One of Hawaii's major wholesalers, Apple Vacations, collaborates year-round with travel agents to book itineraries across the Aloha State's six visitor-friendly islands. Travel Weekly's contributing editor for Hawaii, Shane Nelson, caught up recently with Mark Noennig, executive vice president and general manager of Apple Vacations, to talk expectations for bookings across the Hawaiian Islands this summer, where travelers might head to escape crowds during the high season and tools the wholesaler is now offering agents to help them better sell summer trips statewide.
Q: How has Apple Vacations' business to Hawaii fared thus far in 2015 when compared with competitive destinations like Mexico or the Caribbean?
A: Our Hawaii business is doing well. The first quarter was flat, but we are seeing double-digit increases through the rest of the year, and we attribute that to more air seat availability. The fares are definitely a little lower than what we've seen in the past year. As far as Mexico and the Caribbean, I would say the overall percentages are probably similar. It's no secret that we continue to see a lot of demand for the all-inclusive segment, which continues to be a bigger part of our Mexico and Caribbean program. But I wouldn't say there is a big difference between the two, if you consider Mexico and Caribbean one destination and Hawaii a separate destination. I would say they are both correlating pretty similarly.
Q: How is this summer season to Hawaii shaping up for you year over year?
A: Right now, our sales are up double digits year over year, and we don't see any reason why that would change. It's nice to see double-digit growth.
Q: Air seats appear to be a big part of why you expect growth.
A: Yes. I think, No. 1, more capacity means more competition and keeps the airfares competitive, and I think that's always been one of the issues in Hawaii: As airfares go up, demand drops. That's always one of the challenges. So having more seats available and the fares slightly lower I think overall will help demand.
Q: You mentioned airfares to Hawaii are a little lower this year. How much so?
A: It's very hard to track apples to apples, but we were using some different metrics, and it looked to us like the average airfare being booked is probably between 5% to 10% lower than last year.
Q: Summer is a busy time for Hawaii. Is there a destination that stands out to you as a great place in the Islands for folks looking to get away from the crowds?
A: If you're somebody looking for a laid-back and out-of-the-way vacation, I think Kauai fits that. There's so much to do outside of the resorts, but again, it's a smaller destination, less traffic, less going on. If I had a friend asking for that, I would recommend Kauai as the island to look at. To me, it's so different than the other islands, and things really shut down there around 9 p.m.
The snowy Mauna Kea summit on the Big Island. In the foreground is Mauna Loa. Photo Credit: Kirk Lee Aeder/Big Island Visitors Bureau
Q: Do you have an under-the-radar activity option you'd recommend to travelers heading to Hawaii this summer?
A: We really love the Mauna Kea summit star tour excursion on the Big Island. You get the sunset on top of the mountain above the clouds, and then you get to enjoy the stargazing. I think that's just one of those "wow" moments people have when they do that experience. [And] when you tell people there can be snow up there ... they think you are crazy and want to lock you up. You have all those different climate zones on the Big Island; I think there are seven different ones. I've been to Hawaii many times, but when I discovered that information I was amazed.
Q: Does Apple Vacations have specific tools to help travel agents sell summer trips in Hawaii?
A: There are two big things we are doing now, and one is a promotion called Hawaii's Ocean Kommotion. We're really focusing on added value and upgrades and things like that, but going after higher-end categories, so it's got to be an oceanview category and not just selling the main categories but upgrading [while] adding more benefits, whether it's [resort] credits, breakfasts or going from an ocean view to an oceanfront, things like that. We think it's a good way for agents to upsell, and I think that's obviously one of the challenges Apple faces as well as other tour operators. Typically people want to just pay $999 and know that's what they're going to book. But for $200 more, look at all the benefits you can get. So it's another tool we offer travel agents to help them try to close sales in these higher categories. And that promotion will be going on throughout the summer.
Then something that we've been doing for the last few years that continues to gain more traction is our Hawaii Group Ease program, which is going after small groups like family reunions, girls' getaways or destination weddings and getting additional benefits bigger groups would typically get but now really targeting that 10- to 14-person group. Then in terms of education and communication with travel agents, our Apple Travel Agent Cafe has a whole section on Hawaii and different things to do, how to market, where the right resorts are for a family-of-five vacation. ... Hawaii is actually really good for larger families like that because of its suite categories or villas. We've really promoted that heavily.