Hawaii's recent announcement that daily visitor spending through March was outpacing a state record set five years ago provided an upbeat start to the 15th annual Travel Weekly Hawaii Leadership Forum, held in Waikiki late last month.

Mike McCartneyMike McCartney, Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) president and CEO, provided details to the more than 175 industry participants in sessions held at the Moana Surfrider.

"In 2007 in Hawaii, we were taking in $35 million a day from visitors," McCartney said in his opening remarks. "In 2008, it dropped to $30 million a day. In 2009, it dropped to $27 million, [but] because of all your hard work and the effort that everyone in this room has put together ... for the first three months of this year, we are pacing at $40 million a day."

Tour operator participants in the event's first panel discussion seemed to corroborate McCartney's report, maintaining that they were all enjoying strong Hawaii growth through the first five months of this year.

However, there was some concern among the wholesalers about summertime softness.

"For 2012 for Hawaii we're seeing double-digit revenue growth, and we're also seeing strong performance for 2013," said Elizabeth Moriarty, vice president of product development for MLT Vacations. "But we are seeing a slight slowdown for the summer and beyond, and we attribute it to the pricing. We're seeing some material increases on airfares and also on land prices, so I think the consumers are still trying to adjust."

Michele Kish, president of Gogo Worldwide Vacations, also noted that Hawaii's recovery has not been distributed evenly across the state.

Michele Kish"We're definitely seeing that Oahu is leading in the growth" in Gogo's Hawaii business, "and it would be nice to see a little bit more across the board," she said. "I think if there's one Neighbor Island where we are seeing some softness, it's Maui, which for us has always been a very good seller. ... I think that's because of the higher pricing [there] in the past year."

Higher hotel rates and increasing fares to the Islands prompted a warning from Pleasant Holidays President and CEO Jack Richards.

"Hawaii is definitely growing, but not as fast as Mexico and the Caribbean," he said. "It's the first time, I think, in five years that Mexico is really back, and it's back with a vengeance. It will have its best year since 2007. Mexico is now a formidable competitor to Hawaii, so I think we have to look at pricing carefully."

Accelerating availability

U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow, keynoter at the forum's afternoon session, told attendees the country's market share of global long-haul travelers fell from 17% in 2000 to 12% in 2010. He estimated that millions of travelers went somewhere else during the decade, costing the U.S. $606 billion in visitor spending and more than 467,000 jobs.

"Between 2000 and 2010, the rest of the world discovered this darling we call travel and tourism," he said. "Long-haul travel around the world went up 40% during that 10-year period. Sixty million more people traveled around the world. What happened in the U.S. during the same time period? We went up 450,000 people, or 1.5%."

Roger DowDow pointed to a lack of promotion and marketing, along with the deteriorating reputation of U.S. Customs agents around the world, as two of the larger culprits responsible for the decade's sluggishness, but he focused more extensively on a third culprit: the negative impact of visa-processing delays.

"Two years ago, it was running 130 days from when you got your appointment in Brazil to when you got your interview," he said. "In the summer of 2010, it was running 150 days in China. ... Can you imagine these people waiting five months just to get a three-minute interview?"

According to Dow, that wait time in China, a longtime source of consternation for Hawaii tourism officials, has been reduced to less than 10 days, thanks to an executive order issued by President Obama in January.

"From China in 2009, [Hawaii] had 29,000 Chinese visitors, then it went to 44,000 [in 2010 and] last year [to] 73,000," Dow said.

"This year it's going to be even higher because these visa appointment times are down. Look at South Korea: In 2009, you had 57,000 South Koreans [apply for visas]. The visa waiver program gets put in [for South Korea], it goes to 79,000, and then it goes to 126,000 South Koreans [last year]. Numbers like this are staggering, and this is just [for travel to] Hawaii."

The LGBT niche

The president and founder of San Francisco-based Community Marketing Inc. (CMI), Thomas Roth, spent a substantial portion of his 45 minutes at the podium spelling out what it costs the state when the HTA and Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB) fail to undertake LGBT-dedicated tourism marketing. The topic already has generated a fair amount of debate in Hawaii.

Thomas RothReferring to a recent study conducted by CMI's LGBT Market Research + Development Lab, Roth reported that 69% of the U.S.-based gay and lesbian respondents to his company's survey said they were more likely to visit a destination if its tourism office conducts LGBT-dedicated outreach.

Thirty-nine percent were likely to spend more money at the destination, and 38% of the respondents said they would stay longer.

"Destinations that are advertising for the LGBT community get that business," Roth said. "Destinations that are not advertising to the community are noticed."

Both the HTA and HVCB have been resistant to pressure from many in Hawaii's LGBT community and from some of the state's hoteliers, who are calling for destination-sponsored marketing aimed specifically at gay and lesbian travelers.

Some in Hawaii's tourism industry have seen LGBT business increase since the state legalized same-sex civil unions in January, but many feel a more aggressive advertising campaign by the HVCB is a necessary step toward maximizing the market's potential.

Roth noted that LGBT travelers generate $65 billion annually in the U.S. and pointed to a case study conducted by his firm on a 2004 Philadelphia LGBT-dedicated tourism campaign, revealing that every $1 the destination invested in LGBT marketing yielded $153 for the city.

Finally, he said, Hawaii ranked 14th in a CMI survey of favorite leisure destinations for LGBT travelers conducted in 2007 but didn't even finish in the top 20 in 2010 or 2011.

Roth ended his presentation with a series of LGBT-focused ads generated by tourism offices in New York, Los Angeles and Miami, along with several from some less-likely Midwest U.S. destinations.

"When Akron, Ohio, is involved in the gay and lesbian market or Cleveland or the Catskills [region of New York state], we start to see a pattern, and we start to notice who isn't. That's really important," Roth said. "And that's why the HTA and your tourism offices need to hear from you."
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