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Bringing Hawaii Closer

September 13, 2012 By: Jena Tesse Fox Travel Agent


Diamond Head
Diamond Head is still the most iconic image not only of Waikiki, but all of Hawaii.

Hawaii is more accessible than ever: With new airlift and new (or remodeled) hotels attracting new business, even dedicated fans will find something new to explore.

In addition to the Hawaii Travel Planner included in this issue and on Travel Agent University, here is what you need to know about how your clients can get to Hawaii, where they can stay and what they should do while there.

Hawaii by Air

A little less than a year ago, Hawaiian Airlines announced that it would begin nonstop flights from New York City’s JFK International Airport to Honolulu on the airline’s new long-haul A330 planes. Not long after, United Airlines announced that it, too, would provide nonstop service from the East Coast. In addition to its existent Newark flights, it added flights from Washington, D.C.

And while Hawaiian isn’t the first airline to fly nonstop from the East Coast to Honolulu, Peter Ingram, the airline’s chief commercial officer (and former CFO) told Travel Agent that these flights would be unique. United flies all over the world, but Hawaiian is focused exclusively on Hawaii, he explained. And that can make all the difference.

“That focus is the core to what we do,” he explained. “We’re not looking just to survive, but to thrive in a competitive industry. We have to rely on that focus, and on being different when others are more alike.” Not that the airline is afraid of competition: “This market is big enough for two carriers. And the strong advance bookings support that. The New York-Honolulu flight is ahead of our West Coast flights for the remainder of the year.” 

With the first transcontinental flights already selling well, the airline is looking to see where its next East Coast market will be. “It’s too early to say,” Ingram said. “We’re looking at alternatives in big markets that we think are capable of supporting our service.” Ingram estimates that the next East Coast destination for Hawaiian will not be announced until summer 2013. Until then, the airline’s codeshare partnership with JetBlue will bring customers from up and down the coast to New York for their Hawaii flight.

Hawaiian’s Airbus A330
Hawaiian’s Airbus A330 planes are allowing for longer-haul flights, both domestic and international.


Meanwhile, the airline is also expanding its West Coast service, and will soon double its nonstop flights to 14 per week year-round between the San Francisco Bay Area and Maui. Effective October 3, Hawaiian will fly daily to Maui from both Oakland and San Jose, adding nearly 90,000 new air seats annually to Maui. Concurrent with the increase in service to Maui, Hawaiian’s daily service to Honolulu from Oakland will go to four days per week, and service to Honolulu from San Jose will go to three days per week.

Other airlines are also stepping up their service to the islands. Allegiant Air, for example, will increase flights to Hawaii from cities in Idaho, Washington, Arizona, California and Oregon.

Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon is one of Kauai’s most popular attractions.

Flying Local

Of course, Oahu is just one of many Hawaiian islands, and there is plenty to see and do on Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Kauai and Hawaii Island (formerly called the Big Island). In July, Hawaiian implemented a new fare structure for neighbor island travel to lower ticket prices by up to 25 percent. In addition, the airline’s parent company, Hawaiian Holdings, said that it was looking to create a subsidiary carrier to serve routes not currently in Hawaiian’s neighbor island system.

Ann Botticelli of Hawaiian Airlines told Travel Agent that the company had increased its interisland capacity by about 13 percent this year. Notably, the airline established a new hub at Maui’s Kahului Airport to allow more connections for the mainland’s west coast and also to connect from Maui directly to other islands, such as Kauai and Hawaii Island, without going through Honolulu. “We think that the average price of our ticket will probably remain the same or go down a little bit, but we do believe our load factor will go up,” she said. “We think that we can fill some of the planes in the less-popular times with this new fare structure.”

Poipu Beach, Kauai.
Monk seals frolic on Poipu Beach, Kauai.

Tour operators and agents agreed that the new prices would be helpful for promoting visits to the neighbor islands. Tamara Aalto, product manager at local tour operator All About Hawaii, said that travel to neighbor islands on a through-fare is a big benefit for travelers who want to see more of the state. “We encourage neighbor island and multi-island vacations whenever possible,” she added, “and the increased service will make it easier for clients.”

Bruce Fisher, owner of Honolulu-based agency Hawaii Aloha Travel, noted that peak travel times will probably still be the most expensive, and taking less-popular flights could prove cumbersome: “If you leave at 5 a.m. to go to another island, you have to wait a long time to check into your hotel when you arrive,” he pointed out. To that, Aalto suggested that agents book their clients a same-day tour prior to checking into their hotel. “We also see itineraries traveling to neighbor islands just for a day of sightseeing,” she added, noting that early flights are preferred for these kinds of day trips.

Polynesian Cultural Center
The Polynesian Cultural Center will turn 50 next year.


The Tour Operators

The boost in airlift is, of course, very useful for tour operators, and several reported an increase in visits that they attributed to the new flights. Jonna Jackson, senior director, global product for Classic Vacations, says that Classic’s numbers for August were “very strong,” and that they had many “sold-out” days last month—“We haven’t seen [that] in a few years,” she adds.

Jack Richards, president of Pleasant Holidays, notes that Hawaii has replaced all the air seats lost with the demise of Aloha Airlines and ATA Airlines in 2008, which he estimates to be about one million. “Alaska Airlines has increased service from California and the Pacific Northwest, and now Hawaii represents approximately 15 percent of Alaska’s total flights…With oil prices stabilizing, airfares are competitive with other destinations.”

Polynesian Cultural Center
Families can go canoeing in the “Hawaii” section of the Polynesian Cultural Center.


Susan Kownacki, director of sales and marketing at Blue Sky Tours, notes that while the new flights are bringing more passengers from the East Coast, Blue Sky has not seen the same increase in the origins from which Allegiant has launched flights. Allegiant, she explains, is not in the GDS, so the company is unable to book them.

Pleasant Holidays’ Hawaii business was up double digits during the peak travel season and single digits during the non-peak season, Richards adds, noting that 2013 is tracking up double digits compared to same time last year. “Forward-looking demand is strong,” he says. “Group demand is very robust for fall 2012 and winter 2013.”

Oahu is Pleasant’s top destination, although Richards acknowledges “some difficulty” with room inventory during peak summer travel season due to increase in travel from Japan, China, South Korea and Australia. “Maui remains popular, but relatively flat year-over-year due to room rate increases and airfares,” he adds. “We expect this to change in 2013 with the new Hawaiian Airlines Hub as we are seeing significant air seat capacity increases to Maui from the San Francisco Bay Area in fall 2012 and full year 2013.” Richards also expects rates on Oahu and Maui to increase next year due to “high compression” on Oahu, which he says forces more business to Maui, which (in turn) drives higher room rates.

Aulani, Disney’s
Aulani, Disney’s first Hawaiian resort, will undergo a renovation and expansion starting in the fall.


Conversely, Jackson says that Maui is “growing well” for Classic, and is still its top island. “We are bringing our top travel agents to Maui next year in May!” she adds.

Kownacki notes that Hawaiian’s new hub on Maui is more focused on supporting interisland air rather than mainland traffic. “Hawaiian did introduce a few direct flights out of LAX and the Bay Area, which are top origins for us, as they are for most who sell travel to Hawaii, so that is certainly a good thing, but I believe these flights are only offered over the summer,” she adds.

Interestingly, the tour operators saw different booking windows for this year, with Richards saying sales have “contracted” from 2011. Even groups and honeymooners are booking 30-60 days out, he says. Jackson, meanwhile, says that Classic is seeing an increase in the booking window, “especially when people realize that space may be tough to get in peak season.” Kownacki, for her part, sees extremes on either end of the spectrum, with visitors booking within the 60-day window, and even more bookings 120 days (or longer) out.

The Niche Markets

Hawaii is also stepping up its appeal to different groups—from couples to families to girlfriends looking for a fun getaway to foodies looking to sample locally sourced cuisine. 

First, couples. In January, Hawaii officially began recognizing civil unions, opening up the many resorts and hotels to a new destination wedding market. No sooner was the legislation enacted than Maui’s Grand Wailea announced that it would offer both civil unions and commitment ceremonies in the hotel chapel or on the beach. The ceremonies incorporate Hawaiian culture, like lei exchanges, conch-blowing or a luau.

Aulani, Disney’s first Hawaiian resort
Aulani, Disney’s first Hawaiian resort, will undergo a renovation and expansion starting in the fall.

The Four Seasons Resort Lanai now has a dedicated wedding specialist, who is licensed by the state of Hawaii to authorize marriage and civil union licenses. The specialist can help organize the wedding and help take care of the paperwork. (Hawaii requires all couples getting married or hosting a civil union ceremony to appear in person at the Health Department to obtain a license prior to the wedding.) 

Families, meanwhile, always have plenty to explore throughout the islands, though this coming year marks a particular anniversary that is worth celebrating. Oahu’s Polynesian Cultural Center turns 50 in 2013, and will be hosting special events throughout the year. The center’s Hukilau Theater will reopen with a “volcano” exterior, and will have a high-tech theater for shows and presentations. The biggest development will be the brand-new Polynesian Market Place, which will be accessible without a ticket or entry to the main center. The marketplace will have island-themed stores, a ukulele factory, a new restaurant and island-style snack wagons. 

Families should also make time to explore the Honolulu Zoo, which partners with several hotels in the area, including Marriott, Aqua, Aston and Hilton, offering admission discounts to guests. Several recent developments at the zoo include a newly expanded elephant enclosure and new animals (even new species). The zoo also has some ongoing fun events beyond the wildlife. Night tours and an ongoing concert series bring in new guests that might otherwise not consider a trip to the zoo for their family vacation. Throughout the year, special events like dinner safaris, stargazing classes and overnight sessions are also good picks for families.

Wailua Falls, Hana Maui
Wailua Falls, Hana Maui, is one of many such natural wonders in the islands.


Girlfriends on a getaway, meanwhile, will want to check out Maui’s Grand Wailea resort, which, at 50,000 square feet and with 40 treatment rooms, reportedly has the largest spa in the islands. The aptly named Spa Grande will be launching new therapies that take the culinary “farm-to-table” trend and bring it into the world of wellness with what the team calls “farm-to-spa-table,” using products sourced either at the resort itself (from its 600 coconut trees or seven rooftop beehives) or around the islands. (In the spirit of full equality, of course, we hear that the spa has many treatments and options dedicated to men, and that the Grande team has seen a strong increase in guys looking to experience spa culture. Guyfriend Getaways, anyone?) 

And for details on Hawaii’s growing foodie scene and the many festivals that celebrate the islands’ unique culinary flavor, take a look at our Hawaii Travel Planner, which has plenty of information on where to go to try different kinds of foods.

The Hotels

One of the biggest hotel openings in Hawaii was Aulani, Disney’s hotel and resort on Oahu, which made its debut a year ago. When we explored the resort at its opening, we noted its family-friendly water park and rather pricey dining options. One year later, Aulani is already undergoing renovation, with improvements to the water park and new eateries in the works. The new pool, splash zone and additional deck space will extend to the very edge of the resort property, with the pool’s “infinity edge” overlooking the adjoining lagoon. The family pool will have a grotto for more subdued water play, while kids can run around in the splash zone.

Halekulani on the beach in Waikiki
A renovated guest room at Halekulani on the beach in Waikiki.


Two new food service locations will also debut in coming months. One will be adjacent to the new water play area and the existing Wailana Pool, and will serve light fare (think continental breakfast and sandwiches or salads) that will be good for alfresco dining on the adjoining patio. A second quick-service eatery will open at the beach, offering grab-and-go snacks and easy access for beachgoers. 

These improvements are all according to plan, says Randy Garfield, executive vice president, Worldwide Sales and Travel Operations, Disney Destinations, and president of the Walt Disney Travel Company. “The timing of many of the new features were already planned based on our phased opening of Aulani, which will bring us to full opening within a two-year period. So many of these enhancements were already scheduled.” 

These aren’t the first changes the resort has seen. Shortly after opening, Aulani added a new quick-service eatery on the pool deck, Mama’s Snack Stop, and later added lunch service at the Makahiki restaurant to supplement the dinner buffet and character breakfast. Breakfast service was also added to the lineup at the oceanfront ‘AMA’AMA restaurant. These additions and improvements came from watching guests and noting what they want or need, Garfield explains, a practice that he says is consistent across the Disney brand. “It’s a very organic process to watch how guests react to your new product and to make enhancements along the way.” 

Coming up, Garfield says that the resort will also expand its retail offerings to supplement the two stores that already sell dedicated Aulani-branded merchandise.

On Waikiki, Halekulani recently emerged from a renovation to its 453 rooms and suites. The refurbishment focused on maximizing natural light and the seaside setting. All guest rooms have new furnishings and new accessories and amenities, enhanced in-room technology, and reconceived new bathrooms and new lanai furniture. The resort also recently introduced a new bar concept, L’Aperitif, in La Mer, Halekulani’s restaurant. The bar can function as a pre-dining spot for a cocktail and “amuse bouche,” or can be a destination in itself for an evening out.

This year is the 45th anniversary of the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach, which is currently in the middle of its renovation. Everything that impacts guests—such as refurbishing the oceanfront room lanais and reworking the pool—is being completed in stages to minimize impact. Major construction, which was paused for the peak season, will start again this month, meaning that any guests visiting while the construction is in progress will get a refreshed room. The renovations should be completed by November. Bonus: Thanks to the city’s beach reclamation, the hotel has 35 extra feet of sand and surf for guests to relax on. 

And on Maui, the Westin will get a multimillion-dollar room refurbishment that will cover 553 guest rooms and suites in the Ocean Tower. The rooms will have new furniture, carpeting and decor as well as a new “spa-like” glass-enclosed shower in place of the former bathtub. Vanity units will also be moved to make way for larger closet space. Construction will continue through early spring, and the facilities will remain open. Guests will still be able to use both the Ocean and Beach Towers, and the spa, restaurants bars and “aquatic playground” will all be available. In order to minimize guest impact, only one floor will be renovated at a time, and the floors above and below the construction will be taken out of service. 

By the Numbers

It looks like all of the investment in airlift to Hawaii is paying off. When the Hawaii Tourism Authority released its preliminary statistics for June (the month that Hawaiian Airlines launched its nonstop service between New York and Honolulu and United launched nonstop service between Washington, D.C. and the state capital), the increases were substantial.

Total expenditures by visitors who came to Hawaii in June 2012 rose 20.4 percent to $1.2 billion, compared to the previous year ($207 million), a new record for the month of June. Strong growth in total arrivals (+11.5 percent to 677,218 visitors) and higher daily spending contributed to this increase.

All of which, combined, points to a promising 2013 (and beyond) for Hawaii, and a strong start to a new era in the islands’ tourism scene.

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About the Author

Jena Tesse Fox
Jena Tesse Fox covers Europe, Africa, Australia/South Pacific and business travel for the Questex Travel Group's publications. The daughter of history teachers, she can spend...

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By Jena Tesse Fox | September 13, 2012
New airlift is making it easier than ever to get to Hawaii. But how are hotels and tour operators taking advantage of the improved access?