Travel agents, wholesalers, hotel managers and others in the travel industry came together in Waikiki on May 10 for the 20th anniversary of the Travel Weekly Leadership Forum.
The day-long event, held at the Royal Hawaiian and Sheraton Waikiki, revealed some news from one of Hawaii's most well-known hotel brands, and also offered insights on what Hawaii customers are seeking.
In a conversation with Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann, Scott Dalecio, president and CEO of Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, announced that the company intends to bring the brand to the mainland.
KSL Capital Partners completed the purchase of Outrigger at the end of 2016, and Dalecio took over management of the brand in February. Outrigger currently operates or has under development 37 properties, with approximately 6,500 rooms in Guam, Fiji, Thailand, Mauritius, the Maldives and throughout the Aloha State, but no properties on the U.S. mainland.
"We feel having a mainland presence for the brand is important," Dalecio said. "We think that it's a great opportunity."
Converting an existing KSL property to the Outrigger brand is not an option at this time, Dalecio added, but did not offer further details on when or where the first Outrigger on the mainland will appear.
KSL also has plans to invest in existing Outrigger properties, and is budgeting between $80 million and $100 million for renovations at Outrigger hotels and resorts in the next two years. Outrigger is also revamping employee training and relations.
"Retaining talent is very important in this business, and we want to be seen as an employer of choice in the market," Dalecio said.
The forum kicked off at the Royal Hawaiian, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary, and attendees enjoyed a backdrop of Diamond Head, resort towers sparkling in the sun and beachgoers parading up and down Waikiki's white-sand strip.
Now in its 20th year, the Leadership Forum is going strong in Hawaii, Northstar Travel Group publisher Bruce Schulman said in his opening comments, and is "a partnership that will last."
Remarks by Randy Baldemor, COO for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, helped set the tone for the day's discussions.
"We have our challenges, like all destinations," he said. "The question is: Can we adapt to changing visitor needs and demographics?"
It is important for Hawaii to stay true to itself and augment its strengths, he said.
"Can we resist the urge to overdevelop and become like other destinations a concrete jungle?" Baldemor asked.
Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, who gave a short talk on Hawaii's competitive destinations, argued that the state's advantages are safety, the welcoming people, unique culture, and the climate and beaches. Meanwhile, he sees the destination's limitations being its relative isolation, limited cruise options, aging airport infrastructure, rising room rates and the lack of all-inclusive resorts.
"Hawaii's competitive set is the world," Richards said, referring to advancements in air travel that have made the islands, and its competing destinations, more accessible than ever.
Panels of both travel agents and travel wholesalers offered their observations on what has worked for them, and where they see the market moving in the future. While some are banking on the rise of the millennial market, others still see baby boomers as the most lucrative demographic, now and moving forward.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority has made a push to grab more of the millennial market, and a virtual reality presentation the agency produced last year titled "Let Hawaii Happen" won the 2017 Shorty Award for best weather or travel application.
David Hu, president of Classic Vacations, said he would pick to focus on millennials if he were a travel agent and had to choose a niche.
"There's a lot of variety in what millennials are looking for, and that creates the opportunity to be an expert in a lot of things," he said.
Richards, though, is sticking with baby boomers.
"We have one of the largest transfers in wealth in history coming," Richards said, referring to boomers inheriting money as their parents age and die. "Baby boomers have a lot of money and time compared to millennials, and that's where we are focused."
Another development is that families are looking for more integrated vacation planning, where they can do rewarding activities with their children. Keynote speaker Keith Waldon, the owner and founder of Departure Lounge, said adults today who grew up being sequestered in resort kids clubs do not remember them fondly.
"Families, more and more, are looking for something special and unique," said John Van den Heuvel, president of Gogo Worldwide Vacations. "They want to get away from kids clubs."
Travel agent Lisa Fletcher, a Hawaii specialist and owner of Signature Escapes out of North Carolina, said the Hawaiian culture is still paramount to setting a vacation to the Islands apart, and part of the challenge is acquainting East Coast travelers to the differences of traveling in Hawaii.
"On the East Coast we get people calling who want to stay in an all-inclusive resort because that's what we know," Fletcher said. "I have to say, 'No you don't, because that will take three-quarters of the fun out of it.' I call all-inclusive resorts 'Groundhog Day' because every day you wake up it's the same."
During lunch at the Sheraton Waikiki, Harris Chan, Marriott International's area vice president for Hawaii and French Polynesia, offered an update on the company's plans for the region. Several properties have either undergone recent renovations or are slated for upgrades in 2018 and 2019, such as Ritz-Carlton Waikiki Residences, Ritz-Carlton Kapalua and Wailea Beach Resort. Marriott, which became the world's largest hotel company after its 2016 merger with Starwood Hotels and Resorts, has earmarked $200 million for "many upgrades" to the Sheraton Waikiki in the next three years, Chan said.
In the end, there was agreement that Hawaii still holds competitive advantages over other competing destinations, such as Mexico and the Caribbean, such as the "aloha spirit" and warm welcome, and ease of travel for U.S. travelers who like to stay in their own language and currency.
Ray Snisky, executive vice president of the Mark Travel Corporation, who gave a presentation on competitive products, outlining the rise in more elaborate water parks, destination weddings and over-water accommodations, sees that attitude as Hawaii's defining characteristic.
"At the end of the day the aloha spirit is real, and it's alive and well," he said. "It can't be duplicated anywhere else. Stay aloha."