Travel Weekly's contributing editor for Hawaii, Shane Nelson, spoke recently with Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau, about the state of the Garden Isle's visitor industry and its place in Hawaii's apparent recovery.
Travel Weekly: How has the Kauai visitor industry fared this year?
Kanoho: I thought the August numbers were quite positive. If you look at the year to date, we're up 2.6% in arrivals, and visitor expenditures year to date were up 8.4%, which is great. So we're seeing a positive trend in the numbers. The thing that everybody is always tracking is arrivals and expenditures and, of course, length of stay. Length of stay is holding its own; we're pretty much flat, but at [an average of] seven days I'm happy with that.
TW: Can you explain some of the bigger percentage gains in arrivals and expenditures on some of the other islands compared with Kauai?
Kanoho: Whenever you look at islands, you have to look at inventory. No. 1, we have more timeshare, which is sort of a fixed price point because people have made their purchase. We also have a very high number of vacation rentals on this island. We don't have the same amount of what we call CMI hotels [conventions, meetings and incentives] that Maui, Oahu and the Big Island have. So our CMI business is smaller.
So I guess what I'm saying is it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. The island that we track closest to is usually the Big Island. And the numbers [for] the Big Island were pretty [poor] there for a while, and so for them to show big increases, that's because they were significantly down. If you look at where we are right now in arrivals, we're up 2.6%, and they're up 4.2% [year to date], and I don't see that as huge change.
And for Oahu, they're only up 6.7%, but remember Oahu didn't take as big of a hit because of their price point. They had flights and they had price point. And Maui is ... well, if I had $6 million to market, I might be doing better, too.
TW: How was this summer season for Kauai?
Kanoho: I think it was OK. Overall, I think it was a little bit better than expected but certainly not as good as years prior to the downturn. I was a little bit more cautious, and it came in a little bit better than I thought.
What we've seen is that September and October are pretty decent. Usually there is a serious drop-off right after Labor Day because that's a traditional shoulder period for us, but what's been encouraging for us is it has not been as big of a drop as it has been in years past. So it kind of feels like people are starting to really let go and travel, and so we're feeling a little more secure.
TW: Have the monthlong, citywide marketing blitzes by the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau been an effective strategy?
Kanoho: I like the concept, and I think it worked well because for one thing, it would really dominate a month. And two, it would give each island chapter their week to kind of do it their way. And then it gave us the television and the outdoor advertising part that I think is often far out of our budget, but the HVCB was able to step up with that, so that was really helpful.
TW: Has Kauai seen some tangible results with regard to arrivals and bookings as a result of the blitzes?
Kanoho: The wholesalers are telling us they did, and I think travel agents have commented on it, as well. From what I have heard, it has been a very effective tool based on the current environment.
TW: Are travel agents perhaps more important to a place like Kauai than, say, Oahu or Maui, because consumers are perhaps better informed about those destinations?
Kanoho: I think travel agents are really important to any destination, and the reason is this: Having an understanding of what the Islands are about and what differentiates them is really important because you want to match the client to that particular destination.
For example, we've had some Australians come and say, "Hey, I'm looking for the pubs." In that case, Kauai is probably not going to be your island. We're sending them to Oahu or to Maui. But if you have somebody who's looking for an eco-adventure, spa-related or kick-back environment, then the travel agent is going to know all the options. So I think if the travel agent can tell people that Oahu is known for this, or Maui is known for this or Kauai is known for this, then that really helps.
TW: Is there some specific advice you have for travel agents about Kauai?
Kanoho: One thing that would help a lot would be having agents really remind people about car rentals. That's one part of the business that has been affected by this downturn, because of the inventory that they carry. The more advance bookings that can be made on car rentals, the better. What's happening is a lot of people are doing a lot of last-minute travel, and to me, whenever you book your air you should be booking your car, and I don't think that happens.
We've had a couple times where [car rental inventory has] been a little tight over here, and especially with a destination like Kauai, you need a rental car to really enjoy all that Kauai has to offer.
TW: How long do you think it will take Kauai to get back to pre-economic downturn numbers, or is that even a realistic goal?
Kanoho: I'm going to be happy if we're just flat or [see] any percentage increase over this year. There are so many variables, so it's hard for us to predict. Flights are one. Cruise ships are another. Rates are also very important, and we don't control any of those from a visitors bureau standpoint.
We're hopeful that this positive move is going to continue, barring any surprises. We're feeling like there is a light at the end of the tunnel and we're moving toward it, and hopefully this will stabilize for us and hold.