STAR-BULLETIN / 2002
The Hawai'i Convention Center, which opened in 1998, is attracting Asian conferees.
Convention center tries to lure groups from Asia
A new marketing effort aims to pair foreign markets with U.S. ones
While leisure travel to Hawaii and the rest of the United States from abroad has been declining, the Hawai'i Convention Center has begun bucking that trend with the discovery of a strong market for business travel in Asia.
The center expects to expand business conference attendance by 10 percent this year, through a marketing effort that pairs foreign markets -- mostly Japan, Korea and China -- with their domestic counterparts who are conducting business in Hawaii.
The program, which seeks to capitalize on Hawaii's geographic position as the central point between North America and Asia, gives the state a competitive edge against other business destinations, said Joe Davis, the center's manager. It also has created an additional revenue stream that could further reduce net operating losses at the center, which have dropped to $2.5 million in 2006 from $4.3 million in 1999, Davis said.
"This new program could be the silver bullet that establishes Hawaii as a true international destination for high-level meetings," said Davis.
Hawaii's $350 million convention center, which opened in 1998, is still a relative underdog in the competitive business meetings and incentive market, where bookings are made six to eight years in advance. Creating global networks between associations will build demand by offering planners a more sophisticated event that promises greater attendance and revenue opportunities, Davis said.
The Travel Industry Association estimates that the United States has lost 18 percent of its share of international tourism in the last five years. Hawaii has seen its own decline in leisure visitors from Japan because of limited airline and hotel inventory, higher fuel surcharges and relatively weak yen-to-dollar rates.
While the idea of enticing Asian markets appears to buck current trends, it has been proved to work on a more limited basis in the past, said Randy Tanaka, assistant general manager of the Hawai'i Convention Center.
The center has been using Japan's incentive market to fill 25 percent or more of its short-term booking holes since 2004, Tanaka said.
"Forward bookings have been a tougher sell," Tanaka said, adding that the convention center is still working to fill a void caused by earlier softening in the economy, terrorism, the war in Iraq and SARS.
However, center event attendees accounted for a record 642,717 room nights in 2006, and the center already has booked 783,318 room nights for future years, Tanaka said.
The center's international initiative will take advantage of Hawaii's geographical location by drawing additional delegates from Asia, said June Matsumoto, who serves as head of the center's international sales department. The department, which was created about four months ago, has set up offices in Hawaii, Japan and China and is working closely with travel contractors in Korea, she said.
The center aims to work with U.S. associations meeting in Hawaii to design a customized program to promote and market their events to their Asian counterparts, Matsumoto said. Marketing materials and Web sites are being translated into Japanese, Mandarin and Korean, she said.
The creation of the center's international sales department piggybacks on the success of a 2006 campaign that brought a record 10,000 delegates to the 143rd American Veterinary Medical Association's conference in Hawaii, she said. More than 750 of the delegates came from Asia -- the highest number of international participants in the group's history, Matsumoto said.
"This pilot event showed us that we have strong potential in this marketplace," she said.
Already, the marketing push has generated future bookings from the Electromagnetic Compatibility Society 2007 Annual Symposium, which will be held in June; the American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, which is set for October; and the Society of Critical Care Medicine, which is slated for February 2008, Matsumoto said.
Development of business-related international markets could also help position Hawaii's leisure travel market once travel restrictions ease from delegates' home countries, she said.
While some delegates from these countries have had difficulty obtaining leisure travel visas to visit Hawaii, travel restrictions for people coming to conduct business or enhance their education are more lenient, Matsumoto said.
"Our research shows that once they come to Hawaii, they always want to come back," she said.