Chef Cesar Figuero plates a salmon dish during his original familiarization tour in 2021. Photo courtesy of the Copper River Prince William Sound Marketing Association

The Copper River Prince William Sound Marketing Association hosted four visitors to Cordova this week as a part of the organization’s familiarization tour programming.

The program’s goal is to connect with and educate key contacts about Copper River and Prince William Sound salmon in order to increase the fish’s marketability.

The Copper River Prince William Sound Marketing Association, commonly referred to as just the Marketing Association, is the Regional Seafood Development Association (RSDA) of the Area E gillnet fishery. The organization is a fishermen funded nonprofit with a mission to enhance the value of wild salmon products from the region through storytelling, promotional support and quality enhancement initiatives.

The RSDA leverages and builds on the value of the Copper River name recognized by seafood connoisseurs throughout the world. As a part of this initiative, the Marketing Association hosts one or two familiarization tours each summer to bring food influencers, media, buyers, and chefs to the home of the Copper River salmon fishing fleet. In tandem with retail outreach and a robust sampling program, the familiarization tour has been one of the main priorities for the organization since 2008.

Christa Hoover, executive director of the Marketing Association, says that having key salmon advocates visiting Cordova in person makes a much bigger impact than a sell sheet ever could.

“When you bring people here, they make connections with fishermen and they get to learn about it all first hand,” she said. “It becomes a tangible, real life experience.”

Left to right, Summer 2021 tour participants Michael Diaz DeLeon, Jeremy Williamson, John Williams, Eric LeBlanc, and Cesar Figueroa, meet with local fisherman. Photo courtesy of the Copper River Prince William Sound Marketing Association

The familiarization tours typically occur once during the height of summer sockeye season, and a smaller group during the coho run in early fall. The most recent visitors included four food content creators who spent the week of Aug. 28 exploring the delta ecosystem and learning about the fishing and quality handling processes for Copper River Coho salmon. According to Hoover, food influencers and content creators are well-positioned to help reach a wider consumer audience.

“They have large audiences and by bringing them here we extend our reach into their circle of influence,” she said.

The Marketing Association’s budget is directly related to ex-vessel values of the Area E gillnet fleet and as such is subject to the challenges of high and low profit years. Hoover says the association must be flexible and creative within the limitations of a fluctuating budget.

“It’s a small budget to reach 330 million people in the USA,” she said. “So we make the most of it by fostering these high value connections.”

Most visitors on the tours go on to create informative blog posts, magazine articles, or recipes for their audiences. These posts then become assets that can be used by the Marketing Association as consumer education tools into perpetuity. Tour guests are sent samples of fresh salmon before and after visiting Cordova so they can become accustomed to the unique flavors and techniques of the specialty fish.

Hoover says the sampling program is a part of building longer term relationships.

“Two of the people on the most recent tour have been sampled since 2018,” she said. “We look for people who have shared values. They want to know who produces their food and so do their followers. These are people who already value seafood and just aren’t very familiar with our regional fisheries.”

In addition to food writers and content creators, the familiarization program also focuses on building relationships with chefs in key salmon markets such as San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and more. Hoover and staff research possible participants before outreach and prioritize those who work with artisanal foods in upscale markets and have a social media presence. Beyond encouraging chefs to include fish on the menu in their establishments, these relationships have also resulted in special event dinners to showcase Copper River salmon, partnerships, online articles and recipe cards.

One former media tour participant, Chef Cesar Figuero, shared his thoughts on the value of the experience.

“Getting to know your source is the most intimate and essential experience for creating anything. Food is no exception,” he said in an Instagram post thanking the Marketing Association. “Connecting with the source of food should be a top priority for every chef.”

While the Marketing Association speaks primarily to a wider consumer base outside of Alaska, Hoover says their efforts bring value back to Cordova through these relationships as well. For example, Figuero will return to Cordova this fall to create the menu for the Copper River Watershed Project’s 25th anniversary gala.

“All of these relationships give back to Cordova, we’ve got blog posts from visitors and other digital content that talks about Cordova itself as a community,” Hoover said. “Those are all valuable assets.”

The familiarization tours are not always easy to organize due to Cordova’s rural location and challenging weather. However, Hoover maintains that the Marketing Association will continue to prioritize the tours as a part of their larger mission to increase value for the Copper River fishing fleet.

“They come here and find out that this isn’t just marketing spin,” she said. “This is a true story and they get to become a part of that story.”