For a former Hawaii resident, activities key to sales strategy

By Shane Nelson
Debra SternDebra Stern has been selling Hawaii vacations for more than 30 years, and although she's now based in California, working for Peak Travel in San Jose, living for nearly two decades in the Islands gave her a valuable perspective into the destination's diversity. The longtime travel consultant spoke recently with Shane Nelson, Travel Weekly's contributing editor for Hawaii, about the benefits of pre-booking Hawaii activities for her clients and why that practice has helped separate her from the competition.

Q: Can booking activities for clients before they arrive in Hawaii be lucrative?

Yes, absolutely. I think people are going to do activities in Hawaii anyway, so they might as well do it with somebody they already have a relationship with that they trust to guide them in the right direction and to sort through all the different options. For us it's just one more service that we can provide, and of course, we'll make a little bit of money, as well.

Q: Why has it become such an important part of your approach to selling vacations to Hawaii?

I think it helps to distinguish me from other travel agents. Some agents don't go beyond the required airfare, hotel, car or transfer, but we are more of a full-service [agency] here and want to make sure each vacation is right for each client. It also helps with repeat business and referral business.

Molokini Crater, MauiTo have a healthy business you have to find revenue sources, No. 1, and No. 2, Hawaii has become a big commodity here on the West Coast. You've got Costco to compete with, all the online companies, it seems like everyone including the car wash is selling Hawaii. The other day I was driving home from lunch, and there was a person on the corner with a sign that said "Airfare to Hawaii $99." So it's hard for clients to sort through it all. Our business is a relationship business, so once you're lucky enough to establish that relationship, your clients trust you with their money and their best interest. And in today's marketplace, we have to show our clients that we are capable of doing more than the Internet can. They can buy their air and hotel online as easy as they can through us. The Internet is not going to suggest a particular activity that creates that special memory for our clients, however. Only we can do that. We are selling experiences and demonstrating to our clients the added value they get from using a professional agent.

Q: Is there one factor in particular that you think keeps many agents from prebooking activities to the Islands?

First of all, there are a lot of agents who haven't been to Hawaii. Every agent that's been has probably been to a luau, but not necessarily every agent that's been has gone stargazing on Mauna Kea on the Big Island or knows the difference in the helicopter trips on the Islands or knows what boat is best to go to Molokini off Maui, so I think it has to do partly with the agent's comfort zone. There is also the order-taker vs. salesperson element [and] the tour companies are educating people now that it's about selling experiences, not just selling a commodity item. I think the tour companies have put some focus on preselling activities and have produced some nice brochures and have trained their agents how to sell them, so I think that also helped educate people about the value of activities. There's nothing like the firsthand experience of actually visiting a destination, but you can't have firsthand experience with every activity option on the planet.

Q: Do you arrange Hawaii activities for all your clients before they travel to the Islands?

Not all my clients. I have quite a few people that have been there a number of times, so they've kind of been there and done that. There are a few clients that just really like to go over there and hang out and rest and relax and not really venture out. But definitely [I like to plan activities] for my first-timers and even a lot of my repeats who want to do something different.

Q: On average, how many activities do you feel is appropriate?

It really depends on the client, of course, and the length of their trip, their activity level and how many times they've been to Hawaii. Everything is very individualized, but even if you can sell one activity for every vacation package, that's good. I'm not a firm believer in planning every minute of every day for people, so I would say the average is two to three activities for a weeklong trip.

Q: What sort of Hawaii activities have you found to be most appealing to your clients?

My best sellers are definitely luaus, helicopter rides, trips to Pearl Harbor, whale-watching trips during the season and also, because I really enjoy the outdoors and like hiking and biking, I tend to sell some of those more active experiences because that's what I'm passionate about.

Big Island Horseback RidingQ: Are there some typical Hawaii activities that you've found your clients don't like?

I think a lot of clients have moved away from the full-day, circle island kind of trips. They don't mind doing half days, but they don't want to spend one whole day seeing the island. That's not only true in Hawaii, but when people are doing Europe activities and other destinations like Australia or other places they know they're going to have some tours, they prefer to keep it to like a half day, somewhere between four and six hours.

Q: Are your clients interested in activities that offer exposure to Hawaii's host culture and a chance to learn more about Hawaiian history?

Yes. There are some great cultural options, like when you go to the Big Island and down to Waipio Valley and ride the horses, which are basically wild horses the guys down there have trained, letting you see some of the island's more remote places. The Bishop Museum on Oahu has great Hawaiian exhibitions and programs and so do the palaces. I think all of that is good, and you want to preserve that. You don't want to lose it. There are a lot of clients that, because we are so close, go repeatedly, even multiple times a year, and they can only do so many luaus and things like that. It's come to a point where they really do want to learn about the culture because they've interacted with enough local people that it's made them very curious.

That's also why a lot of the people choose the hotel that they go to. Certain hotels are known for their predilection for the Hawaiian culture with activities that are traditionally Hawaiian. For the budget client, you've got the Royal Lahaina Hotel. They've won a number of awards, and the Kaanapali Beach Hotel wins awards all the time for their [focus on] Hawaiian culture. On the luxury end, you have places like the Mauni Lani [which] has great traditional activities and a turtle program. There's also the Fairmont Orchid. There are many hotels in Hawaii that are trying to give people an experiential travel option rather than just a trip to a property with a nice beach. And most of them have a really clear weekly program clients can sign up for and participate as they wish, and I try to point out many of those activity options with people, especially first-time clients.

Q: When is it best to bring up activities with Hawaii-bound clients?  

I usually try to plant the seed during the sales process and say, "We can book your air, your hotel, your car, tours, insurance," and then I try to mention something like a luau, depending on who they are or how many times they've been. For me, it's important to plant that seed during the sales process, and then, throughout the time between when they book and when they travel, I try to stay in touch with them. Maybe 60 days before they are going on their trip, I might email them or snail-mail them an activity brochure or call them and say "Hey, you folks are leaving in 60 days. Did you want to preplan some activities?" Most times I don't think you need to do it more than 60 days in advance. Then a couple weeks before departure they get their documents, and that's another time I reach out and say "Remember, if you want to book any excursions, any luaus, now's the time." Not very many people book activities at the 60-day mark, but I'll say somewhere between 14 and 30 days before they go is usually when people do it. Unless it's like a big family group going at spring break, for instance, and you know things are going to be sold out. Then I try to encourage them to do it earlier.

Q: How do you decide which activity operators to work with?

Kauai KayakingA:
We belong to a consortium [Signature Travel Network] that has a number of preferred suppliers, and those suppliers have met the criteria to be considered for preferred status, which means they're bonded, they follow all the rules for handling the clients money, they have responsive customer service. They have a variety of offerings. So our company as a whole has its own preferred suppliers, and then going further down, Pleasant Holidays is a preferred supplier, and they have Pleasant Activities in Hawaii. So we know it's a good company tied to a bigger company, and we know that [the supplier] in Hawaii has insurance certificates for all the vendors that we sell and all of that stuff. We're very cautious of who we sell because anybody could put anything on the Internet. And that [fear of the unknown] is really a helpful selling tool with clients in the whole process.

Q: Do you discuss safety with clients before they leave for the Islands?

I always say to my clients, or I put it in a letter with their documents, "Mother Nature has a mind of her own. You need to be respectful, and common sense carries you a long way when you travel." Let's face it, what you don't do at home you shouldn't do in Hawaii. You shouldn't stop your car in the middle of the tree tunnel on Kauai to take a picture while blocking traffic. You wouldn't do that in San Francisco. People leave their common sense at home sometimes. … And if people ask and say "Oh, well, I heard about the helicopter crash" or "I heard about the drowning," I'll try to address it. I say it's unfortunate that it happened. I always say I don't know all the details because I wasn't there [and] then I draw on my own experience from living in Hawaii, explaining that visitors sometimes get in trouble because they turn their back on the ocean and a freak wave came or they were walking on a rocky area during high tide when they shouldn't be or they were drinking and snorkeling. It's not always the operator's fault. They don't know what people have ingested prior to going on the trip.

Q: Do you discuss ocean safety specifically with clients?

I do ask people if they are comfortable in the ocean, and if they say no, I give them a little bit of water safety, and I tell them about the flag system on Hawaii beaches. So I try to open it up if they feel like they need some information, but I don't try to scare people. Sometimes a swimmable beach at hotels is a factor for people. For those headed to Kauai, there are very few swimmable beaches all year round, so I always tell people they need to check the flag or ask at the front desk if it's safe to swim, or I'll tell them there's a reef here, and it's not good — they need to drive to the beach park down the road to go swimming. I'll show them on a map where they need to go and where the good places to swim are. Like I said, I don't want to scare people, and I try to ask what their comfort level is before and then depending on their response I try to give them some tips.
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