Oahu looks east to western U.S. for recovery

By Laura Del Rosso

HONOLULU -- Oahu's tourism industry has recovered at a fast pace, led by travel from the western U.S.

Although not large enough to offset the plunge in the international numbers, western U.S. travelers have taken some of the sting out of the island's pain, said Len Enderton, executive director of the Oahu Visitor Bureau (OVB).

"We've had a tremendous comeback from our core market, which is the 13 Western states, led by California," he said.

The positive results from domestic markets have led the bureau to set a goal of attracting 4.2 million visitors to Oahu this year. That is a lower figure than the island's peak year, 2000 -- when 4.6 million people visited Oahu -- but is on par with last year.

"We were on a record pace in 2001, and then came the tragic events of Sept. 11 and business fell off significantly," Enderton said.

The trend is toward shorter advance bookings, Enderton said, something his destination marketing colleagues in other parts of the U.S. also are reporting.

Enderton said people held off on booking vacations last winter and spring because of the fear of terrorism; now they are waiting before planning vacations because of the "shaky economic news" of the past few weeks.

"But because of the type of destination that we are, people look to us as a place to go when they want to feel good and rejuvenated," he said. "And I believe we're perceived as a great value."

Each month this year, the rebound has gotten stronger from mainland markets.

In May, Oahu reported a nearly 3% rise in domestic visitors over the same month in 2001. Nonetheless, for the first five months of this year, domestic visits were down 2.3%.

June figures have not yet arrived, but Enderton said he believes they'll be stronger than the previous June.

Roughly 60% of the island's visitors are from the mainland and 40% are from international markets, he said.

Japanese visitors, in particular, have been slow to come back this year. In May, arrivals from Japan to Oahu were down almost 9%; for the first five months of the year, they were down 21%.

While the bureau has undertaken marketing activity in Japan, its focus is the domestic market, Enderton said, and about a third of the bureau's budget is devoted to the travel trade.

Three years ago, the OVB started the Oahu specialist program, which Enderton described as "one of the leading agent-training programs in the industry."

About 700 travel agents in the U.S. have completed the program, but high numbers of participants are not the aim, he said.

"It has evolved from going for quantity to quality," he said.

"We want to focus on travel agents in North America who recognize that the marketplace is evolving and are not sitting back and waiting for the phone to ring."

The bureau's aim is to train mainland travel agents in tackling niche markets, such as families or honeymooners, and giving them the sales and marketing support to generate business, often in conjunction with wholesale partners.

In mid-July, the bureau conducted a sales blitz in 10 East Coast cities, focusing on 50 to 60 Oahu specialists in each city.

In addition to training, the blitz involved asking agents to write an agency marketing plan to qualify for the second stage of the specialist program: a six-day fam trip to Oahu.

The trip is conducted six times a year with groups of 50 agents each time.

"When they return to their offices, their production goes off the charts," said Enderton.

He said he believes the Oahu program is a strong one because agents who participate are "not specialists for life and must produce."

"They are evaluated and their membership must be renewed each year," Enderton said. "It's a serious program, not just having a cocktail or two while being shown hotels."

The bureau also expects to get a boost in arrivals later this winter and next year from two high-profile conferences, the ASTA congress in Honolulu and the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) conference, which ends just a few days before the start of ASTA.

"We're optimistic because not only will we have the travel press on Oahu, we will have the largest travel trade association in the U.S.," he said.

There is a strong component of destination training -- on Oahu -- scheduled as part of the ASTA congress, Enderton said.

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