Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

Tourism’s positive impact on the lives of Aloha State residents was stressed at the 19th annual Travel Weekly Hawaii Leadership Forum, held earlier this week at the Sheraton Waikiki.

Attracting more than 300 Hawaii tourism industry stakeholders, including hoteliers, tour operators, airline executives, travel marketers and state tourism officials, the event began this year with an opening address from Mike McCartney, the former president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority and current chief of staff for Hawaii governor David Ige.

“Because of your hard work, and because of everyone working together to make this the best destination in the world and hitting those numbers of $15 billion [in 2015 visitor spending] and 8.6 million visitors ... we just got to spend $100 million in cash to put air conditioning in public schools that haven’t had air conditioning for 30 years,” McCartney said in his morning address, referring to an increase in tourism-related state tax revenue.

“It’s more than just numbers,” McCartney said about Hawaii’s tourism industry. “It’s more than just data. You start to touch people’s lives. And when those kids in those classrooms actually have an environment where teachers can teach and students can learn and it’s not hot, you’re going to change the trajectory of Hawaii.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, technology’s fast-moving potential to dramatically reshape how travel is sold quickly stole the show, with presentations from Devon Tivona, the founder and CEO of the virtual travel agency Pana, and Mike Turino, the director of sales for YouVisit Virtual Experiences, headlining the morning session and generating a great deal of buzz.

Tivona, whose company uses a combination of technology and travel experts to sell trips through chat platforms or SMS and email messaging, noted that the advent of online agencies dramatically changed the ease and accessibility of travel.

“But I think what we lost was personality,” he said. “We lost personalization. We lost the human experience. So I think this latest wave of technology, whether it be virtual reality, whether it be chat or whether it might be other ways to communicate brand personality, agent personality, destination personality, these are all trying to get back to that. There’s been a return back to that humanness.” 

Turino, meanwhile, discussed the range of new virtual-reality opportunities — many of which utilize headsets designed to work with smartphones — his company can provide for hotels, destinations and even travel agents, allowing them to more effectively sell vacation products from a more intimate, immersive and interactive perspective.  

“Virtual reality is not just for gamers anymore,” he said, noting users can access close to 2,000 experiences on the website.

“Virtual reality sales are set to hit $14 million this year, but we’re seeing it increase exponentially,” Turino said. “By 2020, it’s going to be a $30 billion market.”

Turino’s presentation certainly appeared to impress at least one travel agent in attendance:  Deb Fogarty, the owner of South Florida-based Be Well Travel. A home-based agent visiting Hawaii for the first time, Fogarty shared her thoughts about virtual reality’s sales potential during the forum’s late-morning travel agent panel discussion.

“If I could get one virtual reality headset to take with me when I meet clients for coffee or even for wine,” she said, “it would be great to have with me to show people all sorts of different experience options.”

Another of the agent panel’s participants, George Millar, the co-owner of Arizona-based Ultimate Hawaii Vacations, noted that technology isn’t his strongest suit, but that hasn’t kept him from having success with millennials.

“They’ve grown up in a generation where good service doesn’t really exist and is hard to find,” he said of clients in the 22-to-32 age group. “So if you can show them good service, show them that you are going to craft and mold that vacation to fit exactly what they’re looking for ... when they come back, you’ve got a client for life.” 

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