Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

InsightHawaii Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz kicked off the 2011 Travel Weekly Hawaii Leadership Forum, held this month at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, on a conspicuously high note.

“The first thing I want you to know is that Hawaii’s economy is back,” he said during his opening remarks. “We project 11% growth for the next couple of years — and in my view those estimates are conservative — based primarily on the strength of a strong, strong rebound in tourism.”

Before a group of about 200 hoteliers, travel agents, tour operators, airline executives, vacation planners, marketers and state tourism officials, Schatz also spoke at length about the building excitement and significance surrounding the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leadership meeting in Honolulu.

According to Schatz, the November event will attract between 1,500 and 3,000 CEOs, 2,000 members of the international media, 21 heads of state and a likely overall attendance of more than 18,000, all while dealing a substantial blow to pesky boondoggle perceptions of the state.

“We’ve had some challenges over time in being perceived as a serious place to conduct business,” Schatz said. “But there’s no more serious meeting that Hawaii could host than APEC.”

A generally positive economic analysis followed Schatz’s comments during a consumer spending presentation by Kamalesh Rao, director of economic research for MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, that outlined a growing trend of debt reduction by U.S. consumers.

“People have become far more prudent about how they borrow,” Rao said. “This is why we can have recovery even though we’re talking about 9.1% unemployment, because people have successfully ‘deleveraged’ themselves.

“In lieu of a dramatic spike in gas prices and a reversal of hiring trends, I think a less indebted consumer will continue to drive the recovery,” he added.

Panelist Toni Freeberg, director of leisure marketing for Alaska Airlines Vacations, later told forum attendees that her company’s business to Hawaii was “far surpassing” that of its Mexico flights.

“We’ve actually seen some growth from Mexico,” she said. “Year over year it’s somewhere about 30% vs. Hawaii where we’ve seen a growth from first quarter 2010 to first quarter 2011 of over 80%. … We now service eight markets on the U.S. West Coast into the islands, so we’ve had a lot of increases in frequency, but it’s translating into almost doubling the number of passengers into Hawaii over the last year.”

Freeburg said the media coverage of Mexico’s recent difficulties had taken its toll.

“Hawaii is benefiting a lot from the media scare — some of which is really true,” she explained. “I think, especially with families, we’re seeing that they would rather play it safe.”

During the afternoon panel discussion, MLT Vacations’ president and chief marketing officer, Ken Pomerantz, discussed a positive trend for agents selling Hawaii products.

“What we’ve seen over the last two years is a gradual shift back to travel agents,” he said. “Those longer length of stays and higher price point vacations are the ones where the travel agent can add the most value, and that’s what we’re seeing in our business. ... We’ve definitely seen a move back to the traditional travel agent, and they are now by far the biggest distributor of Hawaii.”
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