Westin MauiIt's no secret that filling hotel rooms can be a tough business, but Dale Carstensen, regional director of leisure sales for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Hawaii, seems convinced that his company would have an extraordinarily difficult time of it without travel agents.

"We've found that if we can reach out to key travel professionals, they become our best salespeople," he said. "If we give them the right tools, the right collateral and the right education, they really become our mouthpiece. They become the people who can best deliver our message."

A collection of 11 hotels now featuring more than 7,900 rooms across the Aloha State's four main islands, Starwood Hawaii has been managing properties at the destination since the late 1990s. Today, the company is relying increasingly on its team of U.S. mainland-based sales reps and an expanding collection of Web-based tools to help agents improve their Hawaii business.

"The consumer is much more savvy and well-educated because of the tools that are afforded them," Carstensen said. "What we find is that having our people on the road and having them go into agencies and say, 'Here are the resources and tools we have to make your job easier' just gives travel professionals more confidence."

According to Carstensen, Starwood Hawaii has upped its number of dedicated sales reps from just one person five years ago to a group of three today, working the West Coast and parts of the Midwest.

"If you ask any of our agents, 'Who's our Starwood rep for Hawaii?' they would all know it instantaneously," said Les Burger, owner of Ladera Travel in Menlo Park, Calif. "They really seem to work the agencies very diligently to make sure they're apprised of everything going on."

Burger is also a big fan of the Hawaii-specific education modules the company rolled out in 2008 as part of the Web-based Starwood Pro system.

"It's really beneficial because you can do it anywhere whenever you have the time," he said, adding that he earned a $25 resort certificate for each completed module. "So anybody I send to any Starwood property, I can give them the certificate and they can use it toward a spa treatment, golf fees, a meal or a cocktail or whatever they want. It's not a huge dollar amount, but it becomes another value-add. So it's worth it to me to do the module, and I can use that in closing a sale."

Incentives and amenities

Starwood Hawaii first launched its cash incentive program for agents based on qualified room bookings several years ago, but Carstensen said that system has since been substantially upgraded.

Dale Carstensen"It's now grown to the point that not only do we offer cash awards, but because of the global promotion of Starwood Preferred Guests -- and travel professionals being able to use SPG points for their own benefit -- we give them lots of options," he explained. "They can either receive a cash payout based on the minimum length of stay in the category they book or SPG points. And one of the nice things about that is travel agents can get free rooms or discounted room rates, but what the SPG option and cash does is it allows you to subsidize the cost or to trade points for mileage."

Ed Phillips, managing director at the San Francisco-based Summit Travel Group, said he takes regular advantage of the company's incentive system.

"I was over in Maui for Thanksgiving last year on my Starwood points," he said. "It's a fantastic reward for selling something that clients come back and rave about."

Another of Starwood Hawaii's highly popular programs for agents is the Aloha Amenity, a complimentary welcome gift clients receive on arrival along with a personalized card from the agent. Ranging from chocolate-covered macadamia nuts to a catamaran sail for two, the gifts vary depending on the property and can be arranged entirely online.

"In the grand scheme of things, I don't know that the gift makes a big difference for a vacation," said Maureen Conlin, owner of Los Gatos Travel in Los Gatos, Calif. "But it's the thought of it that's really important to clients. Knowing someone is paying attention to your arrival is a big deal."

Looking ahead

Visitor arrivals to Hawaii dipped this summer and fell 4.2% year over year in August alone, but the state saw overall spending by travelers increase during this year's high season, and through the first eight months of 2011, total expenditures jumped more than 14%.

Sheraton Waikiki"I think what you see across all of our 11 Hawaii properties is that summer business was better than it has been, but we also had some challenges," said Marsha Wienert, Starwood Hawaii's regional director of public relations. "We were definitely still seeing some of the effects from the earthquake and the tsunami in Japan."

Asked about his expectations for the rest of this year and into 2012, Carstensen said he was cautiously optimistic, noting that consumers continue to be frugal and price-sensitive.

"I think there is uncertainty in the economy, particularly in North America and in Europe, [and] I think there is this fallout in people's minds about recent events regarding the weather and natural disasters, but I think there are also positives," he said. "The Australian, New Zealand, Japanese [and] Korean [currencies] are all doing very well ... and China has been strong.

"I think [the Asia-Pacific] market is going to help us if we can streamline the visa process," he added.

Wienert and Carstensen were both positive about recent increased airlift from Australia and Asia but expressed some concern about rising airfares on flights originating from the U.S. mainland.

"I think Hawaii as a destination will have to become a little more diligent toward the leisure market, at least for 2012 and probably going into most of 2013," Carstensen said. "I don't see a very strong backbone for the [meetings, conventions and incentives] market. ... I think we are going to have to be even more aggressive in the next 14 to 16 months in order to maintain the growth that we need."

For complete details on Starwood Hawaii's travel agent incentive and Aloha Amenity details, visit www.starwoodhawaii.com/agents.

The photo for the Westin Maui contained an incorrect name in a prior version. The photo is of the Westin Maui Resort & Spa. 

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