The $350 million Hawaii Convention Center is on a mission to fill the holes in its booking calendar.

Short-term boost

Last-minute bookings by Japanese
groups are helping to fill the
underdog Hawaii Convention Center

While Hawaii's visitor industry is still struggling to bring Japan's leisure market bookings back to a shadow of its former self, the strength of Japan's group incentive market has brought new hope that the Hawaii Convention Center will be able to recover from booking shortfalls.


The Hawaii Convention Center's out-of-state bookings as of June 2004:

2004  -- 35
2005  -- 20
2006  -- 16
2007  -- 13
2008  -- 5
2009  -- 8
2010  -- 3
2011  -- 4
2012  -- 3
2013  -- 2
2014  -- 1
2015  -- 1

Source: Hawaii Convention Center

Hawaii's $350 million convention center, which opened in 1998, is still an underdog in the competitive business meetings and incentive market, where bookings are made six to eight years out. While the convention center has been able to meet or exceed its annual target of 34 to 40 out-of-state events per year, forward bookings have been a harder sell, said Randy Tanaka, director of sales and marketing at the Hawaii Convention Center.

Hawaii will host 35 events from out of state at the convention this year, but only 20 are scheduled for next year, 16 for 2006 and 13 for 2007, he said.

The drop-off in advance bookings is worrisome for the Hawaii Convention Center because it's already too late to book events before 2009 through the conventional meetings market, Tanaka said.

Most meeting planners are booking major convention center space for 2009 to 2012, but the Hawaii Convention Center is still trying to find short-term bookings to fill a void caused by a softening economy, terrorism, the war with Iraq and SARS, he said.

"We got a late start," Tanaka said, adding that bookings where behind 60 percent when Philadelphia-based SMG took over management and marketing of the center from the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau last year.

"But you can't surrender the day, you have to try," he said.

The convention center is running discount promotions geared to encouraging large groups to book events. One limited promotion offers a 50-percent discount on facility rent and $50,000 in incentives to select new clients. Free facility rental is also available to clients who book for 2005-2008 during an upcoming Professional Convention Management Association show, which will be held at the Hawaii Convention Center in January.

Slow start

SMG started out 2003 with only 22 events booked at the center for that year and managed to add another 15 by relying on short-term bookings from Japanese groups, he said.

"We would have thought everything had dried up, but the Japan market has been buying in the year for the year," Tanaka said. "They make up about 25 percent of the total incentive business."

Although the Japanese economy has been weak in recent years, Japan's direct sale and multilevel or network companies are booming, said Dave Erdman, president and chief executive officer of PacRim Marketing, the local firm hired by SMG to cultivate the Asian convention market.

It makes good business sense for Hawaii to tap Japan's growing corporate use of travel incentives to offset booking deficits, because these companies can make quick travel decisions, Erdman said.

"After a disastrous decade, markets, household spending and once struggling sectors are soaring in Japan," Erdman said, adding that Japan is benefiting from China's booming economy and the strength of other nearby Asian countries, and that time is repairing the bursting of the Japanese bubble.

Japan's business model is also rapidly changing from an age-based to merit-based employee reward system, he said. "More companies will offer incentive trips to recognize employees," Erdman said.

The Hawaii Convention Center's promotional materials are pictured above.

And the center, which in June hosted the annual meeting for Neways, one of the fastest growing multilevel marketing companies in Japan, is capitalizing on these conditions, Erdman said.

"We have a great destination and can offer the right product for businesses that are looking to recognize their employees," he said.

Thinking ahead

While capitalizing on conditions in the Japan market to fill short-term booking holes is important to the short-term success of the convention center, developing long-term booking opportunities is vital to the continued success of the center, Tanaka said.

"It's game time," Tanaka said. "We need to be strategic, smart and tactical about what we are doing."

Beside targeting the Japanese market and offering discounts, the center is launching several plays designed to bring bookings up to speed, he said.

SMG launched a direct mail campaign called, "The Hawaii Advantage," at the end of June. Thousands of campaign brochures will be mailed to key customers and the ads have run in trade publications.

"The campaign is designed to get people to understand that you can do business in this state," Tanaka said.

SMG Hawaii has also launched a networking program, called Hawaii Business Ambassadors, to assist in promoting meeting and convention business for Hawaii.

The program will designate local community members as envoys to expand Hawaii's market potential by increasing business at the Hawaii Convention Center, said Frank Haas, director of tourism marketing for the state Hawaii Tourism Authority.

"Hawaii Business Ambassadors is an innovative program to tap into the expertise and connections that we have right here in Hawaii," Haas said. "This type of program will certainly contribute to our goal of attracting more business related travel."

Hawaii Convention Center


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