TW roundtable, round 2, tackles growth, culture

Travel Weekly invited executives from leading airlines, hotels, tour operators and other travel suppliers to gather with Hawaiian government tourism officials for a roundtable at Outrigger Hotels & Resorts' newly renovated Ala Moana Hotel in Honolulu to discuss travel and tourism to and among the Hawaiian Islands.

Moderated by Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann and Destinations Editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, participants tackled hot topics such as sustainable growth, affordability, interisland transportation and competition. With this article, we conclude with the second half of a two-part transcription (See "TW roundtable hashes out Hawaiian tourism issues," for part one).

(Editor's note: The original transcript has been edited for length and flow.)

Travel Weekly:Is there a point where tourism starts having a negative impact on Hawaii? Must growth in travel be managed? If so, how?

Andy Stuart, executive vice president, sales and marketing, Norwegian Cruise Line: It depends how the visitor interacts with Hawaii. We put a huge amount of energy into organizing guests' experience in the destination. We don't have 2,500 people getting off the ship and renting cars. A good portion are being moved in an organized and very efficient way, in buses ... to attractions. 

It's a complicated issue. Different visitors have different impacts, depending on what, how and when they are doing it. 

Marsha Wienert, tourism liaison, Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism: Experiencing an island [and] not necessarily just a resort area [is a] philosophy that has been in existence for some time. Definitely, our guests have chosen to get out and experience, which is almost a double-edged sword. As a man in Kauai once told me, "My favorite saimin [Hawaiian noodle soup] place was for locals only. I don't know anyone in there anymore, and I can't get a seat."

We are now moving the visitor industry into our local neighborhoods, which is creating some challenges. As we move forward,  and move visitors outside of the resort areas, we have to be very cognizant of the quality of life issues for residents overall.

Les Enderton, director, Oahu Visitors Bureau: From Oahu's perspective, there's such a depth of product here. Yes there may be problems, but communities like Haleiwa [a small town on Oahu's north shore] love it. We did a massive marketing campaign four years ago because Haleiwa had started to dry up; they needed the visitor industry desperately out there even though there are no hotels.

Another [community] really booming now on Oahu is Chinatown [which] has some of the hippest, trendiest new restaurants and art galleries. It is really where it's happening. Yes, there are a lot of repeat visitors, but now they are going to Chinatown.

The other thing that is really positive and beautiful is when local people and visitors interact. By getting people out of Waikiki and having this interaction, they go home with a more valuable experience. Sometimes they make friends whom they come back to visit. So it really is a win-win.

Rob Solomon, senior vice president, sales and marketing, Outrigger/Ohana Hotels and Resorts: We like to see residents come to visitor [areas], as well. Waikiki is a great example. We have a better product now, and the residents are back in Waikiki; it's more fun, the people-watching is better. Who wants to go to a place where all you see is other tourists?

And the other phenomenon [is that] we now have a lot of part-time residents, buying their second, third or fourth vacation property. They ... feel more like residents but also engage as visitors. That's a relatively low-impact phenomenon, but it definitely adds to the experience.

TW:The Hawaii Tourism Authority recently published a guide to the proper use of native Hawaiian terminology and imagery for the travel trade. How are relations with ethnic Hawaiians, and are they part of the tourism equation?

John Monahan, president and CEO, Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau: The good news is that people now recognize the difference between what is culturally ono -- in the Hawaiian language, what is correct -- and what is not correct. At HCVB, we have members of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association now sitting on the board and on the marketing committee. And NaHHA came in and trained the entire staff on cultural sensitivity and their host/hospitality message. There's a tremendous effort, it winds through all our marketing and for the host culture it's very important.

Stuart: One of my takeaways from last year's [Travel Weekly Hawaii Leadership Forum] "think tank" was that at NCL we had to immediately put more energy into delivering more of the authentic Hawaiian experience as part of our product ... through various programs we have on board.

I must say we're not perfect, but ... we are trying to integrate an authentic feeling into the product. We have also worked hard, as we're selling the product, to tell the authentic story of Hawaii. That includes partnering with the HVCB to put our sales force through training.

Jay Talwar, vice president of marketing, Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau: I think it's critically important as we ... look at the target audience we are going after, in terms of the future visitor to Hawaii, to remember that culture and the uniqueness of the experience and the destination is key.

These travelers can go anyplace in the world ... and they know they can go to a KFC in Shanghai, Paris or New York. They don't want to come to Hawaii for that; they want to brush up against a culture they don't experience normally.

Monahan: They want to go to the saimin stand. [Laughter] And they can; that is the great thing about this destination.

TW:So there is some authentic Hawaiian culture left to experience? It's not all been homogenized for the mass market?

Talwar: Practitioners of truly authentic native Hawaiian culture operate on a different time line. They look at hundreds of years [and] want to perpetuate cultural practices. So having an authentic native experience is not a mass experience. It's smaller groups, much more selective. It's not mass-market, but there is product there. And I think that's fine. We are working with NaHHA and the HTA to sort of coalesce those [experiences] and [set up] a network for those. 

David Banmiller, president and CEO, Aloha Airlines: As Aloha hires people ... there is enormous sensitivity as to how we interface with Hawaiians. Meaning the workforce in general, obviously, but also native Hawaiians because there are cultural differences. Hiring and training practices put emphasis on these cultural differences and how to interface with employees, to motivate them and respect them [as] natives of Hawaii.  That ends up being the right thing as it helps the tourist industry [and] it helps the quality of the product. It also helps us perform effectively as an airline; the end result is that we have happy customers.

John Garibaldi, CEO, Hawaii Superferry: I'm not sure if we're going to do a saimin stand on the water, but in developing our service [we're] focused first on the resident market. Our management team is principally from Hawaii, [and] we've been very successful in [hiring] local people from the hospitality industry and looking to create an onboard experience that is Hawaii.

From the day they cut the first metal down in Mobile, Ala., for the Alakai [ferry] we had a kahu [Hawaiian priest] there blessing the vessel. It's really a spirit focused on delivering a Hawaiian product, not just for tourists but for local people.

Banmiller: We had [marine artist] Wyland paint an airplane this past week. We named the airplane and were very sensitive of the Hawaiian interpretation of the name, which is Koholalele [Hawaiian for "flying or leaping whale," or the humpback whale].

Wyland's foundation supports sea wildlife so, for him, this was a perfect fit. We had [a kahu] ... do the blessing.

TW:As Hawaii becomes more upscale, are new visitors being priced out?

Banmiller: If there's a ceiling being hit on the economic level, we don't see it.

Talwar: It's a bit of a misnomer to say that we've gone upscale; the range of product that's available is incredible. And as we look at our data for our 2007-2008 planning we actually see our demographic sliding down a bit. We are at 25 years old and up, as opposed to 35-plus before. The type of person we're targeting is someone who fits the economic model, travels frequently, likes to experience unique cultures and wants to do it in a way that fits in their schedule. They will travel [and] Hawaii fits their model. It's a fit based on real data and real opportunity.

Solomon: You can flip that around and say that young people who want to come to a destination like Hawaii will not come here in 2010 to experience a 1960s or 1970s product. Today's traveler is a lot more discerning, standards -- and competition -- are up everywhere, and you can't go forward if the product, in any price bracket, just doesn't qualify. They just won't come.

Monahan: It's important to note that about 12% of Hawaii's hotel rooms are in the budget category. I think it's 38% that are standard, 38% upscale and 12% luxury. 

I was on Kauai and had a zip-line experience with 11 other people. Their accommodations were a very broad range, from staying with friends to staying at the most expensive hotel on the island, but every single one of us was paying $100 to go on that zip-line, no matter where we were staying. That's what we are talking about: [Attracting] people who are engaging the destination, not just flopping on the beach.

TW:Are Hawaii's tourism interests working together to ensure the destination's future with that engaged visitor?

Enderton: Tourism is really the economic engine that drives Hawaii. It's a team effort; we work with partners at all levels: mainland, international [and] all levels and sectors of the industry here. We have retail, we have the Hawaiian cultural organizations, we have airlines and on and on.

Banmiller: I've been with a number of different airlines and lived in 10 cities ... and I've never seen the integration of such quality and value that we see in [Hawaii] at every level, whether it's the governor, the mayor, the airlines. John [Garibaldi] and I get along great. [Laughter]

Stuart: NCL has been quite successful in marketing to people in the east of the country. The majority of our business has been from the U.S. East not the West, certainly in Hawaii. So it's disturbing to me to see arrivals from the East Coast declining.

Banmiller: My last job was with Air Jamaica, so I have some sense as to what's going on in the Caribbean. There is a lot of [tourism] development there. So I think that's probably Hawaii's competition.

Monahan: In 2005, from the U.S. East we had the biggest increase we've ever had; it was monumental, over 20%. [But] when you talk about the value equation as it relates to Hawaii, it gets more difficult as you go from west to east. You have the Caribbean there as sort of the East Coast Hawaii, so to speak, and there's also Mexico. 

When I say value equation, I'm talking about everything, travel time playing a big part. But there are things we can do to try to offset that.

Talwar: We have to look at how we communicate what Hawaii is all about. It's a unique cultural experience [visitors] cannot get anywhere else. We're working with all of our partners to make sure the education is there because [consumers] don't necessarily perceive Hawaii the way it currently is. They may take their other island experiences [and] transfer that to Hawaii.

Banmiller: Frankly I don't think there's enough nonstop airlift from the East Coast. At Aloha, we should be encouraging our friends at United to think about that. We have tons of air service from the Northeast down to the Caribbean, including low-cost carriers.

TW:Are you reacting by throwing more marketing money at the East?

Monahan: Over the last three or four years, we spent more money marketing to the U.S. East than we did to the West. To put it into perspective, this industry is cyclical, and the first-quarter numbers we are all wringing our hands over from the East Coast is the third-best year we have ever had.

TW:What about new long-haul source markets such as China, Russia or India?

Wienert: As we move forward, there will always be potential in some of the developing markets. The visa issue is, of course, the biggest issue. I think because of our geographic location it's imperative to us to actually look to Asia. But I don't think that anyone would want us to do the same thing we did initially in the Japan market, which was basically mass market. We are looking at the niche markets from these new areas.

To contact Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more on Travel Weekly's Hawaii Leadership Forum and Roundtable, see "TW's Hawaii Leadership Forum stresses singularity, strengths."

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