Classic Vacations Co-president Greg Bernd recently spoke with Shane Nelson, Travel Weekly's contributing editor for Hawaii, about selling honeymoon and destination wedding trips to the Islands and how the Aloha State has performed thus far in 2012. Travel Weekly: What is it about Hawaii that attracts people planning honeymoons and destination weddings?
It's safe, it's clean, you don't have to worry about changing your money. It's simple. The beautiful emerald valleys, the towering waterfalls, the jagged cliffs. You've got the beautiful warm days, the trade winds. A romantic getaway to Hawaii renews your soul. That's the way I look at it, whether it's romantic with my wife and me going, or whether it's just going to Hawaii in general. I just believe it's a paradise for lovers.
Hawaii has a special place in my heart for sure. It's got all of those things people are looking for. In this current environment, where people are working so hard, it's just the simplicity of the Hawaiian Islands, it's the people, it's the cultural aspect, everything about it is refreshing. TW: Which destinations are your major competitors for Hawaii's honeymoons and wedding business?
We've really expanded into the group market, and one of the most popular portions of that group market is destination weddings. We're finding that we are doing some Hawaii groups successfully, but Mexico is by far exceeding all other destinations for us. And it's because they put so much effort and concentration on that market and also the all-inclusives.
The all-inclusives hotel concept down there has come to a whole new level. In fact, some of the hotels are getting AAA's Five Diamond awards. Just knowing that everything is paid for upfront is very appealing, especially to the younger generation that are getting married and trying to save money for homes and doing all the other things.
Again, whether it's a wedding or a honeymoon, it's so very appealing just knowing that they can plan their budget almost to the penny. TW: Have you seen Hawaii properties do anything to offset some of Mexico's price advantages?
We put together a romance lifestyle campaign, and we actually launched it back in December, but the offers from the hotels that we're working with are good through the whole year.
A few of the hotels that stand out in my mind on Oahu are the Halekulani and the Kahala Resort. At the Kahala you can stay for four nights and only pay for three, you get a bottle of champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries on arrival. Another one that really stands out is the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua. Couples can get a Club Level room, every fifth night complimentary; they get a $500 hotel credit, which can be used for dining, for spa, anything they want in the gift shop. That's a pretty amazing one.
Another one is the Grand Hyatt Kauai. They get a garden view, a fifth night complimentary, a $100 resort credit to use on property, complimentary breakfast buffet daily and a one-day complimentary use of a poolside cabana with a bottle of sparkling wine. So that's pretty amazing, and that's five nights at $1,199 per person.
The properties that I'm mentioning are oceanfront. They're stunning. They're legendary in a lot of different ways, and they all just have that Hawaiian elegance to them. TW: Are there activities in Hawaii that are particularly popular for your honeymoon and weddings travelers?
Many of the sunset and snorkel cruises are very, very popular. The helicopter rides, of course, are extremely popular.
The luaus; I've sold Hawaii for 35 years now and went to the University of Hawaii, and I'm still not tired of luaus. I still enjoy them, and when you do a luau, of course, they call out the honeymooners, and I think that makes people feel special.
But then you have adventurous people who want to do the ziplines, and like I said, we're selling a lot of helicopters, especially to honeymooners on the Big Island over the volcano. TW: Is it important to be sure honeymooners and wedding couples also have plenty of free time?
Absolutely. I think there needs to be plenty of time for lounging on the lanai. And not only lounging on the lanai, but my ideal day is to have your own cabana by the pool at the hotel, which almost every single property in Hawaii offers, just to have that privacy and your own space for the whole day to relax and rejuvenate and just refresh. TW: Each of Hawaii's islands has its own unique charm. Have you found that one of them is more desirable for your honeymoon and weddings clients?
I don't really think so. It's just about what their wants and needs are. I still think there are certain honeymooners out there who want a Waikiki experience so they can cut loose, go out dancing, do whatever and have a lot of different dining options.
There are also those out there who want the privacy, whether that's perhaps at Princeville [on Kauai] or Lanai. For me, the St. Regis Princeville would be an ideal experience for a honeymooner. I don't know if I would go out there for the whole entire honeymoon, but I would certainly look at doing that first portion of the honeymoon there and then maybe move over to Maui or the Kahala [on Oahu] or something like that. TW: Are multi-island trips something you recommend to honeymooners and weddings couples?
Again, it just depends on where the couple is coming from. From the West Coast, we know that most people have been to Hawaii, and a lot of them have been to multiple islands and have their favorites. What we're finding is that most of the West Coast people, especially in the luxury segment of the business, want to go to one island, they want to go to one property, and they want to stay there. They still want to go out and do activities and do a lot of the different options, but they've already kind of figured out where they want to be.
And I think even the younger generation that are getting married, they've traveled with their parents and have a good sense of where they want to be. But I think for those that haven't been, we definitely recommend that they do multi-island. TW: Hawaii's new civil unions law took effect Jan. 1. Has that had an impact on your business?
We're definitely getting a lot more inquiries. That's what I can tell you for sure. The agencies that focus on that market are trying to create some demand, and we as a company are doing whatever we can to help them to market that. We aren't doing it at Classic as a whole, but we are certainly trying to help our agency partners to expand in that market, and at some point in time it would be crazy if we don't try and get into that segment of the business.
I think everyone out there will try to get into some means of that market, because it's going to become so very popular. TW: Can you talk about the Get Married in Hawaii special I saw on your website?
We just came out with that, and it's geared toward destination weddings specifically: get married in Hawaii and receive free first-class airfare on United Airlines. When a wedding party books 15 rooms or more at one of the participating hotels -- which make up all of our major sellers on all five islands -- the wedding couple gets first-class air roundtrip, and they get a complimentary room upgrade to a suite, which is guaranteed at the time of booking, and they get a complimentary dining credit on top of that. They also get a complimentary upgrade on their car to a convertible when they book a full-size.
We focus on the high end with most of the hotels we sell, and it seems like the wedding party is always looking for something that's very extravagant. We noticed in our groups department that they really want to know what's in it for them, and you always want to make sure that the bride and groom are getting the best of the best. From a marketing standpoint, it's become very, very popular with our travel agent community.
You asked about civil unions earlier, and it's really interesting because that particular market has really bought into this promotion, so the agencies we work with that cater to the gay community are actually wanting to take this and market it, and they're seeing a lot of inquiries and interest from this promotion. TW: As a destination, Hawaii is working hard to educate potential visitors on the differences between its islands. Have you seen some of this new branding and advertising? What do you think of it?
I think it's really strong. I think it's certainly showing some impact. Our sales in January and February were just through the roof, and our Hawaii sales are extremely strong. We've seen a little bit of a decrease in March, but overall for Hawaii, which has always been one of our strongest markets, for us to be up year over year is very, very exciting, and I would like to attribute some of that to the new campaign that's going on. TW: You mentioned a bit of a slowdown in March. Do you think that's directly related to the increasing cost of gas across the U.S.?
Oh, absolutely. There's no doubt in my mind. But one of the things that's led to tremendous success in Hawaii is our promotion called Head Over Heels for Hawaii. Because airfares are so high, we've decided to do this promotion around an air credit. Just to give you an idea, if they stay for four nights or more on Oahu or Lanai, they receive an air credit of up to $400. If they stay five nights or more, they receive $500, and if they stay six nights or more they get an even higher air credit. So this has been very instrumental for us.
Let's say that during the summer months we are seeing airfares from $900 to $1,000 [from] the West Coast. So if you've got two people and the airfare is $1,800, when you're able to bring it down by $500, all of a sudden it becomes much more attractive. It's been one of our most successful campaigns we've ever launched in the Hawaii marketplace.