Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Outside the event hall at the Royal Hawaiian, clouds and a light drizzle dampened the day of tourists on Waikiki Beach, but inside things were looking bright for the gathered travel industry professionals focused on where Hawaii tourism has come from and is headed.

Fittingly held on May 2, National Travel Agent Day, the lineup of speakers for Travel Weekly's Hawaii Leadership Forum detailed the past, present and future of retail travel, covering everything from the very first travel agents to how technology such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality will impact the industry.

Hawaii Governor David Ige kicked off the morning followed by Hawaii Tourism Authority president and CEO George Szigeti. Both highlighted the robust state of the industry, with six consecutive years of growth in visitor arrivals and spending with 2018 shaping up to be the seventh. 

"We're doing all we can to help support the industry and meet the demand for enhanced experiences," Ige said, pointing out tourism's vital role in the state economy. "I do know It's more than the money. It's more than the economic activity you bring to our islands. We know it's the people, place and culture that make Hawaii the best destination in the world." 

Szigeti reiterated HTA messaging that Kauai, hit by heavy rainstorms in April, is open to tourists except for a small portion in the northwest area of the island, which does need support and will take some time to recover. He also highlighted the agency's efforts to increase traffic to islands other than Oahu.

"HTA is strongly committed to sustainability of Hawaii's core qualities that distinguish these islands from every other destination in the world," he said. "Today Hawaii has seen such an influx of tourists that residents are expressing concerns about quality of life ...  It's happening in Barcelona, it's happening in Italy, it's happening in Iceland. It's a worldwide global issue that we as industry leaders have to make sure is on our radar."

With the state officials framing the presentations to come, Jenn Lee, vice president of sales for Travel Planners International, kicked off the keynote presentations with a lively, joke-filled take on travel agent branding, positioning and business practices. For too long, Lee said, travel agents have been seen as independent contractors and "home-based" pseudo-professionals. Instead, today's agents deserve more acknowledgement for the small business operators they are, or "travel entrepreneurs." The common image of travel agents is outdated, Lee said, and needs to be reconfigured. 

"I think we're at a crossroads in the industry that is so flippin' exciting," Lee said. "We need to change individual travel agents' perception of who they are and what role they play."

Agents should see themselves as small-business owners building something not just for their future, but the travel industry's future, Lee said. How will they pass on their client lists and reams of data? How do they stay relevant, and help clients move toward life goals rather than simply provide a one-off consultation on which honeymoon destination to choose?

John Van den Heuvel, president of Gogo Worldwide Vacations, traced the lineage of travel agents all the way back to an 18th century Englishman, Richard Cox, who helped the country move, house and feed soldiers. He then outlined advances over time and how they changed the travel industry and lives of agents.

"I think many people will argue that the internet killed the travel agent," he said. "I actually would argue that the internet helped build what the travel agent is today  It's removed the purely transactional clients, and it's created a space for the experiential travel agent to help you get through all of the noise out there.  As long as the travel agent is able to gain trust in the eyes of vendors, partners and clients, they're not going anywhere."

Matt Wilson, co-founder of Under30Experiences, tackled the topic of how to market to the up and coming generation of young professionals, millennials. 

Out of the U.S. population born between 1980 and 2000, 83% have traveled for pleasure in the last year compared to 75% of the general public, and they have a combined $2.45 trillion in spending power. By 2025, Wilson said, millennials will make up three quarters of the global workforce.

"It's a generation of contradictions. They want the local, they want the authentic, yet all of this is globalization. That is just the way the world is working today," he said referring to how technology and the gig-economy have made the world a smaller place, and endless amounts of information in pocket-sized devices. Millennials have good "bullshit meters," he said, and will call out guides who get the facts wrong (thanks to a quick Google search) and seek out more meaningful, authentic experiences when they travel.

That was also a topic David Hu, president of Classic Vacations, touched on in the afternoon session, when he chronicled a trip he took with his family to Kenya, where his children participated in carrying water from rivers to people's homes and helped build a school building.

"I believe that we're lucky to be in this industry and we have a platform to create change," Hu said. "We have the ability to impact travelers and people who come to the islands or where ever else they go. I want us all to remember that we are fortunate to be in this industry and we have a chance to give back."

Hawaii's travel industry has been particularly fortunate in recent years, a fact spelled out in more detail in a presentation from Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays.

He predicted Hawaii will eclipse the 10 million visitor mark in 2018 for the first time in history, after hitting 9.4 million in 2017. The hurricanes that battered the Caribbean in 2017, and reports of gang violence and other crime in Mexico with subsequent U.S. travel advisories, have helped Hawaii, Richards said.

"For us, our business in Mexico is way off. We don't see that recovering in 2018. In fact we believe some of the people who would've gone to Mexico are choosing Hawaii," he said.

Keynote speaker Dina Ruden, senior vice president of Travel Leaders Group, outlined current shifts in consumer travel desires and Hawaii's competitive advantages. Tourists today do not want to feel like tourists, she said, they want inside knowledge and the experience of an in-the-know local. 

"These visitors increasingly are seeking a deeper emotional connection, more personalized experiences, opportunities to spend money on experiences rather than things, and oftentimes they want to fulfill that number one thing on their bucket list," Ruden said. 

People will pay more for differentiated experience, Ruden said, and they tend to turn to agents for more complicated trips.

"Lots of sun and fun destinations have beautiful beaches, but none have the combination of attributes Hawaii does," she said. "Hawaii has a distinctive culture, a unique cuisine, a one-of-a-kind ecosystem, original music that speaks to the people of the world, and a legacy of dance that is unparalleled. Most importantly, it has the Aloha spirit."

Several speakers at the day-long event touched on technology, its impact on tourism and travel agents, and what to expect in the coming years. 

Keynote speaker Terry Jones, a founder of Kayak and founding chairman of Travelocity who is now chairman at Wayblazer, honed in on artificial intelligence (AI). Already, AI is contributing to better online chat service, more sophisticated recommendations, airplane boarding procedures, website and advertising conversion rates, moving baggage and helping at check-in. 

Jones argued that the travel industry as a whole has been slow to adopt artificial intelligence, but has a lot to gain from its implementation. 

"AI, to me, is a game changer," he said. "Disruption is real, and we need to think about how AI will disrupt us. Just as travel agents changed before to deal with the internet, you're going to have to change again and adopt AI, not run from it."

Mark Travel Corporation is already using some of that very technology to help travel professionals tackle complex queries more quickly, said Ray Snisky, executive vice president of Mark Travel Corp., which recently merged with Apple Leisure Group. AI systems can now parse complex travel questions such as: "What beachfront resorts in Maui have tennis courts and offer a kid's club?"

While this shift may be scary, Snisky said, agents do have a role and competitive advantage in the AI-fueled travel world. 

"How do you compete with the companies investing in technology? You do it with emotional intelligence," he said. "Artificial intelligence does not replace the human touch of understanding a customer. You have to be able to have empathy and understand what drives that customer."

Rather than look into the future Jennie Ho, president of Delta Vacations, demonstrated how they are using technology to get better understanding of their position with customers. Today, companies have much more access to customer feedback, and routinely use email lists to survey users and establish satisfaction metrics.

At Delta, they calculate a net promoter score by classifying customers in three categories, promoters, those who actively champion a brand, passives, people who are satisfied but on the fence about promoting the company, and detractors, those who actively disparage a brand. The detractors are subtracted from the promoters to arrive at the net promoter score. 

"Having a strong net promoter score really helps us to continue to move forward," she said. "People aren't born detractors. We did something to get them there  To really have someone engage with you, to have them promote or advocate for you, is really about moving up the hierarchy of needs. We're talking about meeting emotional needs and their sense of self."

The final keynote speaker of the day, Andrew Ranson, executive partner at Future Point of View, also highlighted coming challenges and opportunities with technology.  As people become more connected and devices become more sophisticated, security will become an even greater issue, he argued. Along with artificial intelligence, he sees virtual reality playing a big role in how people choose and also experience destinations.

"Artificial intelligence and virtual reality will affect every step of a trip," he said. "Make no mistake there will be winners and losers. I think we have to understand that. We have to find ways to be those winners.  Ask how you're delivering your service so you are supporting the digital transformation."

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