When government officials, academics and leaders from a variety of industries gathered at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel for the Japan-Hawaii Economic Summit May 9-11, one of the panels was "Tourism 2.0," featuring Hawaii Tourism Authority director George Szigeti.
After highlighting increased tourism from Japan to the Aloha State, the discussion quickly turned to digital engagement and serving the "visitor of the future, the millennial."
"They want the authentic experience," Szigeti said. "They want to see what locals do, eat what locals eat, shop where locals shop, hike where locals hike. They don't want to go to the pool and have a Mai Tai and sit all day."
Millennials, who now make up a larger market in the United States than baby boomers, are on the minds of tourism officials across the globe, and the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) is no different.
Last year the HTA ramped up its efforts to engage millennial travelers, and the agency has augmented the programs in 2017. The approach is multi-pronged, working to better educate the millennial market on what Hawaii offers beyond beach resorts, and also improving the technology and media behind the HTA's marketing efforts.
"We've got to make sure we stay relevant from a technology standpoint," Szigeti said. "Visitors get here now and they're going right to their smartphone when they get off the plane."
New this year, the HTA is revamping its website with a fresher look and more eye-catching features, including a series of 360-degree videos so potential visitors can better explore what awaits in the Aloha State.
"We've had the current website for seven plus years and the technology was outdated," said Leslie Dance, HTA vice president of marketing and product development. "We are making it into a storytelling platform that is designed for mobile first."
The agency is in the testing phase with the website, and hopes to make it live to the public in roughly three months, Dance said.
The site will be offered in numerous languages and include new interactive features, videos that help depict the ambience and charm of Hawaii and the Aloha spirit, and multimedia galleries. Visitors to the site will also be able to find links to HTA's innovative virtual reality feature produced in 2016.
Users with VR goggles can load the application and take a virtual tour of Hawaii's touristed islands with a different host and experience on each island. The VR feature, entitled "Let Hawaii Happen," won the 2017 Shorty Award for best weather or travel application.
Also in 2016, HTA partnered with Expedia on a new facial recognition marketing technology. Users who opted in would have their faces recorded while they watched videos of various Hawaii sights and activities. Depending on their facial expression and reaction during the presentation, a suggested itinerary would pop up at the conclusion.
While baby boomers, on average, still have more spending money and free time than millennials, it's important to cultivate the next generation of Hawaii's visitors, Dance said.
Jay Talwar, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Hawaii Tourism United States, echoed that sentiment. Right after the recession, Hawaii's tourism agency was focused on anyone who had the money to travel and keeping numbers stable. Now, the HTA has the ability to focus more on the future, Talwar said.
The new technology, including the website and virtual reality feature, helps demonstrate the possible experiences one can have in Hawaii, versus simply representing the islands as a destination a key distinction for capturing the imagination of millennials, according to the HTA.
"Part of the reason many millennials have not visited Hawaii is because of misperception," Talwar said. "A little education gets them very interested in visiting. When they see Hawaii as a beach resort place, they aren't interested because there are closer beaches."
The key, Talwar said, is to show them the variety of experiences and environments on the different islands and tap into their primary interests.
"No generation is homogeneous, and to say they are all exactly the same is over simplifying," Talwar said. "However, in general, millennials want moments of enrichment when they travel. They want experiences that help them view the world differently, and they want to share it and talk about it with their peers."
Millennials are also getting their information via new methods, including review sites and peer recommendations via social media. Additionally, better access to search, including voice-activated searches using digital assistants like Amazon's Alexa, is making information increasingly on demand. Millennials expect responses in hours not days, Talwar said. Of US millennials earning $100,000 or more annually, 90% have never visited Hawaii.
"That's a significant area to mine to get first time visitors," Talwar said.
The HTA is continuing to look toward technology for ways to expand its reach and target millennials, Dance said.
"The idea is to cut through the clutter." she added. "There are so many marketing messages out there. With developing technology there are all kinds of new and interesting ways to engage audiences with authentic and unique content."