of 1989, when Alex was about to graduate from the University of Utah, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef. Instead of fishing, they spent this summer working on cleaning up oil spills and transporting scientists around Prince William Sound.
“The fisheries, after that, looked pretty dismal,” Brad said. “So we wanted to expand and decided to start chartering.” This is where Babkin Charters was born. The Alexandra can be equipped for commercial fishing or passenger charters. The family quickly found a new rhythm, fishing early in the season, then resetting the boat for an overnight charter season that runs from April through September.
Around the same time, the business – and the family – grew with the addition of Kjersti Nilsen, one of Alex’s college ski teammates. Born in Norway, Kjersti joined Alex and Brad on a drive to the Alcan after graduating in 1989 and ended up staying.
“Mom always said, ‘Be nice to your sister because she will have friends,’” Brad said.
Mom’s advice turned out to be sound. Brad and Kjersti (now Kjersti von Wichman) married in 1997 and spent their honeymoon sailing from Tacoma to Valdez on the newly built Babkin. For years, the kitchen onboard Kjersti set the benchmark for Babkin Charters dining, but when she and Brad became parents she moved to a role ashore as the company’s “logistics manager”. , keeping things running while Brad and Alex are on charter.
So what is it like to work with your brother or sister?
“He has his moments,” Brad said.
“That’s why we have separate boats,” added Alex with a laugh.
All kidding aside, the von Wichmans have a close relationship – they even finish each other’s sentences – and they enjoy working together. Brad’s teens are also crew members, and having them in the family business has been a lot of fun and a great help.
“It’s a good thing for them because they are learning to deal with people,” Brad said. “They learn responsibilities.”
Babkin Charters cruises are tailored to the individual desires of charter groups, and no trip is the same. Most of the guests want to see whales; many are interested in hiking, cross-country skiing, kayaking or picking blueberries, depending on the season. Alaska’s unique attractions are featured on many travelers’ lists.
“Most want to see a tidal glacier while we still have them,” Alex said.
Guests sail the Alexandra, which seats up to six passengers, and / or the Babkin, a 58-foot charter boat that seats up to 12. The Alexandra offers a little more of a camping experience, with V-berths in a space-shared berth, while the Babkin’s all-teak interior features three comfortable cabins. Comfortable cabins, grilled radiators, and delicious meals are ready to welcome passengers after a day of Alaskan adventure.
“If it’s your typical Prince William Sound wet day outside… you always have a nice warm, dry boat to come back to,” Brad said.
“A little whiskey with glacier ice is also good at the end of the day,” added Alex.
During a normal season, Babkin welcomes guests from across the United States and around the world – scientists, vacationers, photographers, adventurers – and is booked from spring to early fall.
Last year, however, was anything but normal.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic virtually ended Alaska’s travel and tourism industry.
Much like the 1989 oil spill, the pandemic forced a major change in Babkin’s affairs. But while the Exxon Valdez disaster left visible and lingering reminders everywhere, COVID has been notable for things that cannot be seen – an invisible virus, a nearly empty calendar of reservations, an indefinite end date.
In the 2020 season, school trips were canceled, multigenerational family vacations were misguided, and international visitors – like the European and Japanese tourists Babkin often welcomes – were locked in their homes.
Babkin rose to the challenge by trying to be, as Alex put it, “as smooth as possible”. With only three charters registered, the crew spent most of last season fishing as much as they could, both with their own licenses and on behalf of other license holders.
“You just have to roll with it,” Brad said. “We fished until October of last year.” Prices were depressed due to lower demand for restaurants, but “it was still income,” he added.
Like thousands of other Alaska employers, Babkin Charters received funds through the Federal Paycheck Protection Program (P3) to help get through the year.
“The PPP has been a godsend,” Brad said. “It saved so many businesses.”
First National Bank Alaska helped Babkin secure the PPP funds that were vital to success until 2020, Alex said. A representative from First National called Babkin on the very first day the bank started accepting PPP requests and helped Alex go through the process – even continuing the call for a smooth transfer after the first banker’s wife or went into labor while on the phone. with Alex.
“That’s how personal it is,” Alex said. “It was just transparent.”
Babkin Charters began banking with First National after having had an unpleasant experience with a “too big to fail” type national bank.
“It’s local,” Alex said. “I think it makes a huge difference (compared to) when you call and receive someone in Minnesota or Florida who doesn’t even know where Alaska is.”
Alex and Brad both appreciate that they know their local branch manager – Rachel Carlson of the U-Med Anchorage site – by name, and employees recognize their family when they walk in. Last season, Brad said he lost count of the numbers. at times he had to stop at First National to ask for help getting commercial fishing license transfers notarized. Even though the lobby was closed for health and safety reasons, it was easy to make an appointment to get the help he needed.
“We love them,” Alex said. “You know it’s just more personal (at First National).”
The people-centered service they value from First National Bank Alaska is the same kind of experience the von Wichmans try to foster in their own businesses. Being on the water, living nearby for up to a week at a time, they relish the opportunity to get to know their customers.
“People are fascinating,” Alex said. “In fact, you meet these people in a very comfortable natural setting.”
This summer, they will have more opportunities to spend time in this setting. With vaccines widely available in Alaska – including for visitors – things seem to be starting to return to normal. Charter activity is gradually resuming, although only the Babkin will carry passengers; the Alexandra remains “pretty much in fishing mode” for the season, Brad said.
“We’re really cautiously optimistic,” Alex said, adding that they’re starting to hear more from parents interested in booking family trips with their children and grandchildren. Especially now that more is known about how COVID-19 is spread and can be avoided, a private charter is an attractive option, she added: “Multigenerational travel is starting to feel more confident, because they realize that they are in their own bubble when they are with us. We are really quite isolated in what we do and where we go. “
And while no one knows when – or how – travel will “be back to normal,” the family behind Babkin Charters say they’re ready to adapt to whatever comes next so they can continue to keep the journey going. visitor experience on the water. Alaska.
“They trust us,” said Brad…
“… to give them the trip of a lifetime,” Alex finished.
The First National Bank Alaska has been the community bank of Alaska since 1922. We are proud to support the people of Alaska by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, big and small, that enrich communities across Canada. across the state.
This article was produced by the Sponsored Content Department of Anchorage Daily News in conjunction with First National Bank Alaska. DNA writing was not involved in its production.