Hawaii Superferry notes marketing deals are a high priority

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HONOLULU -- Austal USA, builder of two Hawaii Superferry vessels, officially handed over ownership of the first of the boats, the Alakai, to the fledgling company on May 30, but a date has not been set for the ferry to leave the Mobile, Ala., shipyard for Honolulu, some 5,000 nautical miles away.

While the builder has met its obligations to the ship, according to Austal spokeswoman Michele Bowden, the vessel cannot set sail until Hawaii Superferry receives Coast Guard approval of its crew training procedures and other items.

Originally slated for a June debut, the service has been pushed back to late summer, according to Hawaii Superferry. The second ship, now under construction, is scheduled for delivery in 2009. 

The $190 million vessels are 340 feet long and four decks high and will have a carrying capacity of 866 passengers and up to 282 vehicles (including cars, trucks and buses).

While awaiting the arrival of the Alakai, Hawaii Superferry is using the time to work on creating packages and marketing agreements that will open the door to commissionable bookings by travel agents. 

Although the company projects an initial 70/30 split between local and visitor bookings, it is working on marketing agreements that will integrate the Superferry into the visitor industry's existing distribution channels. That means deals with car rental companies, tour operators, wholesalers, travel agents, even airlines. Reservations, for example, have been outsourced to Continental Airlines on Superferry-dedicated lines.

"Wholesalers are the key to working with agents and providing them with a commission incentive," said Damon Hylton, Superferry director of marketing. "We're working out packages with two major wholesalers and hope to have commissionable product available to agents by July. We're planning to add a booking option that will enable agents to print unpriced tickets that allow them to include a service fee. We'll also be involved in a large number of fam trips with agents." 

It has taken a great deal of time, expertise and money to create a new transportation option and integrate it into the existing transportation and distribution systems, with Superferry looking for the right companies with which to partner.

"There's been a lot of interest from a wide range of companies wanting to work with us on developing packages," Hylton added. "That includes local tour operators who are looking at day trips, wholesalers looking for something new for Hawaii's repeat market and meetings and convention companies. We're working with market segments we didn't anticipate when we started."

The ship has been built to suit Hawaiian waters, with computerized stabilization for each of its two hulls. Decor is stylish and upscale, with onboard activities and restaurants to enhance the three-hour-long travel time.

The Alakai will offer daily roundtrips on Oahu/Maui and Oahu/Kauai runs, with service to the island of Hawaii set for 2009. 

On the ground, arrivals and departures have been scheduled outside peak travel times. Critics had cited traffic congestion and strains on limited harbor space among their concerns.

"We should be able to get all passengers and vehicles off-loaded in 10 to 15 minutes," Hylton added. "We have a holding area that can hold a shipload of cars, so we're not anticipating problems.

"We've worked hard to address community concerns, and we're doing everything we can to be a good, responsible neighbor." 

The company is hiring locally, with an anticipated staff of 200.   

Honolulu-Maui tickets, sold as one-way segments, will be priced at $52 off-peak (Tuesdays through Thursdays) and $62 peak (Fridays through Mondays). There is also a fuel surcharge (likely $5 to $10) linked to fuel costs. Advance purchase ticketing secures an $8 discount. An upgrade to the 174-passenger Hahalua ("manta ray") Lounge, with welcome beverage, pupus and in-lounge service personnel, is an additional $20, which puts a one-way fare at $49 to $72, with discounted fares for children (12 and under) and seniors (62 and over). Car rates are $59 off-peak, $69 peak. 

"We see the Superferry as more than just a transportation option. We see it as an experience. The ability to see Hawaii from the water is a spectacular plus. And we offer the potential cost savings and convenience of travel with your own vehicle on a relaxing trip," Hylton said. "It's a particularly good option for families, with the kids remaining in the car throughout the drive-on and with game room, WiFi and restaurant service making it an enjoyable and competitively priced option for families."

Seeking to grow its marketing options, packages will include air/sea combinations that are well suited to day trips to either Maui or Kauai.  

In terms of pricing, Hylton admitted that the current fare war in the interisland market might provide a cost advantage for the bargain hunter. Company President and CEO John Garibaldi, a veteran of the airlines with stints at both Aloha and Hawaiian, looks at it with a seasoned eye.

"Knowing the airline industry, I can't predict when Hawaii will return to a two-carrier market, but I won't be surprised when it does happen," Garibaldi said. "We're already competitively priced relative to many current interisland air fares, and that won't change. Our challenge now is to satisfy people's expectations by delivering convenience and a quality product."

Much of the more than $200 million investment required to build the two high-tech superferries and set the business in motion was provided by New York-based investor J.F. Lehman.

Lehman, who served as secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, brought some nautical expertise to the table, and the result is an innovative, catamaran-style vessel (the first of its kind built in the U.S.) designed for smooth sailing at up to 35 knots in Hawaii's sometimes-rough interisland waters.

For information, call (877) HIFERRY (443-3779) or visit www.hawaiisuperferry.com.  

To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].

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