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Ample seating in isles as visitors grow frugal


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POSTED: Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hawaii's struggling visitor industry could be getting more bad news this summer instead of its usual droves of peak-season vacationers.

Fewer than half of Americans are planning to vacation this summer, and less than a quarter of them plan to take a long trip, according to the results of the biennial poll released last week by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, a survey research center at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

This more frugal consumer sentiment poses a greater challenge to remote destinations like Hawaii than it does for states that are only a quick car trip away. As a result, members of Hawaii's visitor industry are braced for a lackluster summer.

"With a very weak first quarter and such a sharp drop-off during the second quarter, I'd have to think that we'll be looking at a soft summer," said Joseph Toy, president of Hospitality Advisors LLC. "We'll probably see a seasonal bump, but it's not likely to be as big as what we've seen in the past."

The problems aren't unique to Hawaii, Toy said. Destinations across the United States are also struggling, he said, adding that hoteliers are discounting to make travel more attractive.

But discounting might not significantly budge demand.

According to the Marist Poll, only 49 percent of Americans plan to take a summer vacation this year. That's down from the 63 percent who planned to hit the road in 2007, the last time the poll was conducted. It's also the first time that summer travel demand has dropped below 50 percent since at least 2000.

It all comes down to money, said researchers, who surveyed 1,128 adults from across the nation. Results, which were based on telephone interviews conducted from March 9-11, were statistically significant at plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Annual household income was the biggest determiner of travel plans, according to poll results. Only 38 percent of those who were making less than $50,000 are planning to travel in the next few months as compared with 57 percent of those who make between $50,000 and $99,000, and 77 percent of those who earn more than $100,000.

"People are questioning every expense," said Jerry Gibson, Hawaii-area vice president and managing director of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. "When they decide to spend a certain amount of money, most people are on a budget."

Fewer Americans are planning long summer vacations this year than they were in 2007. Only 23 percent of those surveyed planned to take a long trip this summer as compared with 28 percent in 2007. Even demand for shorter summer trips is down as evidenced by a 14-point percentage drop since 2007.

Worse yet, more than a third of all Americans have changed their travel plans to save money, the poll reported. And, nearly four in 10 Americans are planning to spend less this year on their vacation.

Hawaii's summer bookings are trickling in slowly as people search for the best deal, said Bob Froio, vice president of Hawaii wholesaler Condominium Connection.

"With all the discounting, we've actually conditioned the consumer to wait for the specials," Froio said.

During the early part of the first quarter, bookings were down about 40 percent from a year earlier, he said.

"As airfares to Hawaii come down, I think we'll pick up at least 15 percent more business," Froio said, adding he expects the season will be about 25 to 30 percent off.