By Lex Treinen

Chilkat Valley News

“Let me take you to one of my favorite places in Alaska that you’ve probably never heard of,”  says Danielle Marie Lister in a recent Instagram video.

Lister wears black bibs, a purple down jacket, and thick white boots as she skips along the Haines Highway below the snow-covered Three Guardsmen Mountain along with soft guitar music. 

The one-minute long video includes shots of bald eagles on the Chilkat River, the slow waves of Portage Cove, and steam rising from a hot tub outside a yurt pressed against the Takshanuk Mountains. 

“I always love the contrast of the small quiet town and its epic landscape,” Lister tells her 198,000 followers. “There’s something poetic about it. We are so lucky to have Haines as our Alaska neighbors and look forward to coming back in the summer.”

Lister’s enthusiasm for Haines may be real, but it’s also part of her job. Lister was recently hired by the Haines tourism office to produce photos and videos to promote Haines at a cost of about $3,000, according to tourism director Reba Hylton. 

In other words, the borough hired a social media influencer. 

“It’s a huge and relatively inexpensive and effective way to meet our target audience,” said Hylton. 

Social media influencers have become prominent ways brands promote their products over the past decade or more as more users have flocked to platforms like Facebook, TikTok and Instagram. The market for influencers was valued at $16.5 billion in 2022, according to a report from Allied Market Research. 

Haines’ efforts represent just a sliver of that. Since taking over as tourism director in the spring, Hylton has paid three influencers to come to Haines — for a total of about $7,000 out of a discretionary advertising budget of $154,000. Hylton said Lister’s audience fit in well with the tourism office’s goals of attracting more wintertime travelers, as well as targeting Yukoners. 

Lister brought snowmachines, her partner (a professional photographer) and two friends to Haines with her. The visitor center paid for her accommodations as well as direct payments in exchange for at least three stories, a carousel image, and two reels.

Aside from being able to share the content over social media, the tourism office also gets rights to 50 photos and more than 10 videos that will help with future marketing campaigns. 

Jillian Simpson, director of the Alaska Travel Industry Association,said Hylton’s strategy seems promising. 

“It’s definitely standard and considered even best practice to use influencer marketing as part of its overall marketing strategy,” said Simpson. “Particularly it’s really helpful when it comes to travel.”

Despite that, few communities appear to be actively reaching out to influencers. The Alaska Travel Industry Association sometimes coordinates with visitor centers in places like Juneau, Soldotna, and Sitka if a vetted influencer is coming through. Those offices will sometimes compensate influencers for a meal or some local activities, but not at the same level that Haines has done. 

The Alaska Travel Industry Association has used influencers since 2017, including six last year. This year, it hired an influencer for the upcoming Arctic Winter Games in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The association helps coordinate trips to regions around the state. 

“We definitely want to be spreading the wealth to make sure each region gets represented,” said Simpson. 

Hylton said she’s okay being a pioneer in the market, especially considering Haines’ unique status on the road system, but off the well-beaten cruise ship path of other Southeast Alaska communities. She said there’s fierce competition to attract independent travelers, and influencers are one way to get a leg up. 

“I feel like we’re leading the charge on this,” said Hylton. “I do feel confident we’re headed in the right direction.”

Still, Simpson and Hylton acknowledged that it’s hard to measure the exact impact of influencers. Hylton said posts from Lister and the two others she’s hired have had a wide reach based on engagement data, but it’s unclear how many of those have transferred to actual increased visits. 

“That’s the golden question out there that nobody can answer,” Hylton said. 

Hylton said her office receives dozens of solicitations from influencers looking for freebies from the borough, but very few are worth pursuing. 

“I won’t hire just anyone. I need to make sure it’s the right demographic for our audience,” she said. 

Hylton pointed to encouraging signs her strategy is working. During the Bald Eagle Festival in November, Hylton said hotels and rental cars were booked out. Winterfest events also reported strong turnout during a year of rebuilding events that had been canceled during the COVID pandemic. Hylton said community feedback about the content, which is posted on the Visit Haines social media channels, has been positive. 

Still, some are skeptical of the idea. Social media influencers speak to a narrow audience: their followers, who tend to be younger and connected online. 

“I have no data for this but I can only think that politically and socially, individuals reach a specific narrow group, even if it’s millions of people, and I would like to see us work more to get more families,” said Carol Tuynman, a member of the Tourism Advisory Board. 

Tuynman said she’d like to see more focus on hiring local PR experts to promote the community. 

Influencers’ specific audience can also work to their advantage. Aside from Lister, Hylton has also hired Christine Kesteloo, a cruise ship traveler. Under the handle DutchWorld_Americangirl, Kesteloo has 887,000 followers on TikTok. 

Hylton said Kesteloo’s audience was ideal for targeting cruise ship passengers who stop over in Skagway and are considering a day trip to Haines. Hylton said she’s known Kesteloo for years and got a “bargain deal” of about $1,000. Kesteloo jet-boated up the Chilkat River and saw bears along the Chilkoot. 

Kesteloo, who has spent most of her last 12 years on cruise ships traveling around the world, said her videos of Haines have drawn positive responses. 

“A lot of people enjoyed seeing there are other options once you get to Skagway,” she said. 

Kesteloo pointed to a group trip of 120 people she had planned to accompany her on a special cruise tour in Alaska this summer. Already, three participants have sent her direct messages asking if they can come along with her on a private day trip from Skagway to Haines. 

“It really made an impact on people,” said Kesteloo.