Couples attracted to Islands' combination of allure, accessibility

Kilauea Volcano at nightNothing says romance quite like a tropical setting.

Couples dream of napping in hammocks, strolling hand in hand along golden sands and toasting as a sunset paints the early evening sky.

Wedding and honeymoon clients enamored with fantasy-like settings have access to getaways both far-flung and closer to home. But with the Hawaiian Islands, they bask in an exotic locale with a hook: The remote escape requires no passport, currency exchange or Rosetta Stone crash course.

Jay Talwar, senior vice president of marketing for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB), noted that the organization has analyzed extensive research on why U.S. travelers select the Aloha State over other tropical retreats.

"On the rational side, it's based on safety, great cuisine, range of activities and accessibility," he said. "And on the emotional side, it's the beauty of the place, friendliness of our people and ability to travel in a free fashion. In that sense, we score really well on both sides."

It also helps Hawaii to be a string of tropical islands with a U.S. flag.

"For our clients, Hawaii's appeal is definitely that it's a domestic destination that doesn't require a passport for U.S. citizens," said Rose Gray, manager of business development for vacation sales for Fox World Travel in Oshkosh, Wis. "And secondly, Hawaii is on the wish list of many travelers, including brides, since it's so beautiful and considered exotic."

According to figures released in January by the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), Hawaii's islands welcomed more than 7.9 million visitors in 2012, surpassing the previous peak of 7.6 million set in 2006. Of that tally, 577,567 were honeymooning and 125,837 came to exchange vows. Those counts were up over 2011 by 9.6% and 4.9%, respectively. Optimistic that 2013 will build on these record-breaking stats, HTA officials have targeted an ambitious 8.2 million arrivals.

Kauai Napali CoastNo doubt the economy impacts travel. Yet the industry sees a resiliency with romance-inspired journeys.

"What we see is that these are such big occasions that couples want to make them memorable," Talwar said. "So they tend to ride out the ebbs and flows of the economy better."

He adds that the segment leans toward a fairly well-planned itinerary, working with travel planners further in advance to lock in the exact hotel, view and car they want.

"I've found that Hawaii is a very different vacation experience for East Coast travelers than those from the West Coast," said Mindy Gilbert with New Jersey-based My Vacation Lady. "Since it's a long flight for my clients, it's a great honeymoon destination. It's definitely a 'special occasion' vacation."

Talwar stressed that travel planners clarify, especially with their first-time Hawaii-bound clients, that each island offers distinctive experiences and personality. To help distinguish this, the destination is now marketed as the Hawaiian Islands vs. simply Hawaii.

Andrea da Rosa, strategic solutions manager for San Diego-based Balboa Travel (No. 46 on Travel Weekly's 2012 Power List), noted that this diversity is a magnet for clients loving amorous experiences "regardless of how they define that." 

"They can choose from the city atmosphere of Honolulu and Waikiki, lush tropical areas of northern Kauai, volcanic activity on [the Big Island of Hawaii], great surfing and hiking on Maui and remote relaxation on Lanai or Molokai."

Da Rosa added, "We've found that with once-in-a-lifetime events, people often gravitate toward higher-end room categories and better flight classes, so they end up with amazing, lifelong memories."

For the big picture, Talwar urges planners to visit the HVCB's site and check out the Ke Kula O Hawaii online Destination Specialist Program. The training course elevates Hawaii IQ as it shares tips on cross-selling, upselling and package sales.

As for prebooking activities, Talwar guides planners toward the HVCB's featured partners network for services on each island.

Gray noted that her agency's vacation travel experts advocate booking "must-do" recreation prior to their departure.

"Can you imagine how devastated a visitor to Hawaii would be if they were planning to experience a whale-watching adventure, only to find out that there was no availability on a cruise during their stay?" she said. "We make sure that kind of thing doesn't happen."

Dan Sadleir with Elite Travel & Events, a destination weddings and honeymoon specialist located in Arlington Heights, Ill., has been traveling to Hawaii since he was a child and taps into his personal experiences.

"It's easy to upsell when you have the hands-on knowledge and can paint the picture of how much fun and romantic certain activities can be when couples are in Hawaii," he said.

Da Rosa said the majority of her Hawaii-bound clients purchase one or two tours on average for a four- to five-night stay.

"We try to presell those with limited availability and those that will leave our clients with a positive, lasting memory," she said. "If they see they were able to have an adventure that others missed out on, they'll continue to use us, and we can build the long-term relationships that are fundamental."
Talwar agreed.

"No doubt agents are trying to generate lifelong clients," he said. "The best way to do that is to make sure clients are happy with the experiences planners sell. If they're visiting for the first time on their honeymoon and enjoy it, couples will likely fall into Hawaii's high repeat-visitor area."
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