For better or worse, Hawaii woos wedding planners, honeymooners despite economy

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Couple on beach in HawaiiRomance and Hawaii go way back. The allure of the islands' stunning beaches, warm waters and exceptional natural beauty has been tempting vacationing couples for more than a century, and Hawaii's tourism industry has always been pleased to welcome them and their business.

"Hawaii has aggressively pursued the romance market since the first days of our marketing efforts," said Marsha Wienert, Hawaii's state tourism liaison. "The destination just lends itself to romance, and as that particular market segment matured, we really got involved in the destination wedding and vow-renewal market, and that has become a very huge business for us as a state."

While it's no secret that the recent worldwide economic plunge has had a substantially negative impact on Hawaii's tourism industry, the state's 2009 weddings and honeymoon figures seem to offer both good news and bad.

According to Hawaii's Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, 470,571 honeymooners visited the Islands last year, a 3.5% increase from 2008. In contrast, 108,882 visitors traveled to Hawaii to actually get married in 2009, a figure that was off nearly 11% from the year before.

Wienert suggested that the cost of a destination wedding in Hawaii might have been behind the year-over-year decline.

"When the economy started going down, everyone became very concerned with regard to how they spend their money," she said. "And generally, with weddings, it's not just the bride and the groom who are traveling. They're usually bringing friends and family with them, and then with the economy the way it is, that becomes very expensive.

"So I think a lot of people were saying 'OK, maybe we'll have it at home and then just take our honeymoon there.' "

Wienert also said that the substantial discounts available across the islands in 2009 likely led to the modest upswing in honeymoon arrivals.

"We've been saying for almost two years now that the value of a Hawaii vacation is better than it's ever been," she said. "And now is definitely the time to come."

An examination of Hawaii's Department of Health marriage statistics for the past decade indicates fewer U.S. couples were deciding to travel to the Islands specifically to get married before the economic downturn hit. In fact, those same numbers show the decline beginning long before the failures of both Aloha Airlines and ATA in early 2008.

In 2000, the state issued 13,898 marriage licenses to U.S. couples residing outside of Hawaii. By 2005, that number had jumped to 19,914, an increase of more than 30%.

Destination weddings in decline

Marriage licenses issued to nonresidents, however, dropped in 2006, and by 2007 that total had fallen to 17,943, a decline of nearly 10% from 2005.

Thanks to drastically reduced airlift and the onset of the recession, destination weddings for U.S. couples in Hawaii fell sharply in 2008 and plunged again in 2009, to 13,936.

Considering the U.S. economy's woes, declining wedding totals in 2008 and 2009 don't need a whole lot of explanation. But what about the significant slips in 2006 and 2007, years in which Hawaii's tourism industry enjoyed record earnings?

"The competition for that particular market section has increased dramatically," Wienert explained. "We use to say the Sandals resorts [in the Caribbean] were our big competition, but it's everywhere now. Everyone is going after that destination weddings market."

Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said his company booked more than 200 destination weddings to Hawaii in 2009 and expects to do more than that this year. But Pleasant also books weddings to Hawaii's competitors and, according to Richards, Mexico has attracted more of his weddings customers for some time.

"It's primarily because of the all-inclusive resorts in Mexico that offer weddings, and some even offer complimentary weddings," Richards explained. "It's a fixed-budget vacation, and Hawaii just doesn't have that."

BrideRichards said even more of Pleasant's spending-conscious wedding customers went the all-inclusive Mexico route during the recession, and he highlighted another of that country's resort advantages.

"The difference we see between a lot of hotels in Mexico and Hawaii is the wedding chapels built right on the beach [in Mexico], ready to go," he said. "We're starting to see some of that come about in places like the Grand Wailea in Maui, and also the Moana Surfrider in Honolulu.

"I think hotels are starting to recognize the importance of it, but still even these tend to be set off the beach a little bit."

Aston Hotels & Resorts is another Hawaii company now making a focused effort to improve its nuptials-friendly facilities.

"Several of our properties are adding outdoor wedding sites and venues now at the condominium resorts," said Shari Chang, Aston's vice president of sales, marketing and revenue management. "And we're also adding wedding coordinators to help with preparations."

Chang said many of those changes are in the works because Aston's condo properties have enjoyed a considerable increase in destination wedding bookings throughout 2009 and into this year.

"I think as the brides cut back on the more pricey alternatives, they're recognizing that staying at a condo and having the families staying all together is a little more cost-effective for them, and it's fun," she said. "So we've actually had a lot of people come to the properties, having bridal showers in the units or they have cookouts with their families.

"I think they're realizing it's a more personal kind of setting and the families have a lot more bonding time together."

Chang seemed confident that the recent interest in condo properties as a more affordable and close-knit wedding option is likely to have staying power.

"I think even as we come out of this economic recovery, people are still going to be a little more stringent with their funds," Chang said. "And many will still be thinking, 'Maybe I don't need to book a $40,000 wedding at this hotel. I might want to look at a different alternative where it's a little more intimate and a little more special.' "

Headed in the right direction

Ask any number of Hawaii tourism insiders about the future of the state's No. 1 industry, and you're likely to hear similar responses. The good news is that things appear to be moving in a positive direction. The less gleeful and increasingly common news is that significant gains are still likely a ways off.

"Year to date, we're up a little bit in arrivals, and ... we're up slightly in spending," Wienert said. "I think that's what we're going to see as we move through the year, and I think 2010 is really going to be our stabilizing year. ... And as we go into next year, hopefully we'll be able to see some increases."

Chris Tatum, vice president of Marriott International for North Asia, Hawaii and the South Pacific, seemed to agree.

"We're already seeing some encouraging signs on booking pace," Tatum said. "I don't think it's going to be a huge turnaround right away, but we're starting to feel that at least we've gotten to the bottom. But the deals are still out there, because there's plenty of inventory.

"I think from a consumer standpoint, you're probably never going to get a better deal," he added. "Hawaii's a great destination right now for them, and I think if people look and do some homework with their travel agent, they'll find that there is no better time to come."

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