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StarBulletin.com

No fun for fun parks


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POSTED: Sunday, March 29, 2009

Promotions across Hawaii have enticed some travelers to visit despite the slumping economy, but activities and attractions across the state are having a harder time getting their share of the tourist dollar.

The downturn in Hawaii's visitor industry has been magnified for the state's activities and attractions, said Toni Marie Davis, the executive director of the Activities and Attractions Association of Hawaii (A3H), which represents some 208 members, who run 1,500 different tours and attractions in the state.

“;People coming here need to fly in, and they pretty much need to stay in a hotel, and maybe they'll need a rental car, but they do not need to spend money eating out, shopping for souvenirs or on activities and attractions,”; Davis said.

On average, Davis said business for her industry has shrunk some 15 percent since the global economic downturn began; however, she said some businesses have fared better and others have been off as much as 50 percent.

Newer businesses with unique products, established branding or limited capacity have been less affected, Davis said. Luaus, ziplines, specialized hiking and other attractions without direct fuel costs have not been as heavily affected by the downturn, she said.

That's been the case for the Hilton Hawaiian Village's new luau, which opened in late February, said Jerry Gibson, Hawaii area vice president and managing director of Hilton Hawaiian Village.

“;It has met with great response,”; Gibson said. “;But, then again, we've left little to chance. We have put a huge effort into marketing and presales.”;

Similarly, Matthew Gray, of Hawaii Food Tours, said his company has continued to expand despite the downturn in tourism and the ailing economy.

“;My company, Hawaii Food Tours (HawaiiFoodTours.com) is actually thriving right now. Business is better than ever,”; said Gray, adding that his business has improved by more than 50 percent in the past year.

However, venues that have relied heavily on fuel, such as land and boat tours, have reported an average decline in sales of 28 percent in 2008 as compared to the year prior, Davis said. Quite a few businesses, especially the high-overhead startups or the smaller mom-and-pops, have closed, Davis said.

“;The numbers are way down for our industry,”; she said. “;Revenues are down and expenses are rising. Layoffs have started. A3H, my organization, even had to lay off half its staff.”;

The economy has forced Sea Life Park on Oahu to operate more efficiently, said Jesus Bravo, general manager of Sea Life Park.

“;Last year, we had to lay off 20 percent of our staff and we began closing areas of our operation that are not used by our guests,”; Bravo said.

Some Hawaii companies haven't laid off workers but have cut back employee hours or ended relationships with consultants and outside contractors, Davis said.

“;Many activity businesses pay their employees by the trip,”; Davis said. “;With less people, there are less trips and less work. For some employees, the cutback in schedule has them looking for additional work to supplement and wondering how to make ends meet.”;

In light of the downturn, many members also have reported completely stopping purchases of new equipment, signing leases or advertising, Davis said. However, others are increasing their advertising in Canadian/European markets, whose visitors tend to stay longer in Hawaii and spend more, and many have increased their Internet marketing.

Anne Murata, director of marketing for the Pacific Aviation Museum, said that a strong coupon program on the company Web site has helped despite the downturn.

“;We're offering a free combat-simulator flight, and it's driving people to the site,”; Murata said. “;We're doing a lot of couponing online, and we've seeing a nice return on that and on other concerted marketing efforts, such as our e-mail marketing and emphasis on public relations.”;

Murata said that the museum also has begun freshening its event offerings for visitors and kamaaina.

“;Anything new helps to renew interest,”; she said.

With that in mind, Sea Life Park used the downturn to renovate its Hawaiian Ocean Theater.

“;We are open 365 days a year, so it would have been very complicated to perform these renovations if we weren't in a downturn,”; Bravo said. “;We saw this as an opportunity to make improvements that will help us when the economy recovers.”;

Likewise, Hilton Hawaiian Village has invested more than $11 million renovating its Tropics restaurant and opening a new luau in Waikiki Beach.

“;You have to continue to upgrade your product,”; Gibson said. “;Now is the time to shine the brass and improve the product so that when the economy recovers we are ready. “;

Gibson, who recently returned to Hawaii about five months ago, said he envisions re-creating Hilton Hawaiian Village as Waikiki's premier entertainment campus. So while many hotel companies have cut entertainment and food and beverage offerings in the wake of the economic downturn, Hilton is developing new products.

Like Hawaii's hotels, another way that the state's activities and attractions have stepped up marketing efforts is to offer visitors and kamaaina guests more value, Davis said. While most members have shied away from discounting, there has been increased packaging of products, she said.

Hawaii-based activity companies like Atlantis Submarines and Atlantis Navatek I Cruises are offering “;vacation stimulus packages”; for their ocean tours. The company's most significant savings program, which runs through April 30, offers couples on Oahu up to $72 off the cost of a combined submarine tour and a sunset dinner cruise or whale watch lunch cruise.

“;This is the deepest discount that we've ever offered,”; said Eric Burgoyne, vice president of sales and marketing for Atlantis Submarines.

The company's submarine tour and luau package on Maui also can save couples up to $84 and its combined submarine and snorkel tour on the Big Island offers up to $54 off per couples.

While 70 percent of Sea Life Park's guests are tourists, the company has been aggressively targeting the kamaaina market, Bravo said.

“;We have kamaaina rates for many different programs, but our best offer is a two-for-one price for kamaaina that want to swim with the dolphins,”; he said. “;Since our regular rate is $99, the offer means that they can swim with a dolphin for about $50 — that's the best price that we've ever offered.”;

But it's not all about pricing. In a down economy, customers add service into the value equation, so quality control is important.

Customer service is a primary factor in the success of Hawaii Food Tours, Gray said.

“;We always go the extra mile to make sure that our guests are treated like family,”; he said.

And, if that doesn't work, good food always sweetens the deal, Gray said.

“;Food is such a primal aspect of our existence,”; he said. “;Breaking bread with someone is one of the most intimate experiences you can share. Our guests who are visiting Honolulu need to eat every day, but they want something different, better, and more memorable than ever before ... and that's what we offer.”;