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Wednesday, April 4, 2001



KEN IGE / STAR-BULLETIN
Ed Neer, gazing out at the ocean last month from the Royal Hawaiian
Hotel, is starting up a Hawaii-Las Vegas vacation package retailer
that will compete with Vacations Hawaii.



Travel firm
offers new twist
on Vegas

The company bets isle residents
want to venture beyond
the Fremont


By Russ Lynch
Star-Bulletin

A vacation-package subsidiary of Northwest Airlines has begun pushing Hawaii-Las Vegas airline and hotel packages in the belief that it can win big business from what it sees as a new breed of Hawaii residents seeking a different experience from a trip to Vegas.

These are young salary earners or self-employed travelers who want to get away from the Hawaii-themed familiarity of downtown Las Vegas properties and choose from a wide range of prices and experiences in more than 30 hotels, said Edward J. Neer Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of MLT Vacations Inc.

"I'm trying to break the mold" of older island residents staying at places where they feel at home, where they can a "local" buffet and be among the friends they have at home, said Neer, whose company, doing business as Worry Free Vacations, began selling Hawaii-Las Vegas packages in February.

Neer, who was in Hawaii in the early 1970s selling travel for Northwest Airlines, says his company controls 4,000 hotel rooms a night all over Las Vegas because of its three decades of selling Las Vegas packages from other parts of the United States.

Worry Free Vacations is setting out to pull people away from Vacations Hawaii, the former Jackie's Travel, as well as to pick up people Vacations Hawaii doesn't reach. Vacations Hawaii has been owned since 1995 by Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming Corp., owner of downtown Las Vegas hotels such as the California Hotel and Casino, and the Fremont -- which gets more than 90 percent of its business from Hawaii.

People at Boyd Gaming aren't worried. Spokesman Rob Stillwell said Vacations Hawaii, which has been offering Vegas trips to Hawaii residents under one name or another for nearly 50 years, has an edge because islanders like "local," they like the choice of seven flights a week against Worry Free's two and they like Vacations Hawaii's use of Hawaiian Airlines, which gives them frequent-flier miles.

Not only that, "we're in the gaming business," Stillwell said. That means the company is looking largely at the take from its casinos and getting people there is a vital part of gaming marketing.

"We operate our charters at a break-even price," letting the Boyd subsidiary throw in a lot of meals, ground transportation and other services free, he said.

Neer said his company also has flexibility because of a long-term relationship with hotels and casinos in Las Vegas.

On the price front right now it is hard to tell one from the other. On its Web site yesterday, Worry Free Vacations was offering four-night air-hotel packages as low as $319.90 -- round-trip air fare on its Omni Air charter planes plus four nights in a hotel.

Worry Free says it handles 1.3 million travelers a year and while it has tours to many U.S. destinations and foreign countries from the 12 major U.S. cities served by Northwest Airlines, Las Vegas is its biggest market. Its Web site, www.worryfreevacations.com, says the company fills more than a million room-nights in Las Vegas each year.

In a Sunday newspaper advertisement in Honolulu, Vacations Hawaii was offering packages as low as $329, including air and hotel. It also posts specials on its Web site, www.boydvacationshawaii.com

It is all about competition, said Worry Free's Neer.

"You buy Vacations Hawaii, you get to stay in the five downtown hotels. You buy mine you get a choice of 32 hotels," he said. "The bet here is that the local resident of Hawaii will want more than Boyd (Vacations Hawaii) gives them and that's the bet I'm making," Neer said.



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