Sunday, September 16, 2001

America Attacked

Isle tourism downturn
may rebound quickly

By Russ Lynch

Hawaii's tourist industry, the mainstay of the economy, will be hurt in the near future by vacation cancellations, disrupted travel and the basic idea that a vacation in the sun doesn't seem right in a time of national mourning.

But executives at local tourism companies also say they are mostly seeing travelers postpone -- rather than cancel -- their Hawaii vacations in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks.

In the end, some travel executives say, Hawaii will come through as a safe, domestic place to visit, far away from national and world commercial and government centers, but still within the United States and still topping the lists of places people would most like to visit.

It is hard to assess the effects of Tuesday's disaster, said David K. Preece, senior vice president for the North American market at the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

The call volume into reservations centers at tour operators and wholesalers on the mainland has been substantially reduced, Preece said. "They are still getting bookings for future travel, but they are further out" into to the future, he said.

It is too soon to get a real reading on what is happening, Preece said, but anecdotal evidence shows that those changing their Hawaii travel plans are mostly near-term travelers, "meaning that of people who had plans in the near term, they are either canceling or moving back to later in the year, which is certainly understandable."

Meanwhile, no one has a really solid feeling for what might happen further into the future, Preece said, and colleagues in the mainland markets says it will take time for travel trends to become clear.

"Wholesalers are telling us that Hawaii will fare well versus other destinations because of the way their guests and customers perceive Hawaii to be a safe destination," he said.

"They are all expressing great support and confidence for us," Preece said.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, a major hotel operator in all of Hawaii's resort areas, said it will wait before it decides what it needs to do to keep business alive.

Keith Vieira, vice president and director of operations for the company in Hawaii, agreed with Preece that it is a time to hold back marketing efforts, but in the long run Hawaii's tourist industry will come out on top.

"When the timing and the sentiment is right we need to be aggressive to ensure that our economic livelihood is not affected. We don't know when that is," Vieira said.

Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays, part of a California-based company that owns hotels in Hawaii and brings close to 400,000 travelers to the islands each year, said calls to its reservations system are slowing.

"However most people are changing, rather than fully canceling, their reservations. Re-bookings are being made principally for October to January right now," said company spokesman Ken Phillips.

"We certainly feel the sadness and emotional impact of this national tragedy, but at this time there is no way of telling how the events of Tuesday, Sept. 11 will affect business," Phillips said. "Our primary concern at the moment is to help our customers."

The encouraging aspect is that travelers are not canceling their trips, only delaying them, said Jim Austin, a spokesman for Outrigger Enterprises Inc., which operates the Outrigger and Ohana hotels.

"It's encouraging to see that those who have travel plans are going through with them," Austin said, but he said that it is impossible to say what the decisions might by people who have not yet made travel decisions.

Meanwhile, Hawaii tourism businesses are holding back on their marketing push.

"They don't sense a need to make strategic changes," Preece said. 'The changes will be tactical." In other word, the timing of promotions in particular markets will change, he said.

"We have curtailed our radio and newspaper advertising over the next 1 - 1/2 weeks," said Pleasant Hawaiian's Phillips. "We expect to renew our marketing efforts beginning the week of Sept. 24."

Starwood's Vieira said his company has a similar approach. "We've delayed until the end of September, at this point, any advertising that we had in place," he said, "out of sensitivity."

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