For Apple Vacations, online no substitute for in-person experience

Travel Weekly's contributing editor for Hawaii, Shane Nelson, spoke recently with Sandy Babin, Apple Vacations' vice president of marketing, about the company's dedicated relationship with travel agents, its business to Hawaii thus far in 2011 and the outlook for next year.

Travel Weekly: What do travel agents mean to Apple Vacations?

Sandy BabinSandy Babin:
They're our heartbeat. We are probably 75% to 80% sold through travel agents. That is our business ... and we've never run away from that. We see travel agents as pure professionals and just as an extension of our business.

TW: What types of tools does Apple Vacations offer travel agents selling Hawaii vacations?

We do our weekly email newsletters, filling them in on promotions, incentives, all of our product lines. Hawaii gets a special weekly focus, so they can find their information at a glance. We do regular webinars educating the agents on what's happening, and we usually have an Apple exclusive offer that goes with the webinars each month. And then we have our Travel Agent Cafe, which is an informational portal where we post all of our latest Hawaii flyers and incentives that agents can brand their information on and then pass it on to clients.

One thing that we're coming out with that we just announced at our trade show -- it's not in hand yet -- it's a widget that they can put on their websites that we will be filling with content, more video content, info, graphics, information to help agents sell. This is for everything, but it will particularly have some great things for Hawaii. We're hoping to have that out sometime in November. We're right on the cusp of having everything together. It's called AVTV, and agents can use it on their own website, and it's free and we'll be feeding them lots of information to help sell.

TW: Does Apple have an online bookings portal?

Yes. It's actually going through a transformation at the moment. We really have been working on it, and we have a little bit of testing to do, but it will really improve the booking experience for agents significantly when they're shopping and making FIT bookings. There will be a lot of advanced and more intuitive search functions that we haven't had before. So it's really the search functionality that's the greatest thing that will help out the agent. We're just improving it, and the new features we hope will be ready soon.

TW: How often are you doing webinars?

It's every other month now. We were doing them every month, but we felt like we hit that for a couple of years, and then we got a lot of information out there, so now we've slowed it down. Now the focus is usually on something new like with Disney's Aulani [resort on Oahu]. Agents can always go look at old webinars, but we're trying to focus more now on new information.

Big Island lavaTW: Are fam trips an important part of your relationship with agents? Have Internet tools, webinars, etc., changed how often you offer fams?

Webinars are convenient, they're cost-effective, but they just can't replace fams, and we know that. Hawaii is a little bit more of an expensive fam, but we still try to do a few each year. We try to do at least three each year. Often it's by invitation through the sales staff.

Last year we sponsored our first Hawaii MVP trip, where we decided to create this MVP for each sales region across the country. We recognized the top travel agent accounts for their Hawaii business. And actually, it's not based just on top production. It's a combination of factors. It includes the number of passengers, the amount of revenue, their Hawaii growth year over year, so it doesn't even have to be a heavy hitter.

If they significantly improve their Hawaii growth, then that might put them in the right position. Then those agents would attend a three-day roundtable where we meet, we talk about Hawaii and get their ideas and see what we could do better. Then we'll also see some hotels, we'll do some events, and then they also receive a complimentary three-night pre- or post-stay to just enjoy the Islands, and we will be doing that annually.

TW: Is Apple doing more or less face-to-face marketing with agents now than in the past?

We do a lot. Apple has a sales force of 30 throughout the country. It's one of the largest, I think, for tour operators in the U.S., and they're out there daily. Hawaii is always one of their top priorities. We still do live seminars, dinners and breakfasts where we are featuring Hawaii. We had a big Hawaii faction from the hotels here for our trade show in Chicago.

We do trade shows all over the country, but we do a big one for the Midwest. ...We had 1,100 agents at our trade show, and we had 150 vendors. I don't know off the top of my head how many of those were from Hawaii, but we had a lot of Hawaiian entertainment filtering throughout with slack-key guitars and ukulele players. It was a cool event. I think more than ever, face-to-face time is important. We're consistent with it. Yes, technology is great and we all love it and embrace it in every way, but it's so important for agents to know that we're there to have the personal relationships and know who you can call when you need something. That's crucial.

TW: How does Apple Vacations distinguish itself from other wholesalers that offer Hawaii products?

USS Missouri at Pearl HarborBabin:
I think our new MVP Hawaii trip is one way. And we have our Hawaii by Amstar office [in Honolulu] serving our clients throughout the Islands. Our representatives contact vacationers when they arrive to make sure their car pickup, their hotel check-in, everything has gone smoothly and to assist them with any optional bookings they haven't made already and to just answer questions. Then they are there throughout the stay with a number that people can call. They know that we're there with them throughout the whole trip, and that's pretty standard with the Apple Vacations brand.

And then, in addition, we have a very competitive price-match policy with no limit on any match. We pay 10% commission when agents price-match the OTAs, and that's also hotels direct, if they've got a direct price, and on membership clubs against our Apple air-inclusive packages and land-only. So it's a very competitive and open price-matching policy. Plus we pay the agents 5% on published air, which is new for us this year.

TW: How do you distinguish Hawaii from other competitive markets?

A lot of our base from where we handle our risk is the East Coast and the Midwest, so we really have to focus on the things that make Hawaii special because it's going to be more expensive, and it's going to take longer to get there. We've already got some of those things going against us.

We have a good amount of agents from the West Coast and business from the West Coast, but I think as a national company, we really focus on the experience of Hawaii, the individuality of the Islands, the experiences you do off property and trying to feature excursions, marketing the reasons to go there. Personally, I always find Hawaii to be such a spiritual experience, as well, with the aloha spirit, and there's something about the sense of the Earth there. You can go to the Big Island and see creation. I think we try to market in that way and share the experience in that way.

TW: Hawaii can be a good place for agents to earn added commissions on various activities. Do you encourage agents with the booking of activities that can increase their bottom line?

We do, and you'd like people to do it in advance because you don't want people getting there, running out of time, being jetlagged and then not being able to do something they had their heart set on doing. So we do strongly encourage agents, and of course it's commissionable to plan those things in advance. We have the Amstar office if they want to do something special or extra or they want to do something with a small group. We have a lot of that going on, and we're happy to connect them with our office to get that set up, or they can just do it online directly through their link.

We have the volcano tours, some of the new zipline tours, there's the "shooting the flume" activity. People always want to see Pearl Harbor. I think the excursions people choose really depend on how many times they've been to Hawaii and what type of traveler they are. One of my favorites is the swimming with the manta rays on the Big Island. How cool is that?

And one of the tips that our pros are recommending is for agents to not necessarily sell the excursion at the time of the booking because customers are overwhelmed with a lot of other choices regarding their vacations. Do I want an upgrade? What kind of transfer do I want? They're just making a lot of choices. We've heard that agents get a much better response and get those booked if they call their client maybe a month before they travel and everything else is settled, and then their mind is open to what's next. That's something we'd recommend.

TW: How has business to Hawaii compared with other destinations Apple Vacations offers thus far in 2011? What is the outlook for business to Hawaii looking ahead to 2012?

For us Hawaii is up [double digits] in 2011 for the second year in a row. Looking ahead to 2012, we're not necessarily feeling this all across the board, but for Hawaii we already have more group business on the books, family groups, incentive groups, so we're feeling like that momentum for Hawaii is going to continue for us. And we expect a better year next year than this year.

TW: Are there challenges that Hawaii faces from its competitors in 2012 and beyond?

Aulani resortBabin:
Airfares are continuing to climb, so that's the first challenge on the list, and I think the fact that Mexico and the Caribbean are becoming especially aggressive, knowing that 2012 may be a tough one economy-wise. So it's going to be harder to gain that exposure and to gain the business for Hawaii. Like I said, we've got the groups and that's a good, solid base, but we're just going to have to step it up to really push Hawaii. And I've got to say that those [Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau] blitzes they're doing in the different marketplaces are really helpful. We've seen a spike in each market after because we try and participate with them and build some marketing and activities around it. And when it's all happening at once, it's worked.

TW: Visitor arrivals totals dipped 4.2% to Hawaii in August and were also off slightly year over year in July and June. Have you seen any slowing in business to Hawaii in recent months?

We did. We kind of went along with that same curve. We were doing well January through April, but then the summer kind of went down. In the fall things have started to bounce back, but it's not been equivalent to the first quarter. Some of that might be due to the economy and people spending less, but I think you have to also consider some of what the Mexico and Caribbean hotels were doing. There's been much more aggression there, and we feel a lot of that. Our business does see a lot of aggressive rates, and when you're putting one next to the other, you really have to feature Hawaii in a different way to sell it.

TW: Statewide average daily rate in Hawaii hotels is up about 8% through August. Any concern that given some of the recent U.S. economic worries, those rates are too high?

Yes. That is a concern, and when you're adding all the pieces together, if the airfares are going up and the hotel rates are going up, that increases the challenge even more. No doubt.
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