In 2018, when longtime travel and hospitality professional Debbie Misajon launched the Coconut Traveler, a bespoke Hawaii travel company, she was looking to fill what she saw as an underserved niche for more personalized, tailored travel with connections to local guides and businesses. As tourism returns, her brand of Aloha State vacations is even more in demand as a way to enjoy an island vacation while maintaining social distancing and other precautions during a pandemic.
"We recognized early that the pandemic was not going to be short term," said Misajon, who previously ran her own consulting business after time with the Four Seasons and Aman brands, among others. "We don't have a drive market in Hawaii, and the pandemic was moving around the world, affecting every one of our international partners, and the U.S. is among the hardest hit in the world. At the beginning of February, people started holding off on their plans, and we started refunding clients in February. We kept doing refunds, and that didn't really ever end."
During the first week of November, Misajon welcomed her first set of clients to the Islands since the pandemic began. A group of seven met on Oahu for a getaway that includes several rounds of golf, a few dinners at acclaimed restaurants, some private meals cooked by local chefs at their vacation rental and a host of outdoor activities.
Some activities and tours are not feasible or are extremely altered at this time, but Misajon said she is still able to arrange lots of activities for her clients via her network of private guides and experts, especially outdoor activities such as hiking, watersports and forest bathing with a certified guide.
"We primarily work with individual guides, and the approach we've taken is focused on interesting people doing engaging things," Misajon said.
For example, she might arrange a private tour of one of Hawaii's botanical gardens for plant and nature lovers. Or if clients really want to get involved, she connects them with a biologist who is tearing out invasive species of flora on an Oahu hillside and replacing them with native species.
"In a lot of ways, I think Covid has changed the motivations and reasons why people travel," she said. "I think people are more reflective and aren't trying to rush around to get a list of Instagram shots. People are thinking more about how they can participate and give back, and we've always been set up to do that and create much more of an exchange between visitors and residents."
One issue Misajon has confronted is a dearth of vacation rentals, the go-to accommodations for her clientele, especially on Maui, where she says much of the inventory has been taken up by multimonth rentals by people who have relocated to the Islands during the pandemic.
Misajon said she is seeing plenty of interest in Aloha State vacations, including more big family and multigenerational trips, and she is encouraging people to wait until after the 2020 holiday season when, if things go well, there will be more activities available and a larger stock of accommodations.
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"There's a ton of demand here in Hawaii. It's really off the charts," Misajon said. "I'm seeing more people traveling with their parents, and I'm seeing more groups like brothers and sisters who are bringing their entire families together. I'm getting a lot of requests for spring break to summer. Instead of a few weeks in July, I have people looking to come for all of summer. That's great in so many ways, people can really feel the community when they stay that long and they get to understand the lifestyle."