The headlines are full of Hawaii news these days. From high-priced airline tickets to toxic volcanic fumes, they’ve been broadcasting a mix of information both baffling and worrisome to potential visitors. Since clients count on travel professionals to give them the straight scoop, we asked a few western U.S. agents to share Hawaii issues of particular concern to travelers. What follows are some of the most frequently voiced myths and misconceptions that agents are hearing about the 50th state, followed by responses from visitor industry officials ready to set the record straight.
Hawaii is too expensive these days. Airfares have risen, and wholesaler packages are higher priced than before. Jack Richards, president, Pleasant Holidays: Due to soaring fuel prices, the average retail airfares in 2008 have increased to all the top vacation destinations, not just Hawaii. However, if travel agents compare Hawaii airfares and fuel surcharges to those in the top European destinations, Hawaii is still a great value, particularly from the West Coast. From Los Angeles, the average fuel surcharge to Europe this summer is between $270 and $360 per person, roundtrip, versus Hawaii at $130 per person — 52 percent less than Europe. And, Hawaii has no passport or foreign currency exchange issues to drive up costs.
Tim MacDonald, president, Classic Vacations: It’s true that airfare to Hawaii has gone up for the summer travel period, but the increase is more than offset by the specials in the marketplace. At Classic Vacations, we have our $250 American Express Gift Card offer that can be combined with our many hotel specials, making Hawaii very affordable this summer. While there is a lot of focus on the peak summer travel period, airfares for the fall to Hawaii are actually quite reasonable — well under $400. Agents also need to keep in mind the non-monetary value that Hawaii offers relative to other destinations, like the culture, infrastructure, activities and diversity of the islands.
Hawaii’s hotels are too large and run like big chains.
Jon Conching, sales and marketing regional vice president, Hilton Hawaii: Accommodations in Hawaii run the gamut, from 50-room boutique hotels to 1,000-room full-service resorts. Most of the larger properties offer the consistency of a national brand, yet still allow the guest to experience the destination. Since loyalty programs are very important to frequent travelers, they can choose hotels that offer points in their particular program. Hawaii has the largest redemption rate for hotel loyalty programs, which tells you that the chain hotels are actually where the guests want to stay.
Connie Flattery, sales and marketing area director, Marriott International: All the major chains have big hotels in Hawaii, specifically on the island of Oahu. However, they are not like their mainland counterparts. The destination and experience are totally different in Hawaii, from the music your clients hear and the smell of flowers to the colorful uniforms, tropical plants and artwork that says they’re in Hawaii. Travel agents can add to a client’s true appreciation for the destination by sharing information ahead of time regarding things to do and see, beaches, hiking trails, where to eat and shop or how to experience the local culture.
Kauai gets too much rain.
Sue Kanoho, executive director, Kauai Visitors Bureau: Kauai is called the Garden Isle for good reason, and visitors genuinely appreciate the incredible lushness of the island. We get very few complaints about the weather. Visitors understand why Kauai is so remarkably green and tropical, and they come here for that reason. People love the North Shore because it is so fertile and blossoming, thanks to the occasional rain, whereas the South Shore and west side of Kauai tend to be warmer and drier. The good news is that clients can call or go online to see what the weather is like on one side of the island; if they don’t like the report, they can drive to the other side and find something more suited to their tastes on that day. And, for those who worry about the claim that Kauai is the wettest spot on earth, this is not always true. At times, Kauai does harbor one of the world’s wettest spots at Mount Waialeale, but it depends on rainfall in other global locations. Agents should remind clients that Mount Waialeale is not in resort areas.
The air on the Big Island is unsafe to breathe because of all the volcanic activity.
George Applegate, executive director, Big Island Visitors Bureau: Volcanoes are wild and natural features. That’s part of what makes them interesting. Kilauea’s Halemaumau Crater at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is giving us quite a show right now, with big, bellowing plumes of water vapor and gas. While increased emissions from Kilauea do impact air quality in some areas, scientists, federal and local officials are keeping us informed and protected. Park and county authorities are helping clients observe the plume, which has toxic gases, while staying safe. When the winds shift and come from the south, blowing the plume into popular viewing areas, those areas are then closed temporarily. But as long as we have prevailing trade winds — which is most of the time in summer — the plume usually gets blown out to sea. Downwind from the volcano, the gases convert to small acidic particles that make vog (volcanic haze). Currently, there is more vog present because of the higher volcanic gas emissions. The most immediate effect of vog is hazy visibility. Prolonged exposure to vog may lead to chronic health effects in some people. The Kalapana Lava Viewing Area, located outside of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park boundaries in Puna, opened in March. This coastal viewing area allows clients to enjoy a closer view of where lava enters the sea from a safe distance.
Hawaii’s islands are basically all the same.
John Monahan, president, Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB): Unless your clients have been to each of the our major islands — Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui and Hawaii’s Big Island — they really haven’t seen all that Hawaii has to offer. Each island presents a distinct experience, and visitors are always amazed by their diversity when it comes to adventure, activities and sightseeing. No two islands are the same — not even close — which makes Hawaii a place like none other on earth. While many first-time and repeat visitors seem to know quite a bit about Oahu and Maui, travel agents should not be afraid to suggest visits to all of the islands. It’s important for agents to familiarize themselves with each island in order to customize their clients’ trips to their needs. Agents who have taken our Ke Kula O Hawaii destination-specialist training program have found plenty of valuable information to help their clients plan an exciting Hawaii vacation. As a result, visitors are learning that each island is a gem unto itself.
Hawaii is at a disadvantage because it doesn’t have all-inclusives.
Shari Chang, senior vice president of sales, marketing and revenue management, ResortQuest Hawaii: For years we’ve studied all-inclusive resorts in other destinations to determine if the model could be applied to Hawaii. But whenever we talked to visitors, a common theme emerged. All-inclusive makes sense in a destination where guests are confined to the resort area, but in a place like Hawaii, visitors can safely explore beyond the resort. They don’t want to be restricted to on-site amenities and restaurants. Years ago, when I helped develop HVCB’s first travel agent Hawaii specialist course, the most popular portion of the training came when agents shared insider tips with each other. Most of the time, these tips focused on food and where to get the best island delicacies. At a recent travel industry conference, some of the panelists suggested that people like to know what their total vacation cost is going to be, which is why all-inclusives worked for them. But in Hawaii, the wide range of dining, lodging and activity options can fit anyone’s budget. So, don’t assume that your clients want their possibilities limited, and don’t be afraid to sell the value that Hawaii offers. As a destination, we have the highest visitor satisfaction rating of any destination in the world.
It takes too long to fly to Hawaii, especially to those islands requiring a change of planes.
Terryl Vencl, executive director, Maui Visitors Bureau: Sometimes visitors who haven’t been to Hawaii think we are far away until they actually make the trip. Hawaii is a mere five-hour flight from the West Coast. In July, airlines are expected to operate more than 2,400 scheduled nonstop flights to Hawaii from western North American gateways (based on flights currently appearing on the Sabre/OAG schedules). Maui alone has 93 direct weekly flights from the West Coast, including Vancouver, making us as accessible as ever. Additionally, there are 39 weekly flights landing on Maui from other U.S. cities. Once guests arrive, they relish our mild weather, stunning natural beauty and the hookipa (hospitality) of our host culture. And while it may take an extra flight to reach our sister islands of Molokai and Lanai, once visitors get there, they realize that those islands truly have unique personalities unrivaled by any other destination.
Hawaii doesn’t have anything new and different.
Marsha Wienert, Hawaii state tourism liaison: On the contrary! Hawaii continues to evolve, which keeps the destination vital and alluring. A large segment of Hawaii’s travelers are repeat visitors from the West Coast, a strong indication that Hawaii is doing a great job offering new and different things to see and do. For example, on Hawaii’s Big Island, Roberts Hawaii just started offering an Evening Volcano tour, where clients can walk onto lava fields at sunset, safety permitting. On Kauai, the Koa Kea Hotel and Resort at Poipu Beach is slated to open this summer. On Maui, the new Kapalua Adventure Center and Mountain Outpost features the largest and longest zipline system in North America; and Hike Maui now runs Maui Canyon Adventures, taking clients rappelling into wilderness rainforest valleys and hiking to waterfalls and pools. And, American Safari Cruises will begin Hawaii trips in December on the 145-foot Safari Explorer, which can travel to places where large ships cannot. The long and short of it is that there’s always something fresh awaiting clients in Hawaii.
Waikiki is too commercial. It’s full of mainland-style restaurants and stores.
David Carey, president, Outrigger Enterprises Group: For years, travel agents told us that there wasn’t enough for their clients to do in Waikiki. This is being addressed by the impressive renaissance that the area is currently undergoing. Today, Waikiki gives visitors a breadth of experiences including Hawaiian cultural activities, eclectic shopping and unique dining. In several places throughout Waikiki, clients can connect with our island culture, participating in complimentary lei making, ukulele lessons, talk story sessions and demonstrations on the art of Hawaiian healing. Since we are an international destination, we offer a good variety of recognizable name-brand retailers, but there is also a wide selection of one-of-a-kind shops and boutiques with made-in-Hawaii products and other island specialties. Also, thanks to the revitalization of Waikiki, dining options have never been more diverse, offering visitors culinary experiences of many styles and across all prices ranges. Along with well-known restaurant chains, Waikiki lays claim to many local dining choices, from the casual plate-lunch meal to upscale dining at Hawaii’s celebrity chef restaurants.
The less expensive season (Jan. and Feb.) is too cold.
Jay Talwar, senior vice president of marketing, HVCB: When booking a Hawaii vacation, one of the key selling points for agents to remember is the great year-round weather. This makes the Hawaiian Islands a great destination no matter what season. Summer, between April and November, is warmer and drier (average temperature is 75-88 degrees), while winter, December to March, is more temperate (68-80 degrees). Trade winds keep things comfortable throughout the year. While the winter months can bring more rain to the islands, it’s nothing to worry about when planning a Hawaii trip. Early-morning and late-afternoon passing showers are a regular occurrence on the islands, but they clear up in plenty of time for visitors to enjoy the outdoors. The heavy rainfall clients may hear about is isolated to mountainous regions that are generally inaccessible, not low-lying resort or coastal areas. Hawaii is the most isolated land mass on the planet and some rain is to be expected. As the saying goes, without rain, there are no rainbows.