Jay Johnson has been selling vacations to Hawaii for 30 years, and the president of Coastline Travel Advisors, a Virtuoso agency based in Garden Grove, Calif., still spends an average of six weeks each year in the Aloha State. Johnson spoke recently with Shane Nelson, Travel Weekly's contributing editor for Hawaii, about what sets the destination apart, new luxury developments of interest in 2016 and his favorite high-end property in the Islands.
Q: What makes the Hawaii luxury vacation market different? How is it unique?
A: First off, I love the cultural aspect of traveling to Hawaii. There are lots of great places you can go in this world, but Hawaii has a distinct culture that I find fascinating. There's also so much to do. You have beauty and a stunning array of sights. You also have fantastic five-star hotels, some of the best hotels in the world. You have great Pacific Rim food. You have easy access from the U.S. with nonstop flights from a ton of cities on the mainland.
And you've got year-round great weather. There's no bad time to go. You could go in January or you can go in June, and the weather is going to be nice either time.
Q: Are there some exciting new developments in Hawaii's luxury market for 2016?
A: I'm very excited about the new Four Seasons on Oahu opening. That's very, very exciting, and I cannot wait for that to happen. I have people that only stay at Four Seasons, and you'd always have to bypass Oahu for those people, because there just haven't been any really great properties on Oahu. It's not horrible; the Halekulani is probably the very best, but it's just not the same. It's very, very nice, and I do like it, and if you've got someone looking for a five-star property, that's usually where I send them. But one of the problems with Oahu for us has been just the lack of really nice hotels, and with the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton coming [to Waikiki], I think that's going to change, and it's going to open up a lot of potential.
Q: What's your favorite luxury property in Hawaii?
A: The Four Seasons Resort Haualalai on the Big Island is probably the nicest hotel I've ever been to in my life anywhere. The setting of that property is probably the nicest I've ever seen; you truly feel removed. You're in Hawaii. You're obviously in a somewhat touristy area, but you get to that property, and you sit down and look out at the water, and you feel like you're in a completely different world. And the food, the service, it's just phenomenal. The two-bedroom suites they have are just like a house. You have so much room, and that's great for families. You just never want to leave that property. You can sit there at the little restaurant and bar out near the water, and it's just magical. And I have families that go back every single year for the holidays.
Akaka Falls near Hilo, among the Big Island sites recommended by Jay Johnson of Coastline Travel Advisors. Photo Credit: Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority
Q: Are there some standout Hawaii luxury activities you sell often to clients?
A: One thing we have been doing for people going to Maui is a private yacht experience. If you want to go snorkeling, have a fun day on the water, do lunch on the boat and, of course, not be with a big, gigantic crowd, you can rent yachts out of Lahaina Harbor [from] Excellence Sport Fishing Charters … a five-star yacht company. They'll take you snorkeling or out to scuba dive if you're certified. They'll really take you to some pretty remote places, and you basically have the boat to yourself. If you're a family, and you don't want to deal with the big catamaran snorkeling boats, where you're bumping into everyone and everything else, we like to suggest the private yacht, because it is just really a fun experience.
Q: When selling a luxury vacation to Hawaii, do you try to book clients on multi-island trips?
A: When we send people to Hawaii, unless they're going for a very short period of time, we always send people to multiple islands. I never suggest just going to one island. But it used to always be trips either to Maui and the Big Island or Maui and Kauai; now, with the Four Seasons opening on Oahu and the Four Seasons [reopening] on Lanai, I think that's going to change.
I think it's great to get a different sampling, and I love the change of scenery. Each island is completely different, [and] when people are going for leisure travel, I just think it's good to mix it up. It's very easy to get from island to island. It's a very easy flight. It just takes a couple hours of your day, and you're on a whole new island with lots of other things to do, [and] different restaurants, different-style hotels. So I always suggest people visit different islands.
Q: Does one island in particular stand out to you as Hawaii's best fit for luxury travelers?
A: That's a really tough one. It really depends on what the clients are looking for. If it's someone that has younger kids, I always suggest going to Maui only because the water is easier. There are great resorts where there are fewer waves. There's obviously the Four Seasons there at Wailea, and the Grand Wailea right next door. But for somebody who's maybe been to Hawaii a few times and is looking for something different, I usually suggest the Big Island. There are some great properties on the island, and there is so much to do. You can spend the day driving around, you can see the volcano. Everyone loves to do that. You can go up to the observatories at the summit of Mauna Kea. You can go to Hilo for an afternoon, which is always fun, and see the waterfalls. There's just a lot to do.
Q: How's your luxury business to Hawaii been lately?
A: It's definitely up. Hawaii is the No. 1 destination for us by far. I don't know what we will do to Hawaii this year, but it will be several million dollars just in flights and hotels. Probably in the area of $3 million or $4 million if things stay the way they are. 2015 was by far and away the best year we've ever had, and 2016 looks just as strong if not stronger. So it's definitely trending up.
I'm really excited about Hawaii as a destination. It's really bounced back. It was a tough sell there for a while. My biggest fear now is flights get expensive again. They were getting pretty expensive in early 2015. Prices were extremely high, and then they really did come back down.