The Aussie who loved Ketchikan
For 40 years, Len Laurance was The Ketchikan Visitor Industry
Len Laurance points to claw marks from a bear climbing this tree.
In an interview in 2014, Laurance said his projections were simply based on a 10 percent increase every year.
"It took a while for most of Ketchikan to recognize the benefits of tourism," he said in 2014. "I could see the cruise industry was going to get bigger and bigger. I thought it had unbridled potential. It still does."
In his more than 50 years in the First City, Laurance was synonymous with visitor industry. He was a member of the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau board for 40 years. Into his 80s, he was still marketing Taquan Air, the Rainforest Sanctuary, The Discovery Center and the Inter-Island Ferry. Family members report that some of his last thoughts were of ships arriving at the downtown docks.
When Laurance, who grew up in Perth in Western Australia, arrived in Ketchikan in 1963 the visitor industry primarily consisted of intercoastal Canadian steam ships that brought a couple of hundred passengers to the First City once or twice a week in the summer. When he finally retired and moved to Bellingham in the late 2010s, as many as six ships a day were arriving, bringing more than 10,000 passengers.
Laurance was born in Perth in 1932.
“The weather there was like San Diego,” he said in 2014. “I was into typical teenager things, mostly the sun and surf.”
He was part of “Australian Surf Life Saving Movement,” which he compared to a “volunteer lifeguard service" and had an early interest in marketing. His father, a banker, supported Laurance's desire to "see the world" and in his early 20s, he hopped a steamship with the intention of indeed seeing the world. It didn't quite work out that way.
First, he stopped in Honolulu to visit an Australian friend and that led to a year-long sojourn selling "trinkets." His familiarity with swimming and diving also led him to reef diving to get the shells to sell.
The high point - literally - of his time in Hawaii was when he worked for an aquatic show. Laurance's main duty at the show was to ride a bicycle off a 10-foot tower into the water to amuse the viewers. The bicycle was on fire at the time.
"it wasn't as dangerous as it sounds," he said decades later.
Laurance also spent time in Hawaii running a snack bar and a charter fishing business.
After a year in Hawaii, he was on his way again, ending up in Vancouver, B.C. He worked for a flooring business and also sold frozen and canned foods to supermarkets. His sales area included Northwestern BC and it was in Smithers that he met his future wife, Judy, a nurse. Eventually, Laurance was transferred to Calgary, Alberta, which proved a little too far from the ocean for the young couple.
"We put in ad in (a local paper) that noted that we an 'adventurous couple' were looking for an opportunity," he said.
Among the responses was one from the Ketchikan and Northern Terminal in Saxman. They jumped at the chance to come to Alaska. The original three-month contract became a permanent one when Laurance was hired full time. The company folded in 1965 and Laurance went to work for the Alaska Steamship Company which handled most of the cargo shipping for the region.
As the Southeast Regional Manager for ASC, Laurance was tasked with improving the company's fleet of aging World War II era cargo ships into a modular tug and barge operation. He was with Alaska Steamship for six years before opening his own travel agency, Alaska World Travel.
“I had become friends with Chuck West of Westours,” Laurance said. “He said ‘If you want to learn the travel business, start off as a travel agent.’”
It also helped that during that time, Laurance became the local agent for both Westours and one of the Canadian steamships, the Princess Patricia.
Laurance would remain at the helm of Alaska World Travel for the next 26 years.
Alaska World Travel's advertisements were a local constant, particularly on local radio, where Laurance's Australian accent helped them stand out.
He also formed Leisure Tours with Jim Alguire, a tour wholesaler that put together specialized Alaskan tours for high end customers. In the 2014 interview, he remembered a specific tour for a pair of "well-heeled" women who wanted to see Alaska "in style." It involved tracking down a Cadillac limousine and having it shipped to Anchorage. A driver was hired who escorted the women to several places in Alaska and the Yukon Territory.
"When they arrived in Whitehorse, there was a member of the Royal Family also on tour in the area," Laurance said. "Everyone saw the Cadillac and assumed it was the royal. The women got a kick out of that."
Laurance said the royal was touring in-a less conspicuous car, a Chevy sedan.
The limo remained a part of Laurance's tours for many years.
So why did Laurance, with such a built in wanderlust, stay in Ketchikan for the rest of his life?
"I love Ketchikan," he said, in 2014. "I truly do. There is nowhere else that I would rather be and nowhere else that I want to promote as much. I want everyone to love Ketchikan as much as I do."
The Laurances raised three daughters, Bev, Cindy and Mandy in the First City.
“The travel industry has been very good to me,” Laurance said, explaining why he has stuck with it all these years. “It is a very enjoyable business to be in.”
Besides his time with the Visitors Bureau and other statewide tourism and marketing associations, he was also involved with other local organizations. A founding member of Historic Ketchikan, he was on its board for more than 25 years. He was a member of the hospital advisory board for 11 years. He was also on the Southeast Conference Board of Directors, the Ketchikan Community Council and the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. He served two terms on the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly.
He also likely holds the record for the most times addressing local government during "persons to be heard." Over the years, he addressed the City Council alone more than 170 times and also spoke to the Borough Assembly numerous times.
He was well known for starting off his presentations with the line "As unaccustomed I am to public speaking..."
Even into his 80s he was still promoting local tourism, talking about the potential for growth in places like Hyder and Prince of Wales Island. Hyder was a particular area of interest for many years. Back in the 1980s, he convinced the Alaska Marine Highway System to offer service to the community and even in the 2000s, he was still promoting what he called a "circle" route in which visitors would be able to come up through Prince Rupert to Hyder, travel to Ketchikan and then return to Prince Rupert.
He also felt that Ketchikan would significantly benefit if week-long cruises could start and end in the First City. As a result, he was strong advocate of a bridge to Gravina Island because he felt the "hard-link" to the airport was essential turn Ketchikan into a tourism "hub" rather than a "stop."
His support for a bridge occasionally brought him into disagreement with others in the tourism who were afraid that a bridge could hamper cruise traffic.
He noted that other places with cruise ships and bridges had adjusted and that Ketchikan would to.
The greater question is how will Ketchikan adapt going forward without Laurance, the most prominent promoter of the community for the last half century? Laurance had seen plenty of ups and downs during his half century in the industry and remained unfailing optimistic about both Ketchikan and the visitor industry. He almost certainly would still counsel that there remains "unbridled potential" in both.
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