It has been a tumultuous travel year for Hawaii, mostly due to a series of natural disasters that caused extensive damage in some areas and wreaked havoc on transportation, tour schedules and access to certain attractions.
The visitors keep coming, though, and 2018 has still been a strong year overall, albeit below projections, for arrivals and spending. Hawaii Island was impacted the most by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that closed Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, its most visited attraction, for several months before its Sept. 22 reopening. That was followed by Hurricane Lane at the end of August, which lashed all of the islands with high winds and heavy rains but hit Hawaii Island the hardest. The chain of natural disasters started in April, when the north shore of Kauai suffered landslides and flooding after a weekend of record rainfall.
Prior to the start of 2018, the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) was bullish on continuing the trend of year-over-year increases in both total visitors and visitor spending, which had lasted for more than five years. For the entire state through August, visitor spending is up nearly 9% and arrivals are up 7% compared with the first eight months of 2017. While year-over-year numbers are higher, projections called for larger gains, according to a recent HTA statement. Hawaii Island saw a dip in its numbers during the first part of the summer compared with the same months in 2017, and August figures show the island is still seeing fewer visitors than in 2017, while Maui, Kauai and Oahu welcomed more arrivals than last year.
Chelsea Martin, owner of Austin-based Passport to Friday, an affiliate of Strong Travel Services and Virtuoso, specializes in luxury travel, and the San Diego native grew up taking regular vacations to Kauai. She recently took a trip to the Aloha State, during which she visited the islands of Maui, Lanai and Molokai. Martin studied hospitality and tourism management before moving into the travel agent sphere, and she offers destination honeymoon and wedding services along with standard travel planning.
After she got back from her transpacific trip, Martin shared some general and Hawaii-specific vacation-planning tips plus her latest favorites and updates on where to go and what to do on all of the most visited islands.
Q: What's your mission and focus with Passport to Friday?
A: I truly try to get to know my clients and their desires and create a bespoke itinerary based off of that. Cookie-cutter, copy-and-paste is not my style.
A huge portion of my business is planning honeymoons. I did wedding coordination throughout college, and my college dream was to plan destination weddings, so it was a natural progression for me. I work with a lot of clients heading to Europe in general, and Italy in particular has become one of my specialty areas. I would say Hawaii is pretty high up there, as well.
Most of my clients fall in the young professional age range, although I also have plenty of clients now who are the parents of clients of mine. My mother works on my team now, and she focuses on that clientele.
Q: What's your base strategy for helping a client plan a first-time Hawaii vacation if they come to you and only know that they want to go to Hawaii but don't know the differences between islands, etc.?
A: I have a questionnaire I send my clients to gauge what they are really looking for, and from there I build out the different options and discuss the differences between the islands with them. It can definitely be overwhelming for first-time visitors planning a trip with so much information out there, so that's where I can help.
Q: Compared to other destinations, is Hawaii an easy or hard place to work with in terms of meeting clients' expectations and the infrastructure to make bookings and get things done efficiently?
A: I find it to be easy and consistent. The hoteliers and travel partners I have worked with in Hawaii have been extremely accommodating, knowledgeable and make you feel like a part of their ohana (family).
Q: What's your own dream itinerary for Hawaii?
A: I personally would love to do a few nights at each Four Seasons property. They all offer something completely different but are the epitome of luxury. End with a couple of nights at the Travaasa Hana for some time to really slow down and relax, and I've got myself my perfect itinerary.
Q: Where did you go and what did you do on your most recent Hawaii visit in September?
A: My most recent trip to Hawaii was with the Maui Visitors Bureau, and we went to Maui, Molokai and Lanai. While I had been to Maui many times before, it was great to be able to experience Molokai and Lanai, two islands which are close to Maui but less frequented. The trip as a whole was beneficial to explore two new islands as well as see a different side to the Islands with an emphasis on Hawaiian culture.
Q: What are the trends among clients who are interested in Hawaii? What are they interested in in terms of activities, types of accommodations and specific destinations?
A: Since I specialize in luxury, where they stay is always important to my clients. With that being said, however, my clients don't typically like to sit still lounging at the hotel pool their entire trip. Most of them rent a car and get out to explore, everything from hiking to watersports to culinary and historical experiences.
Q: What sets Hawaii apart or distinguishes it from other tropical and island destinations?
A: The culture. I know I may sound like a broken record, but there is so much history in Hawaii that goes beyond just gorgeous beaches and nice hotels. Every time I step off the plane in Hawaii, I feel a sense of place and immediately feel at home.
Q: Did the recent natural disasters impact interest in Hawaii among your clients one way or another?
A: It has definitely been a topic of concern, but my job as a travel adviser is to educate my clients on what's truly going on and advise them on how to make decisions based on that.
Q: In your opinion, are there any aspects of the tourism industry that could be improved in Hawaii?
A: More emphasis on the true Hawaiian culture! A lot of aspects have gotten commercialized over the years, and I think it is time tourists embraced the roots of Hawaiian culture rather than just a conceptualized version.
Q: Are there certain experiences and places you find yourself continually recommending in Hawaii for families? Couples? Active-outdoorsy travelers?
A: I've grown up going to Kauai every year since I was 10 years old, so Kauai holds a special place in my heart. I love doing a combination of north shore (Hanalei, Princeville) and south shore (Poipu) for my clients; both areas feel completely different and offer different experiences, especially for those who love to explore.
I love to propose the combination of Maui and Lanai for honeymooners, to give them a balanced mix of being in the action and in seclusion. I also love the Four Seasons Hualalai on Hawaii Island for couples; it is one of my favorite hotels in the world. For families, Oahu and Maui both have an abundance of activities and great family-friendly resorts.
Q: What's your advice for travel agents who may just be getting started with Hawaii as a destination?
A: Utilize the tourism boards. They offer extensive training that helps tremendously and are always there to assist. Secondly, go for yourself and see Hawaii. No education is better than being there in person.