Panelists from last month’s Hawaii Roundtable. Photo Credit: Dave Miyamoto

Panelists talk aloha spirit, activities

Last month, Travel Weekly invited a group of tourism industry stakeholders and executives to the Sheraton Waikiki to discuss Hawaii's visitor industry. Participants of the roundtable, moderated by Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann and contributing editor Shane Nelson, discussed a variety of topics, including authentic visitor experiences, sustainable Hawaii tourism industry growth, multi-island vacations and airlift to the Islands. The original transcript has been edited for length and flow.

Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly:  Authenticity has been an enduring buzzword in the travel industry now for some time. When I first visited Hawaii back in the late '80s, visitors such as myself were almost guaranteed to be brought to a large-scale, commercial luau — a very packaged introduction to Hawaii, and not terribly authentic. Do these shows still exist? Are there other examples of inauthentic, packaged representations of Hawaiian culture?

Ray Snisky, executive vice president, the Mark Travel Co.: The luaus have changed. They've gotten better. There's a standard of excellence now; it's changed, to be competitive. One example on Maui is the Old Lahaina Luau, which is a big favorite of our customers, [and] there are some others that are spectacular. They really are not just the commercialized buffet they were before. I think it's like anything in life. If we don't all make our products better from year to year, we'll lose customer interest.

David Hu, president, Classic Vacations: I guess my pet peeve of this whole thing is the definition of authentic. To each person that definition is very different. You can't really say going to a specific luau or a touristy site is inauthentic. In many senses, that is the essence of coming to Hawaii: going to all of the kind of touristy sites and being able to experience that. So I'm not exactly sure if "inauthentic" should have a negative connotation. I think there are just certain things you do as part of being here in Hawaii. Our obligation, all of us, is to make those experiences that much better, and then layer on all of the various facets of what your personal authenticity is, whether it be the modern version of Hawaii or the legacy version of Hawaii. I don't want to say authentic is the only positive and inauthentic is all negative. There's a balance.

Kelly Hoen, Modern Honolulu
Kelly Hoen, Modern Honolulu Photo Credit: Dave Miyamoto

Kelly Hoen, general manager, the Modern Honolulu: Oftentimes we think of authentic as historic, [but] at the Modern, we're focusing on "What is the emerging authentic experience here in Hawaii?" So it's really celebrating music and musicians that are emerging and new culinary experiences, not just at our hotel but also in downtown Honolulu and the vibe of what the future of Hawaii brings.

Tom Mullen, senior vice president and COO, Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau: When we talk about authentic, it's not only the Hawaiian host culture, it's also the local culture. Hawaii is a melting pot. So it's the culinary aspects of it. It's the other things that the Filipinos do, the Portuguese do, the Chinese, the Koreans. People come here for that. And I think that's what people want to explore. I think if you look at what the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) does, they spend millions of dollars investing in cultural events year after year to bring that up front. 


Weissmann:  Can those who live here give us some examples of genuine, authentic experiences a Travel Weekly reader might want to suggest to their clients? And maybe those who don't live here could relate an experience they stumbled upon?

Sean Dee, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, Outrigger Enterprises Group: I have a 6-year-old nephew and a 15-year-old cousin who visited. They had never surfed, and they both wanted to learn. When they came out of the water, it was just an ear-to-ear reaction for both of them. Then seeing young Japanese girls and young Korean kids, who have been in the water for the first time or learned to surf for the first time, that's powerful. And then you could actually walk into Duke's [restaurant] and show them the guy who taught the world to surf. Not only are you learning to surf in this beautiful place with all of these people in a very social environment, you're doing it in the place where the sport and the culture was invented. Talk about authenticity. Talk about a story that's going to last forever. And to me, Waikiki Beach and the power of the surf culture is something that never can be mined enough.

Cheryl Williams,  Royal Hawaiian
Cheryl Williams, Royal Hawaiian Photo Credit: Dave Miyamoto

Snisky: I've probably gone on 10 helicopter rides, but my family and I did the one in Kauai, where it actually landed next to the waterfall where they filmed "Jurassic Park." Landing by that majestic waterfall will be something the four of us, my wife and my children, will never forget. It's those kinds of things we have to figure out how to communicate in a manner that explains it's not just another helicopter ride. It's not the same as flying a helicopter over Vegas. It's not the same as flying a helicopter to the Grand Canyon. It's very, very different. I think too often we just say, "Well, we have helicopter rides here in Hawaii," and we don't do enough to try and differentiate that experience and capture it. That's something I think we'll all be better off if we can do more successfully.

Hoen: I think an extraordinary experience for visitors is really the downtown Honolulu culinary scene right now, which is just fantastic. There are so many emerging chefs that are bringing a fresh farm-to-plate product that's unique, clever. It's just amazing. My favorite is Livestock Tavern. I love it, love it, love it.

Cheryl Williams, general manager, the Royal Hawaiian Resort Waikiki: My favorite thing to do with my family is go out to Bellows Beach in the Waimanalo area [on windward Oahu]. It's our favorite part of the island, and it's just a great experience. It's an amazing beach. It's quiet. The water is fantastic. It's beautiful.

Weissmann:  I'm sure everybody here sends out post-visit surveys. What comes out of those surveys? There are issues that, every year I come here, still seem to be issues, everything from traffic jams to homelessness to the perception of a negative attitude toward tourism on the part of residents. I'd like to hear about the positive things that come out of these surveys, as well, but what are you hearing that, perhaps, points to something that needs attention?

Jack Richards, president and CEO, Pleasant Holidays: Our host travel surveys do not indicate there are any issues with the local residents. In fact, it still scores very high in terms of, why do you go to Hawaii? One of the reasons people come here is the people of Hawaii and the aloha spirit. And that's why, for me, part of HTA's responsibility is to maintain and grow the aloha spirit. They do a lot of programs, and they have a lot of cultural ambassadors to do that, and it's working. We're not seeing any negativity in terms of local residents and ill will. I think any time you have 8.5 million visitors come to an island …

Weissmann: With a local population of 1.4 million.

Richards: Right. I think New Yorkers would feel the same if they had 90 million visitors. But we're not seeing this; it's not showing up. In fact, the aloha spirit and the people of Hawaii are a key reason why people come to the state.

Jack Richards, Pleasant Holidays
Jack Richards, Pleasant Holidays Photo Credit: Dave Miyamoto

Peter Ingram, executive vice president and chief commercial officer, Hawaiian Airlines: I think in terms of the long-term success of the tourism community here, one of the things we do need is to find a way to have a balanced, thoughtful approach to the growth of tourism in the community. You mentioned the fact that we have had record visitor numbers for the past few years. That is really not fueled by increases in hotel inventory; it has been propelled by more ready access to alternative forms of accommodation through technology.

I think we have to be responsible, because there is a sustainable path to growth that is a better way forward for this community. If you told people in this community we were going to grow at 15% to 20% a year for the next few years, that would not be a satisfying outcome. But if you think about visitor levels reaching a plateau, that's not a good outcome, either, because this industry remains the economic engine of Hawaii. It is really important for us to find that right balance, have the growth in a way that the community is supportive of and that would be better for airlines, better for hotels, better for travel agents, better for everyone in the tourism industry.

Mullen: I think Peter brings up a good point, because when I left here 8.5 years ago, we had about 7.5 million visitors. At that time, I thought 8 million was, like, the tops. It's 8.6 now. Where's the top now? Is it 9 million? But to Peter's point, we have to grow this in a sustaining way, because if we grow too fast, we're going to put more pressure on the infrastructure [than it can handle], which is going to erode the vacation experience over time. So it's got to grow, and we have to be able to manage it in a sustainable way. At the end of the day, if a hotel's revenue per available room grows, they're happy. If we can focus on that, because 5% to 6% [annual] growth in arrivals, that's just going to kill us.

Shane Nelson, contributing editor for Hawaii, Travel Weekly:  I'm curious about multi-island travel. How has that segment of your businesses been performing?

Snisky: Our outer island business is performing very, very well, for a couple of reasons. We've improved our technology to allow agents to be able to multi-island shop much more effectively than we have been able to do in the past. There's also been a lot of lift that's gone direct [to the neighbor islands]. It used to be Honolulu was the epicenter of every trip to Hawaii. That's no longer the case, and I think it's really important for us, especially with fuel being at the rates where it is now, that you're seeing airlines take a shot at some routes where they took a more conservative approach in the past. We've really got to make sure those routes work.

Hu: For us, our multi-island experience, as a percentage of our overall bookings, has declined over previous years. This speaks to a lot of the trends we talked about, like more flights direct to the neighbor islands. We know a quarter of our Hawaii business is always going to be multi-island, and the rest is going to be direct to specific islands. And again, a lot of that has to do with the availability of lift. It's also origin market, and how many repeat. For an East Coaster who's coming out here on a 10-hour flight, it's almost like an international trip. And so they're going, if they're coming for the first time, to do the multi-island trip. It's sometimes cost-prohibitive if you're trying to do a couple of different islands and you have a large family, but I think there's a nice balance of those who want to do multi-island, [and] those who want to do single island. 

David Hu, Classic Vacations
David Hu, Classic Vacations Photo Credit: Dave Miyamoto

Nelson:  Is interisland air ticket pricing having any impact on multi-island trips?

Dean Anderson, director of resort sales and marketing, the Ritz-Carlton Residences Waikiki Beach: For locals, for a family of five, they say, "We'll skip a trip to a neighbor island. We'll go to Vegas," because it's hard to travel to neighbor islands. And I know, in speaking to a lot of friends and people in the industry, it's hard to do the interisland, because it's more expensive. 

Williams: But we've been very fortunate here that we've had some very significant increases in airlift, especially out of the North American market. Last year it was up, I think, 8% or 9%, so that's great. It's easy to get to Hawaii. It's easy to do the neighbor islands. 

Hu: In the current environment, you have so many great tailwinds in terms of the airfares and everything, and it's fully ripe for having great demand into this destination. We haven't seen these kind of airfares for many years. It's incumbent upon us to get that message out there, because people have thought in years past that certain airfares were much more expensive, especially during peak season.

Williams: I think the key to this, too, is the farther out you book, the better it's going to be. 

Hu: Sometimes … 

Richards: Cheryl, I'm just telling you, that's just not factual, because if you try to book a Saturday or a Sunday so far out — we look at this every single day, and Saturday and Sunday and the peak days primarily remain constant.

Snisky: The value proposition for air travel to Hawaii has never been stronger than it is today, and that's because we were competing against other destinations, where there might have been a $300 ticket to Las Vegas and a $400 ticket to Mexico. Now you're having $700, $800 airfares to the Caribbean and to parts of Mexico at certain times. 

Richards: We're actually showing fares declining going into the summer months about 1% year over year. So we feel very, very good about the environment. I think oil plays a key role in that, although I will argue that fares never come down as fast as oil, but they certainly go up faster. But I think for the summertime, you're looking at fares equal to or less than 2015, which I think is very positive.