Industry concentrates on getting greater share of meetings, conferences

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Tourism players on the Big Island of Hawaii are shifting resources from leisure travel to the meetings and conferences market, which they expect to generate as much as $135 million over the next three years.

"We know that the business traveler spends more than the leisure visitor, and the Big Island now has the meeting and banquet space to contend with other [meetings] destinations," said George Applegate, the Big Island Visitors Bureau's executive director.

The island's leisure market has been decreasing for several months, so "it's important to look at the entire world as a marketplace," he added.

In September, Hawaii hosted more than 100 members of the North America and Asian Pacific Rim Incentives and Meetings Exchange, also known as Prime. The meeting resulted in 35 confirmed plans to bring business groups to the island over the next three years, according to Priscilla Texeira, Prime managing director.

The event, the biggest initiative program the BIVB helped organize this year, was strategic in getting the word out to first-time visitors about the Big Island being meetings-friendly, Applegate said.

Texeira added that these are the people you must reach because they make the decisions, and the best way to reach them is not through advertising but to have them experience a new place firsthand.

The group came looking to experience a new destination that had sufficient hotel and meetings space "they could use in the next six months to three years," she said. As a result of the event, 42 of 81 North American attendees have proposals and contracts for meetings on the Big Island.

The Big Island's 2008 meetings business through July totaled about 71,000 visitors, compared with 113,524 visitors for all of 2007, Applegate said. International meetings arrivals to the Big Island through July were up 25% over the same period last year.

With about $500 million in resort renovations and construction under way in west Hawaii, Texeira said, the Big Island will be ready and able to compete for the meetings crowd.

There are 5,000 meetings rooms and 500,000 square feet of conference space in the western part of Hawaii. The Waikoloa Beach Marriott last year completed its 12,000-square-foot Naupaka Ballroom. There's also the new, open-air Waikoloa Bowl venue, which can accommodate 5,500 people.

But Prime visitors also were impressed with the variety of experiential adventures on the Big Island, including an active volcano, caves, cultural sites, Mauna Kea mountain, ranch lands and national parks, Texeira said.

"If this island is going to succeed, you have to move your attention into more international and business tourism," she said.

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