Visitors bureau rises to new market realities

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After a painful internal reorganization that redefined the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau's responsibilities, refocusing its efforts on the North American market, the HVCB has updated its marketing efforts to bring them into line with both the market changes transforming Hawaiian tourism and the needs of a new generation of visitors.

Hawaii posted a record-breaking year in 2005, crossing the 7 million visitor mark for the first time, and another 7 million-plus visitors are anticipated again this year. However, the HVCB is going proactive as the first signs of an arrivals slowdown appear.

While CEO John Monahan remains bullish, he's also aware of the challenge of maintaining momentum after several years of soaring profits and double-digit growth in both visitor counts and spending.

"We're on top of some incredible year-to-year increases in visitor counts, rates and spending since 2004, but we've started to see a bit of softening recently," he said. "We know the brand remains strong and that airlift remains strong, but the competition remains fierce, with Mexico pursuing many of our wholesalers and the Caribbean throwing a lot of money into marketing."

Fall into favor

The industry is tackling those issues with a growing number of fall specials during what is traditionally the slowest season in Hawaii tourism. Hoteliers and wholesalers are offering significant discounts. (See related story, "Autumn rates fall as hoteliers, operators push shoulder season.")

Monahan also points to a dramatically improved visitor experience in Waikiki, where new stores, entertainment venues and hotels, condos and timeshare properties -- most upscale -- mark the area's transition to a truly urban beach resort.

A focus on extensive renovations and amenity upgrades is also evident on the Neighbor Islands, where rebranding has lead to extensive renovations at many already upscale properties.

The transformed Waikiki, making a debut this December with the opening of the first phase of Outrigger Hotels and Resorts' Waikiki Beach Walk project, is providing the HVCB with a chance to piggyback with sponsors to promote the islands.

Zeroing in

With a modest budget of $22.7 million for marketing in North America, which provides 70% of Hawaii's visitors, Monahan has to carefully evaluate how to reach the key market segments that have been responsible for the state's tourist boom, now five years in the making.

Those segments are romance, active and family travelers; in terms of marketing to age groups, Generation X consumers age 25 to 45 are replacing baby boomers as the key to the destination's future.

"We're making heavy use of technology to sell Hawaii to consumers, media and the travel industry," Monahan said. "Being interactive gives us the flexibility to really show off the Islands and to do it by engaging with the consumer."

In addition, the longtime HVCB Web site at www.gohawaii.com is moving forward in terms of technology and image quality.

The improved online imagery at the site is the direct outcome of HVCB's move -- in hindsight, quite smart -- in 2005 to invite visitors and residents to submit their best Hawaii pictures.

The result is a remarkable visual library that, as an interactive tool has enhanced the bureau's print and online offerings.

The HVCB hopes to again capture the mix of natural beauty, diversity and hospitality that defines Hawaii on film through an autumn promotion called the Picture Hawaii Contest, valid through Oct. 31.

The winner of the photo contest, which is being offered in conjunction with Kodak and Hawaiian Airlines, will earn a vacation to the Islands.

"Our charge is to market on all budget levels [and] to go after the customer who wants the diversity Hawaii offers; that's what our picture library emphasizes," said Monahan. "It's what sets us apart; put that in the context of the 'aloha spirit' and it allows people to really engage with their visit and the host culture."

The HVCB has contracted with the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association to work on better integrating native Hawaiian culture into leisure vacation experiences.

"We are serious about integrating Hawaiian culture into our market plan," said Monahan.

From the look of the statistics, the HVCB has a successful formula. Seventy-eight percent of West Coast vacationers, who account for half of Hawaii's total annual visitor tally, repeat, with an average of 5.25 visits each. From the East Coast, Hawaii has a 62% repeat rate and an average of 4.2 visits.

"We get great word of mouth from our visitors and have very high visitor satisfaction levels. A lot of that has to do with our Hawaiian cultural foundations," said Monahan.

"Visitors are loyal because Hawaii continues to stay ahead of the curve in terms of the quality of the visitor infrastructure without losing the sense of place that makes it special," he added.

For more information on the HVCB's Picture Hawaii Contest, visit www.gohawaii.com/picturehawaiicontest.

To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to[email protected].

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