VIPs exchange ideas at TW Leadership Forum

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HONOLULU -- Survival in a constantly changing industry was the recurring theme at the Travel Weekly Leadership Forum here.

About 200 top retailers, wholesalers, tourism executives and airline representatives gathered at the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort to examine Hawaii's travel industry, analyze trends and share ideas about how to improve business at all levels.

Some of the highlights from the panel discussions follow:

Reminders and possibilities

• Rick Garrett of Happy Vacations said he is starting a concierge call service at his agency to help customers book activities after they're in a destination. It's one of the ways Happy Vacations is trying to be relevant to customers during -- not just before -- their trip, he said. The company also will start an e-price initiative to help scout for better deals on the Internet, then alert agents to match it so they don't lose the sale, Garrett said.

• Kerri Jaye of Apple Vacations suggested several ways to attract and retain Hawaii travelers.

Extra-value packages in the wedding and honeymoon market would enable Hawaii to compete against destinations that offer locations for free weddings and entice couples to come back, Jaye said. Return specials offered at hotel checkout also will ensure that visitors return, she said.

But the best way to facilitate repeat customers is by capturing travelers when they're young, she said.

• Customer retention was the primary focus for Rick Baron of Tauck World Discovery. He called for a state "exit questionnaire" to supplement the survey passengers must fill out when they fly into Hawaii. This, he said, would help "give us the information we need to follow up with people who enjoyed the experience and would come again."

• Dan Westbrook of American Airlines Vacations emphasized choosing business partners that have an equal investment in Hawaii's success. It's the only way to achieve successful cross-promotion, he said.

"People will promote your product as long as it's economically viable," he said.

Trends in distribution

• The slowed economic climate makes the market of home-based agents even more important, according to Joanie Ogg, president of the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents (Nacta).

"I predict that [home-based agents] will be the group to focus on in the future," she said.

However, travel suppliers need to improve the way they educate these agents, and communication between home-based agents and their host agencies needs to improve, as well, she said.

• Will retailers become obsolete? No way, said Expedia's Michael Reichartz.

Expedia's conversion rate is 6%, meaning 94% research the site and leave without booking. Consequently, "this business is always going to be about human intervention," Reichartz said.

Expedia employs 350 agents at its call center in Las Vegas, and the company needs them to help close the sale, he said.

The shape of leisure travel

• More travel by extended families and more requests for soft adventure are among the trends shaping leisure travel, according to Celeste Allen of Certified Vacations.

Allen suggested that tour operators and agents might look for more mother/daughter activities to fulfill a growing market.

• Ron Letterman of Classic Custom Vacations said if Hawaii invests in its infrastructure and gets local residents to embrace tourists, "the rest will take care of itself."

He also said it's time to cull out travel agents who take fam trips not for product knowledge but because they're fun and cheap.

• But fam trips can be vital to agents' gaining firsthand product knowledge, according to Ed Jackson of Runaway Tours.

Then agents can "match client profiles with appropriate accommodations and experiences," he said.

Jackson also said he is seeing more single-island travel, which has been made easier by new nonstop flights to neighbor islands.

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