Mention activities to longtime Hawaii vacation sellers, and you're likely to hear a common response: Most visitors to the Islands choose at least one.
"Whether a travel agent believes it or not, when their clients get to Hawaii, they're going to want to do tours and experience activities," said Jodi Holley, a senior business development manager for Blue Sky Tours. "Agents might as well book them ahead of time with us when they're arranging their client's package. At least that way they earn a commission."
Kimberly Daley, the senior vice president and managing director for luxury wholesaler Journese, agreed and was quick to note another activity phenomenon common to the destination.
"When people get to Hawaii, we all know they are going to do activities," she said. "But they often spend their first day planning their vacation while they're on vacation, and sometimes they're booking with the first person they meet hawking activities on the street."
Anybody who has recently navigated Waikiki's crowded sidewalks will tell you activity peddlers are a frequent sight, and they're a persistent occurrence in many of Hawaii's busiest destinations because signing up travelers for tours is a lucrative industry, one Greg Bernd, co-president of Classic Vacations, thinks agents should take seriously.
"It's definitely an added income opportunity for them," he said, adding that Classic pays agents a 10% commission on prebooked activities. "Our average booking to Hawaii is close to three passengers, and some of these activities, like a helicopter ride or the more extensive tours, are hundreds of dollars, so there really is a great chance for agents to make money."
Pricing for Classic's collection of Hawaii activities and tours starts around $75 per person for a coastal kayaking excursion and tops out at $530 per passenger for its Ecostar Big Island Helicopter tour. And for Bernd, who said he's been traveling to Hawaii most of his life, getting on the ocean with one of Classic's longtime Maui vendors is a favorite outing.
"To me, Trilogy tours are just amazing; I could go out with them every single day," he said, adding that the company's sailing and snorkeling excursion to Lanai ($170 for adults; $95 for children) is particularly enjoyable. "When you get there you can do different activities, they provide a big barbecue lunch, then you sail back to Maui, and many times there've been dolphins following us all the way back across the channel."
Tours and activities range from about $50 to $300 per person at Blue Sky Tours, which has been selling Hawaii vacations exclusively through travel agents for more than 30 years, and the wholesaler pays activity commissions of between 10% and 14%.
Activities run anywhere from $100 to $400 per client for Journese, the luxury brand for Pleasant Holidays that left behind its Hawaii World moniker earlier this year, and according to agents working regularly with the wholesaler, the company's commission rate for pre-booked Hawaii activities ranges between 5% and 10%.
"I don't think agents automatically perceive activities to be part of the travel package they should be selling clients before they go to Hawaii, like they typically do for Europe or Asia," Daley said. "Many agents are leaving money on the table, and we pay commission on all of these activities, so it's a win-win situation for everybody." Beyond the basics
For Kristi Perera, a travel consultant with Stockton, Calif.-based Segale Travel Service, selling activities is key to ensuring her clients enjoy the best Hawaii vacation possible.
"If we're just an order-taker, then what's the difference between going to us and going to the Internet?" she said. "Part of the reason clients return and refer other clients is because I've added something special to enhance their travel experience and vacation. … And many more people are interested in experiential travel these days and booking things ahead of time, so if clients wait until they get over to Hawaii, chances are they may not be able to get the activity they had their heart set on."
Seats at Maui's Old Lahaina Luau, for example, which is one of the most culturally authentic performances in the Islands, regularly sell out weeks in advance. And spots on highly popular whale-watching excursions or any tour with a limited guest availability can go quickly across the destination during peak seasons.
"Helicopter rides, or a bike tour down Haleakala, book up frequently," said Laura Walker, a travel consultant with Dallas-based Hawaii Travel and Trade. "Ziplining used to be hard, especially on Maui, but they've added a lot of zipline options, so it's not quite as bad anymore. Timing can sometimes be tricky, too. If clients want a particular day and particular time on that day, say for a helicopter ride, it's always wise to prebook."
Outlining that sense of urgency is a sales strategy Bernd regularly recommends to agents, but he's also a proponent of using quality Hawaii activities and tours as a way for travel professionals to distinguish themselves from competitors.
"If agents want to retain customers for life, they really need to think outside of the box of just offering the basic air, land and car," he said. "Activities can help make the entire vacation something the client is going to come back from and say, 'Wow, that's really why I used that travel agent in the first place.'"Timing is everything
For first-time visitors, however, even the basics of a Hawaii vacation can sometimes be overwhelming, especially if the trip will include time on more than one island. Heaping on additional details regarding the destination's diverse array of tour and activity options, particularly during early consultations with clients, probably isn't the best strategy.
"I don't immediately try to push activities on them," Walker said. "I work on getting their flights, their dates, their islands and all of that down, and then I'll send them a detailed itinerary of that, with different maps and activity brochures. Typically, people book months in advance and have time to look through brochures or books and think about what interests them, because there's so much to do on each island.
"I talk to them again a month or so before they travel and just ask what they're thinking about," she said. "I've found that if you space things out a little over time, with some fun things here and there, clients are much more likely to absorb it."
Perera has also enjoyed activity-booking success employing a selling strategy that's focused on persistent, but not pushy, reminders over time.
"I may send them an email about some tour options between their deposit and their final payment date," she said. "And then as it gets closer to final payment, I'll mention it to them again, and if they haven't made any decisions when they come in to pick up documents, I'll bring it up again."
According to Daley, Journese regularly handles activity bookings for Hawaii travelers who are more receptive closer to their actual departure date.
"We include the activities booklet in the clients' final documents, which goes out to them a month before they travel," Daley said.
"Often that's the best time. They know they're going, they're starting to get excited, they're going on all the websites, they're getting out their guidebooks, and they're talking to their friends. And that can be a better time, a month or so before they leave, to make those final activity decisions." New tools and upgrades
Many wholesalers providing Hawaii vacations have amped up their activity and tours marketing in recent years, hoping to persuade agents to prebook the options before clients depart for the Islands.
Journese released their first Hawaiian Islands experiences booklet this July, featuring 42 of the company's more than 70 high-end activity products available across the state in full color and have placed even more detailed information and tour specifics about all of their Hawaii activities on their travel agent website (www.journese.com
Classic Vacations debuted its own upgrades to its travel agent website (www.classicvacations.com/travelagent
) in September, including revamped descriptions for all of its Hawaii activity products and details like time length, pricing and client-specific advice.
And Blue Sky Tours (www.blueskytours.com
) will launch an entirely overhauled booking engine in mid-November, along with much more comprehensive information about all of its Hawaiian Islands activities and tours.
"There will be a lot of enhancements," Holley said. "Not only to the tours and activities, but agents will also be able to get more information on hotels. They'll also be able to get all kinds of images.
"There's just going to be a great deal more information available on the new engine to make booking decisions much easier."