TOURISM: Hawaii officials look for help
Conference aims to boost isle tourism
Industry officials hope to offer visitors "So Much More Hawaii"
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With fall bookings projected to drop from 10 to 30 percent across all islands, more than 700 attendees registered for the two-day Hawaii tourism conference, which began yesterday.
The strong turnout was a sign of the times. During the boom years, Hawaii's tourism leaders and visitor industry members would have been too busy putting heads on beds to stop and talk about Hawaii's value equation. Now, with consumer confidence at a 17-year low and travelers from every category eyeballing costs, selling a trip to Hawaii has got to include talk of value along with surf and sand.
Rising airfares and struggles within the airline industry already have caused a drop in Hawaii's visitor market that is expected to continue. And, experts say that the era of the low-fare passenger service is pretty much over.
As a result, members of the state's visitor industry must convince visitors that making a long-haul trek to the islands is worth the time and ever-increasing price. Going forward, visitors to Hawaii will need to see the conference theme, "So Much More Hawaii," translated into reality.
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During the top of Hawaii's last visitor boom when the destination was focused on luxury branding, hoteliers and visitor industry members throughout the state repositioned their products to appeal to a higher-spending visitor.
Now, with consumer confidence at a 17-year low and travelers from every category eyeballing costs, selling a trip to Hawaii has got to include talk of value along with surf and sand. Since Hawaii's last renovation cycle has left the state with fewer budget and economy properties and attractions, members of the state's visitor industry must convince visitors that making a long-haul trek to the islands is worth the time and ever-increasing price.
Members of the state's visitor industry cannot halt the rising travel costs that have impacted travel to Hawaii this year, so instead many met yesterday to participate in a two-day state tourism conference that was aimed at coming up with a strategy to give visitors "So Much More Hawaii." With current passenger counts for Hawaii's struggling visitor industry fading faster than a summer tan and fall bookings projected to drop from 10 to 30 percent across all islands, opening day at the conference posted a strong turnout. In better times, Hawaii's tourism leaders and visitor industry members would have been too busy putting heads on beds to stop and talk about Hawaii's value equation.
"We have 700 registered for this conference -- that's a strong indicator of the unity of Hawaii's visitor industry during these challenging times," said Rex Johnson, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, one of the conference hosts.
As concerns rise about prices and the economy, more travelers are choosing to stay closer to home and the big spenders are pulling back. While Hawaii's visitor industry has struggled before, especially right after 9/11, few Hawaii hoteliers can recall a time when visitor counts and projections looked so bleak. More than ever, Hawaii's visitor industry needs to come together to get the message to visitors that "Hawaii is an incomparable value for what the destination has to offer," Johnson said.
Even in the boom years, Hawaii -- the most geographically remote destination on earth -- was never able to compete on price, said State Tourism Liaison Marsha Wienert.
"We have to show visitors that we can offer them something here that they can't get anywhere else," Wienert said. "We have to convey value by offering them a unique Hawaii experience."
It's difficult to get visitors to look for value beyond price. However, the good news is that Hawaii might be better positioned than most destinations to make the point. Few visitors to Hawaii come in search of a cheap vacation and most are drawn by their deep interest in the Hawaiian culture, according to several travel media who led a session on how the state's visitor industry can better communicate its message in these trying times.
"Hawaii's never going to be a cheap destination and that's not why (visitors) come here. Culture is your advantage," said Jeanne Cooper, the former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle's travel section who now writes a biweekly Aloha Friday column for the Chronicle's Web site, SFGate.com.
That said, the best deals will focus on opportunities for visitors, said Mario Mercado, arts and research editor for Travel & Leisure magazine.
"More and more today and especially tomorrow, readers are looking for value. That's pertinent whether they are staying at a luxury five-star property or a small B&B," Mercado said. "They want the sense that they are getting as much or more than what they have (ordered). It's about the quality of service and the wealth of the experience."
Since Hawaii as a fly-to destination is more dependent on fuel charges and economic downturn, the state needs to cultivate more visitors, like honeymooners or special-occasion groups that will not let the economy stand in the way of their planned trip, said Toni Salama, the executive travel editor for VideoVisits Inc.
"If you focus on those types of travelers, they will get you over the downturn," Salama said, adding that Hawaii is well-positioned to attract travelers that are searching for a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience.