Oahu, seen here, and Maui continue to be the most popular islands among visitors to Hawaii.
Tour operators share insights on pricing and booking trends for 2011.
After suffering several severe blows during the recession, Hawaii’s tourism scene seems to be on a decided upswing.
Major new hotels are making headlines across the industry, with brand names like St. Regis, and Donald Trump and Ian Schrager investing heavily in the islands. Next year, Disney will open its first mixed-use, standalone family destination resort on Oahu.
We touched base with several tour operators to find out how their Hawaiian packages were faring compared to last year, and what they expected for the new year ahead.
Elizabeth Moriarty, vice president of product development at MLT Vacations, says the company is seeing double-digit increases over 2009 numbers. In fact, she said, the increase was close to triple digits. They’re even better than 2008, which she says is a better barometer. For 2011, the brand is seeing a year-to-year increase of more than 50 percent over 2010. The trend of last-minute bookings has continued, she adds, so the numbers stand to get even better.
Kevin Wilmore, vice president and general manager of Blue Sky Tours, says his company’s 2010 numbers are “ahead of forecast and budget.” The company, he adds, is seeing “good volume as far ahead as next summer.” They are not seeing as many last-second specials, and there are fewer “desperation moves” by properties. “Vendors have resisted the urge to move prices up too quickly,” he says. “Everyone from the HVCB [Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau] to hoteliers is very conscious of that. Everyone would like to see prices go up, but no one wants to move too quickly.” Of all the islands, Maui and Oahu are the most popular, he notes.
Steve Gorga, president and CEO of Travel Impressions, has also seen a double-digit increase in travel to Hawaii and, like Wilmore, notes Maui’s popularity.
“Maui has been pacing ahead consistently since January with extraordinary growth over 2009,” he says. “TI’s business to Oahu was a little slower in the beginning of this year, but has shown stronger growth since mid-year. Fall, a softer season traditionally, is showing numbers comparable to the early summer weeks of 2010. And, with bookings still coming in the very last minute, we’re receiving many holiday travel requests.”
Hotels and Resorts
Hotels all over the state have lowered prices, Moriarty says, creating a unique opportunity for visitors. “Customers who stayed in moderate hotels—three stars and below—are now purchasing three stars and above.” The Trump Waikiki Beachwalk is “a very well-known brand name,” she adds. She also praises the St. Regis Princeville on Kauai, which she notes has seen a “nice jump in business, even though they’re at a higher price.” People looking for that level of luxury, she notes, will travel to St. Regises around the world. The Waikiki Edition opened in October courtesy of a partnership between Ian Schrager and Marriott, and Moriarty says MLT will add the hotel to its roster.
Gorga says most of TraveI Impressions’ Hawaii hotel partners have “conservatively increased” rates while still offering promotions like free nights and value-adds. “These new properties have the strength of world-class names such as Marriot, Westin and Trump, but it’s difficult to say if they will appeal more to the Hawaii traveler than the ‘tried-and-true’ hotels,” he cautioned.
Wilmore acknowledges that new hotels do attract new business, especially when they’re high-profile properties that appeal to brand-loyal clients. Still, he adds, destination hotels are not as big in Hawaii as they are elsewhere in the world. “Most people don’t plan to stay on the resort,” he says.
What Travelers Want
Both Moriarty and Wilmore agree there is a great divide in visitor expectations depending on where they are from. For example, travelers from the East Coast generally stay longer and will spend more on unique experiences: “In the West Coast, people want value,” Wilmore says. It’s not about budget or economy; they have most likely been there before and have more opportunities to return. Also, the flight to Hawaii from California takes half the time as the trip from New York. When people come from farther away, Wilmore says, Hawaii becomes a dream vacation. “They’re not looking for the lowest price,” Moriarty says. “They’re looking for a lifetime experience.”
Gorga says value-adds like complimentary breakfast and resort credits are attractive to travelers. “Although current consumers are concerned with value-for-money, they are also looking for unique experiences,” he says. “Hawaii offers both. However, airfare will continue to be a key deciding factor for prospective travelers.”
To help appeal to niche markets, Moriarty says, MLT has created several unique programs with dedicated reservation specialists. For example, this fall, the company launched a customizable destination wedding program that lets couples marry where and how they want to. “You don’t have to stay at a particular hotel,” she says. “They can stay at any place in the product offerings and still get the wedding package.”
Couples can get married in a park, on a beach, or just about anywhere. “We added things like limo transfers, luxury condos as well as resorts,” Moriarty says. Guests using the program can expect to fly first class, and have a limo pick them up to bring them to the airport. “We’re of the mindset that we have a mature Hawaii program, and we want to capture customers who not only want to book air and hotel, but also the full package: golf, spa and even ecotourism.”
Kipahulu Valley in Maui’s Haleakala National Park