Bruce Fisher, a native of Miami, first arrived in Hawaii in 1991 as a radio reporter and soon found himself in the middle of one of the state's biggest natural disasters when he was sent to cover Hurricane Iniki's path of destruction through Kauai in 1992. Despite the harrowing start, he fell hard for the Islands, choosing to stay when the radio gig ended.
A few years later, Fisher shifted course and started an internet service provider, building websites for resorts and hospitality brands and other businesses on the Islands. Around the time of the 2000 dot-com crash, Fisher realigned the company to offer travel services.
"The internet company morphed into a travel company," he said. "We started bundling some basic travel packages with a Foodland [supermarket] coupon. … We got some bookings right away, and that's how it all started."
That was the beginning of Hawaii Aloha Travel, an agency Fisher founded with his wife, Yaling, that focuses solely on trips to the Islands.
Today, calling on his more than two decades of experience in the industry, Fisher also produces a blog and podcast, "The Hawaii Vacation Connection," that covers a range of tourism-related topics such as hotel updates, food recommendations and tips for planning a multigenerational vacation.
Fisher shares his tips on selling the Aloha State and explains why the Islands are an ideal destination for agents to add to their repertoire.
Q: Describe what it was like switching from internet service provider to travel seller.
A: It was a steep curve, and we were learning every day. I really had no idea what it was or what it took to be a travel agent. I bought a book and worked with a local wholesaler here that, at the time, only let us pay for the packages in cash. It took us at least six to eight months to get up to speed, but because of my work on the internet, we were getting calls right away. We would take the clients' bookings and then go over with the cash to the wholesaler at the end of the day. Things are so much different today.
Q: What's your philosophy at Hawaii Aloha Travel?
A: The thing about us is we connect people on the mainland with real people who live here. All of our agents are born and raised in Hawaii or have lived here most of their lives. Our pitch is that we're actually here and only focus on Hawaii, an advantage over agents elsewhere or who focus on lots of destinations.
I like immersive experiences. We often recommend the Aloha Plate Food Tour. We do Jeep and other specialty tours that take people to different places and immerse them in the culture. I try to stay away from the big buses and use local companies that do unique, smaller tours. They are more personalized and often cost more money, but I think the clients get so much more out of it.
Q: What developments are making it harder for tourism in Hawaii right now?
A: One of the biggest issues is the price, and as a destination I think we need to make sure we keep costs down. Hotels should rein in resort fees. They keep going up. It can be $50 a day, and then you add parking for $25 a day. We can't put that in a package. We have to pass that on to the customer. I think that's one thing we need to keep an eye on to make sure we continue to be competitive.
Big Island bookings have dropped for us. I tell people that the chances are they are not going to see lava right now, but anything can happen; Madame Pele can get going at any time. They can also still go to the volcano and definitely have a great time. The park is beautiful, and it's still powerful to stand on the edge of the volcano crater. And there is so much to do on Hawaii Island in addition to the volcano.
Q: Have you seen any impact from new short-term rental ordinances?
A: I think they did the vacation rental regulations on Oahu all wrong. It has not been so great for us. We need condos and inventory, especially for families. You can't find a three-bedroom condo on Oahu. If you have a family of eight to 10 people who want to stay together, it can't be done. Agents still get commissions from vacation rentals, so it's not a bad word for us. We've always done well with vacation rentals.
Q: Are you seeing a big difference with airfares with increased competition?
A: The cheaper fares can really depend on if the customer is ready to pay up front and the dates are ones they can fly. … The added airlift is helping the consumer. With Southwest and Sun Country flying to the Islands, all the other airlines -- Hawaiian, United, Delta -- have to compete.
Q: What trends are you seeing among clients coming to Hawaii?
A: Something that I've seen a lot more of lately is advanced bookings. We're already getting tons of people for September and October, not like I've seen in a long time. It's great from an agent's perspective because you know you've got a customer well ahead. We're seeing high demand for Hawaii, with a lot less fluctuation between seasons and different months. The pace is really holding all year-round. I think consumers are catching on that the price does not vary that much.
We are also getting a lot of requests for multigenerational trips, and at the start of the year we are getting a lot more group bookings. Kauai has been good for group clients, it's been a little more affordable. For a group of 17 to 20 people it can be hard [to book] on Oahu, and I've been gravitating more to Kauai lately.
Q: Why is Hawaii a good destination for agents to incorporate into their business?
A: People really need travel agents for Hawaii, because it's a complicated destination. The internet, at this point, can be an information overload. I get a lot of clients calling so confused. Instead of the internet helping them make a decision, it's the exact opposite, and they are completely overwhelmed. They go down the rabbit hole, and it's just click, click, click with no end. … I think that's to the advantage of Hawaii agents who know the destination well, can cut through all the clutter and narrow down choices for clients.
I believe to be really successful selling Hawaii, it has to be Hawaii only. Obviously, that's not going to be everybody, so if you don't live here, it's important for agents to do all the things available to them. Take the fam trips, do the activities. Nothing replaces coming here and getting firsthand experience and making a connection with people here. If you're going to sell Hawaii, I also recommend devoting a portion of your website to the destination, a separate section that stands alone.
Q: In your view, what sets Hawaii apart as a destination?
A: One of our biggest advantages has always been that it's exotic but not a foreign country. That plays into the big demand. People feel comfortable here in a way that they wouldn't going on an African safari or on a trek in Belize. Hawaii appeals to a visitor that wants an exotic vacation but is maybe a little nervous about traveling abroad. … It's a safe, fun destination, and it's great for multigenerational groups.
Q: Do you foresee more restrictions coming to popular sites?
A: Yes, I think they'll be more management and greater restrictions. The internet has kind of ruined everything. I think that's where agents can really come in. I don't tell people to go to Hanauma Bay anymore because there are so many people. A lot of places are busy and overpopulated right now.
That is one thing I'm worried about: How are we going to respond to the droves of visitors and people not respecting the Islands, not understanding that they don't have to take a selfie in every single place? We have to think about what we can do to improve the user experience, and one way is regulation. I also think we need to be informing visitors as best we can to respect where they are.
I had a client call me from the Gulf Coast of Texas, and she told me she wanted to visit Hawaii, but coming from a coastal area herself she wanted to be respectful and not do stupid things. I told her: "That's the first step right there, just having an appreciation for the place and wanting to do the right thing."