Honing Your Hawaii Sales



Hawaii continues to have one of its most positive years in tourism in quite some time, but what are the reasons for all the recent success? And how will Hawaii keep the momentum going? Better yet, how can agents turn Hawaii’s success into more money?

To answer those questions and more, Travel Agent magazine and some of the biggest players in Hawaii tourism gathered at the Outrigger Reef on the Beach on Oahu shortly after Questex Media Group’s annual Hawaii Travel Exchange.

David Uchiyama
David Uchiyama, Hawaii Tourism Authority, and Jana Lavell, MLT Vacations, sound off during the recent Hawaii Roundtable.

In attendance were Joe Pike, senior editor for Travel Agent magazine; Ben Rafter, president and CEO of Aqua Resorts & Hotels; Greg Bernd, co-president of Classic Vacations; David Uchiyama, vice president of brand management for the Hawaii Tourism Authority; John Monahan, president and CEO of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau; Kimberly Daley, vice president and managing director of Journese; Lois Shore, vice president of distribution and marketing services for Outrigger Hotels & Resorts; Dale Carstensen, director of sales and marketing for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Hawaii; Cindy Gagle, director of sales and marketing for Turtle Bay Resort; Shari Chang, senior vice president of sales, marketing and revenue for Aston Hotels & Resorts; Jana Lavell, regional sales manager for MLT Vacations; Paula Takamori, travel agent with Travel to Paradise; Wendy Goodenow, travel agent for HNL Travel Associates; and Paul Toner, general manager at JW Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa.

Here are some of the highlights of that discussion, with a transcript below. 

Joe Pike, Travel Agent magazine: Our last Hawaii Roundtable was conducted in 2010. Besides an increase in airlift, what else has changed about the destination that agents should be aware of?

Paul Toner, JW Marriott: In the last two years, I think that the biggest difference for us, specifically in Ko Olina, is that the resort destination is starting to blossom. So we have more infrastructure that’s being built out there. It’s really making a difference, and now when our guests are coming to that area, not only are they looking into Oahu or Waikiki, but guests are looking at Pearl Harbor, the North Shore.

Lois Shore, Outrigger Hotels & Resorts: We’ve had new resorts, we’ve had new beaches added, and we have new flights. Outrigger activities desk told us the other day that they have 5,000 activities to sell in the islands now. I don’t know how agents would keep it straight unless they come here and really experience Hawaii for themselves. It’s the best way to sell with confidence. 

Greg Bernd and Ben Rafter
Greg Bernd, Classic Vacations, and Ben Rafter, Aqua Resorts & Hotels, take part in the recent Hawaii Roundtable.

Dale Carstensen, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Hawaii: One of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the last two years is reinvestment, not just from the hotel side but also from the resort side as a whole. There’s a lot more influx regarding Korean travelers and Chinese travelers, which has brought a completely different dynamic to the destination, as well.

Jana Lavell, MLT Vacations: Having just come off the Hawaii Travel Exchange and doing the one-on-ones with the agents, it was interesting to ask them firsthand how they would sell Hawaii against the Caribbean and Mexico, and over and over again we heard a lot of the “aha” moments where they said the safety factor can really be capitalized on, the freedom of getting in a car and driving and experiencing everything and painting the experiences as different than what they would do in the Caribbean and Mexico. We also just came off our planning meetings back in Minneapolis last week where we talked about allocating greater resources with the air seats that we have access to, as well as adding more fams to Hawaii in lieu of some of the other places we’ve been in past years.

John Monahan, Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau: The major change for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau is that, coming out of the great recession, we have been rebranding Hawaii. We’ve changed the logo. It’s now all the Hawaiian Islands. We realized through research that people understood, had a good general understanding, of Hawaii in total, but they were not quite as sure about each individual island. With the Hawaiian Tourist Authority’s initiative to try to move potential visitors to places where we have vacancies, particularly on the Big Island and Kauai, we realized it’s important that we brand each individual island and not the total state. So, the Hawaiian Islands logo was adopted, and each island now has its own separate strategic plan, its own separate brand.

Wendy Goodenow
Wendy Goodenow, HNL Travel Associates, was one of two agents on hand for the Hawaii Roundtable.

Cindy Gagle, Turtle Bay Resort: It is also becoming a very experiential destination. Activities are extremely important, and dynamic packaging is becoming more and more important. It’s really important now that we mix the locals with the globals. People traveling today want to experience the local culture, they want to do what the locals do, they want to eat where the locals eat, they want to go to the beach where the locals go. 

David Uchiyama, Hawaii Tourism Authority: The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB) has worked with us specifically to try and develop more direct flights to the neighbor islands so we can get better distribution throughout all of the islands. 

Shari Chang, Aston Hotels & Resorts: I was just on call with Southern California retail agents last month and I was asking them, “What are some of the challenges that you are facing in selling Hawaii?” They said, “Well, one of the things is flying is just not fun anymore.” The airport experience, the airlines themselves, the lack of food, all kinds of things going on, but the one thing I reminded them is that Hawaii as a destination, the visitor satisfaction is one of the highest of any destination in the world. So even though getting here may not be the wonderful experience that they would like, once they get here, the feeling that they are going to have about the destination and the vacation that they have will bring them back to that travel agent again because they had a very positive stay.

Dale Castensen, Shari Chang, Joe Pike, Paul Toner, and JW Marriott,
Dale Castensen, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Shari Chang, Aston Hotels & Resorts, moderator Joe Pike, and Paul Toner, JW Marriott, engage in deep conversation.


Joe Pike, Travel Agent magazine: As much as repeat clients are great for the destination, what is being done to ensure the clients who keep coming back still go through an agent? And also what is being done to attract the first-time visitor to Hawaii? 

David Uchiyama
David Uchiyama, Hawaii Tourism Authority, likes what he hears.

Kimberly Daley, Journese: What’s wonderful about Hawaii is that it really is a complex destination because of the fact that you have all these varying incredible islands that have their own personality and also the hotels and the regions within that. And by virtue of that, because we have that repeat visitor, which now tends to be the multigenerational visitor, the agent can really capitalize on that. Agents can utilize the value and expertise that they bring to that older generation, maybe say of the client who has been using an agent and imparts that value onto the consumer. 

Cindy Gagle, Turtle Bay Resort: Hawaii is a big vacation investment because we have the airfare as well as an extended length of stay because of the distance that one has to travel. So I think that anyone putting that amount of dollars into a vacation wants an expert on their side. They want someone that they can go to and bounce ideas off because all of the destinations within the state are very different, and it’s our responsibility as hoteliers to really understand the relationships that a visitor has with the travel agent, it has with the tour operator.

Paul Toner, JW Marriott: With the guests that are coming in out here, they are looking for multiple activities, and they can’t get it all done in 10 days. So they are looking for a travel agent that understands their needs, understands their past history, understands what they have done well, what they would like to do, and be able to cater a program to them for that first trip to Hawaii. 

Paula Takamori, Travel to Paradise: Anybody can go online if they know exactly what they’re doing and where they want to go. So we do lose some of that repeat clientele to the hoteliers because most of the hoteliers are posting online a way to book the package online. But a client might come back to me anyway because they want the extra benefit that they get from a travel agent.

Lois Shore and Greg Bernd
Lois Shore, Outrigger Hotels & Resorts, and Greg Bernd, Classic Vacations, laugh about their favorite Hawaii memories.


John Monahan, Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau: From North America, we are set at about 80-20 I think, 80 repeat and 20 new. We have to put it a little bit in perspective because 20 percent isn’t bad. I think the destination overall globally is 65-35 or 70-30, something like that. We took all age groups and looked at them by island as to whether they have visited each island or whether they are considering each island to see if those relationships were on par, meaning they were acting on their consideration. And the 18-34-customer was considering the islands more heavily than visiting the islands. So we see that as a real opportunity to attract the younger customer.

Paula Takamori and John Monahan
Paula Takamori, Travel to Paradise, and John Monahan, Hawaii Visitor’s and Convention Bureau, listen on as Cindy Gagle, Turtle Bay Resort, talks Hawaii.


Ben Rafter, Aqua Resorts & Hotels: I think we need to do a better job explaining the difference in the hotels. We need to explain why this 600-room hotel is better than this 200-room hotel. Maybe this hotel is better for adventure while this hotel is better for someone who just wants to sit out on the beach. We need to get that message out so that agents know which hotels are targeting which customers and which hotels are better suited for which customers.

John Monahan and Kimberly Daley
John Monahan, Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau listens as Kimberly Daley, Journese, responds during the Hawaii Roundtable.


Joe Pike, Travel Agent magazine: What are some trends that everyone here is seeing as far as the Hawaii client goes? 

Shari Chang, Aston Hotels & Resorts: Post 9/11, we saw family travel shoot up dramatically, and I think what was happening is people were deciding, “Let me take that vacation with the kids this year. You know, we’re all going to be together, we’re all going to enjoy and just take advantage of what we have.” For those of us that have a lot of condominium resorts, those appeal greatly to the multigenerational family because they can all stay together but still have their privacy and independence and great value, as well. But one of the other things we’re seeing a lot of is the destination wedding with all the family and friends traveling with them and staying with them. Now the bride and groom might stay at a luxury hotel for the honeymoon night, but when it comes to staying together, they’re going to condominium resorts or are all staying together so that they can actually enjoy the time together.

Wendy Goodenow
Paul Toner, JW Marriott, replies to a question asked during the Hawaii Roundtable.

Paul Toner, JW Marriott: We’re finding guests are trying to do as much as they can in such a short period of time. And I think what’s what so great about our islands is they’re so unique that you’re able to experience one to two islands even in a day. 

Greg Bernd, Classic Vacations: One of the things we’re doing at Classic is really expanding on the tourist activities that we’re providing to the travel agent. In the past, we just gave a price, and this was the tour. Now, we’re telling them exactly what it entails and really what the experience is going to be all about.

Joe Pike, Travel Agent magazine: What are some unique offerings that are coming out of Hawaii?

Cindy Gagle, Turtle Bay Resort: We’ve created a lot of new packaging to sort of spice things up in general. We have stables and a wellness spa, so we just created an “Unwind with Equine” package, which is where you go and you take a horseback ride to the beach and you do a yoga session on the beach and then you come back. So it’s about different things like that, just one-upping it a little bit, if you will. It’s really just being open-minded. It doesn’t make people self-perpetuating, so the repeat guest wants to come back again and again.

Lois Shore, Outrigger Hotels & Resorts: At the property the Outrigger Reef and the Outrigger Waikiki, we do complementary vow renewal ceremonies. They are done by a Hawaiian Kahu. There’s hula, there’s live music and, as of this Valentine’s Day, 10,000 couples will have been through that program in the last several years.

Marilyn McHugh, Lauren Malenchek, Dale Carstensen, Shari Chang, and Joe Pike
Marilyn McHugh, Questex Hospitality+Travel group; Lauren Malenchek, Questex Hospitality+Travel; Dale Carstensen, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Hawaii, and Shari Chang, Aston Hotels & Resorts, look on as moderator Joe Pike puts attendees on the spot.


Wendy Goodenow, HNL Travel Associates: One of the things I found interesting is that the people with young kids are the active ones. They’re the ones that want to get out and do things. But they’ve got these little kids, and it’s not appropriate for the little kids to do big kid things. I found a company that is licensed, bonded and everything, called keikisitters.com, and a lot of the hotels I know have made arrangements with them. They will handle the kids while the adults take a couple of hours and go do a hike, or go to Diamond Head or something to that effect.

Joe Pike, Travel Agent magazine: Where do potential pockets of growth still exist for Hawaii?

Kimberly Daley, Journese: Another area that we’re seeing as a pocket of growth is cruises. The travel agent, as we know, is selling more and more cruises and also getting more and more frustrated as they sell those cruises because of those non-commissionable fees, but it’s not going to go away anytime soon—demand is too high. We started to see a lot of up opportunity with the American safari cruisers and being able to showcase a different side of Hawaii, to be able to go on this expedition boat and really a small yacht and go into these different elements of Hawaii that they wouldn’t see. While we have the NCLs and the Royal Caribbeans and Princesses, we do need to have a campaign to bring in an ultra-luxury cruise line that will attract new visitors to see Hawaii in a new light.

Ben Rafter, Aqua Resorts & Hotels: We need to attract more younger visitors. Our demographic is skewed to a little bit of the older customer, and it’s always going to be skewed to the older customer, but we need to replenish some of the older guests with the new generation and we need them here for something other than a wedding or honeymoon.

Joe Pike, Travel Agent magazine: Why doesn’t Hawaii have any all-inclusives?

Shari Chang, Aston Hotels & Resorts: The benefit that you have with Hawaii is that no one wants to just stay on the property. It is safe to go out and explore and get to know the people and the culture and do all these different activities. You are not confined to the quarters of the resort. That is why the all-inclusives haven’t worked out well here. 

David Uchiyama, Hawaii Tourism Authority: I think through cultural and historic values, we enhanced the overall experience and I hope that people that are considering Hawaii over some of these other destinations because they are not being confined to one area, so they go out and see all the value Hawaii has to offer. 

Joe Pike, Travel Agent magazine: We’ve mentioned a lot already, but what are some other niche markets that Hawaii is targeting?

Shari Chang, Aston Hotels & Resorts: The voluntourism market is also something that is started to grow in Hawaii. We are seeing more programs like that here. People are coming over with their families on trips where they don’t want it to be all just fun, but fun and doing something good for other people. 

Joe Pike, Travel Agent magazine: How much has the increased flights, new routes, new carriers, etc., affected the destination?

John Monahan, Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau: We had hit 9-million-plus seats in the first quarter of 2008, so the lift was pretty strong. Almost overnight, between March 31 and April 2 of 2008, we lost 15 percent of our lift with the loss of Aloha (Airlines) and ATA (American Trans Air). And what we lost was a lot of the secondary markets that ATA and Aloha were making their living off, particularly from the West Coast. So we had a rebuilding effort to make. We understood it was demand that was going to build that lift back. So all our marketing programs from 2008 on were designed to drive demand and we concentrated heavily on the West Coast and the reason we did that is we realized that if we could not maintain lift out of our key gateway cities out of L.A., San Francisco and Seattle, we would lose not only the West Coast, we would lose the East Coast because of the connecting factors. Luckily, we sit here today with close to 10 million seats. So, we’re above what we were back in 2008, we’ve added new airlines and had Alaska Airlines step up unbelievably to pick up a lot of that lost airlift out of those secondary markets. 

Kimberly Daley, Journese: In the Northern California area, before you had San Francisco, and that was it. Now, we’ve seen a very large shift, about a 70 percent shift, to the secondary markets of Oakland and San Jose. You get a lot of really great service on these airlines, but it really comes down to increasing the airlift and keeping those prices down.

Joe Pike, Travel Agent magazine: What are some of the fondest memories you have of Hawaii that an agent can duplicate for clients?

Paul Toner and JW Marriott

Wendy Goodenow, HNL Travel Associates, looks on as Paula Takamori, Travel to Paradise, shares some insight during the Hawaii Roundtable.

Paula Takamori, Travel to Paradise: The very best thing I’ve ever done in Hawaii was to go down to Kaupapa. I think that is the most spiritual place I’ve ever visited. It is an awesome place to go, and I recommend to clients who are going to go to Molokai to read the book, Molokai by O.A. Bushnell first, because it gives a nice background.

Paul Toner, JW Marriott: We took some friends from New Zealand to Waikiki Beach, and I got them up on surfboards, and it was great. Then we went up to Sunset Beach (on the North Shore of Oahu) and brought a cooler, dinner, some drinks, and a guitar. You’re sitting there on the North Shore listening to the waves coming in and it’s just an experience that you can’t get anywhere else in the world.

John Monahan, Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau: My most memorable moment was stargazing at Monokai with Hawaii Forest and Trail just below the summit of Monokai, and the darkness is just not to be believed. You can see all the stars and actually see satellites going by in the sky, as well as shooting stars. I think we saw seven shooting stars alone while we were there. It is so quiet and so dark and so surreal to see what is up there you know at all times, all around the globe, but we just can’t see it because of all the light that surrounds us in the cities, etc. 

Lois Shore, Outrigger Hotels & Resorts: I have had a lot of magical scuba dives in Hawaii over like 35 years now, and the best diving for me here has been off the Big Island. There are so many wonderful things to see, such as the turtle cleaning station where turtles fly in like little alien spacecraft and all the other fish come and clean their shells. I hope everyone who comes here, including agents, puts their mask on. If you’re afraid to snorkel, just put a mask on, stick your face into the water, and see who else really lives here.

Greg Bernd, Classic Vacations: The memory that stands out the most for me was when my youngest son was about five years old, and we were out off the point of the Embassy Suites in Maui on a little motorized boat, and we were circled by these huge turtles. My son was just so fascinated by it. He’s 18 years old now and still talks about those turtles.