At Classic Vacations, key in '09 is touting Hawaii value


haw-AKAKAFALLSA funny thing happened when executives at Classic Vacations, the luxury tour operator and wholesaler, developed a very aggressive Hawaii promotion last year. The promotion, in part, offered a $500 airfare credit that could be combined with any other special in the marketplace, including hotel and car rental deals.

"This was after October, when the economy really turned sour," said Classic Vacations President Tim MacDonald. "In four weeks the promotion surpassed any promotion that [Classic Vacations] had ever done."

MacDonald was taking time out from the San Jose, Calif.-based company's annual Marketing Partners weekend at the Fairmont Orchid on the Big Island to explain to a handful of travel writers what to expect from the company this year.

The event included hosting about 75 top-selling agents with Classic partners United, Continental, Fairmont and Marriott, and Hawaii's convention and visitors' bureaus.

Classic did "slightly better" in the Hawaii market than the industry overall, MacDonald said, largely because of the company's relationship with Virtuoso and "some other relationships we put in place."

MacDonald predicted that since the Hawaii and California travel markets were the first to see an economic decline last year, "they will be the first to re-emerge."

"There's a shift of people you now see going between the destinations," he said. In 2008 "we saw a shift toward Mexico because of the rate value. You'll see a swing back [to Hawaii] because the value in Hawaii now has adjusted to the times."

Last year's drop in travelers to Hawaii was largely due to a quick and unprecedented rise in airfares, MacDonald said.

"In Q2 of 2008 we saw some airfares rise as much as 30%, to $1,000, and hotel rates remain where they were in 2007, which were all-time highs," he said.

"With the specials in the market and lower airfares, Hawaii is suddenly the affordable place to go," he said.

MacDonald believes it's vital for Hawaii tourism officials to promote Hawaii's affordability as much as possible.

"They need to exhaust all possible means to get the value message out to the consumers," he said.

He also suggested that as a destination, a unified approach to promoting tourism would produce the best results.

"One entity spending to reach consumers achieves a lot of scale efficiencies rather than 20 tour operators trying to do the same thing alone," MacDonald said. "There should be as much direct consumer marketing as possible."

Classic execs are "very excited about some investments" the company made to increase and encourage travel. This includes new and varied promotions designed for specific markets, service innovations and technology to improve customer service and satisfaction. The new promotions will help agents close sales; new technologies will improve booking times so rapidly that Classic will be able to beat competitors' price quotes within two hours of a query, MacDonald said.

The company also will improve its partnerships with agent consortia like Signature, Ensemble and Virtuoso.

Classic has new customer-drawing programs that include a major redesign of its destination brochures; discount programs in conjunction with Starwood, Fairmont and Marriott hotels; and an online agent-booking engine.

Top-producing agencies honored at this year's event included, San Rafael, Calif.; Travel Design International, San Diego; and Tzell Travel Group, New York. Virtuoso won in all three consortia categories: highest gross sales, highest percentage sales increase and highest dollar sales increase.

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