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Nothing gets the pulse racing quite like roaring from the stands for your favorite team or pumping your fists after beating a personal best. The thrills ramp up even more when they happen in Hawaii, where sports trips lead to breathtaking vacations for clients — and lucrative bookings for travel advisors.
Around the U.S., sports tourism is a major-league industry. Last year alone, it generated 88 million room nights and $31 billion in travel spending, according to research firm Longwoods International.
Hawaii is considered a prime contender among sports tourism destinations, in part due to its stunning environment, says Timothy Schneider, founder of SportsTravel magazine, the TEAMS Conference & Expo and EsportsTravel Summit (brands owned by Northstar Travel Group, the parent company of TravelAge West).
“Hawaii has done a very effective job of promoting the islands as a unique venue for spectator events that can be combined with a dream vacation,” Schneider said. “They’ve also had particular success with hosting events that blend Hawaii’s natural assets with participatory sports, such as triathlons, marathons and ocean sports.”
That’s invigorating news for advisors hoping to pitch sports-related Hawaii travel to clients, whether they’re diehard fans, amateur athletes or professional competitors. At the same time, agents can make a healthy commission by including the client’s friends and family members on the trip.
Following Duke’s LeadHawaii’s history of sports tourism can be traced back to the early 1900s, when island-born, Olympic gold-medal swimmer Duke Kahanamoku promoted surfing while traveling to Australia and California. However, the islands didn’t have a formal sports strategy until the late 1990s, when the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) asked Tom Kiely and his company to develop a way to address that market.
“Before that time, the state featured a series of events with different backers,” said Kiely, co-founder of multisport brand Xterra and current CEO of video marketer ActiveTraveler.tv. “These were all one-off endeavors.”
As Hawaii adopted Kiely’s game plan, it embarked on a more organized approach to touting its sporting events.
Now, sports tourism accounts for tens of millions of dollars in new and incremental revenue in the Aloha State. Not only do visitors buy event tickets; they also book hotel rooms, eat in local restaurants and spend money on souvenirs.
“Overall, people are more active today,” Kiely said. “Traveling to great destinations to participate in events is a terrific experience.”
For advisors, Hawaii sports tourism represents a prime opportunity to establish a new client base, says HTA president Chris Tatum.
“Travel agents whose customers are looking for a vacation experience beyond simply visiting our iconic attractions, or who visit the islands frequently, should definitely consider leveraging Hawaii’s diversity of sporting events to motivate their clients to book,” Tatum said.
The world’s premier surfers dazzle spectators at Vans Triple Crown of Surfing on Oahu’s North Shore.Credit: 2019 World Surf League
Tropical splendor draws travelers to the Kauai Marathon.Credit: 2019 Jo Evans/dakineimagescom
Hawaii Tourism Authority partners with the Los Angeles Rams.Credit: 2019 Hawaii Tourism Authority
Versatile sports courts allow the Hawaii Convention Center to host traveling teams.Credit: 2019 Keith Uehara
Honolulu Century Ride attracts bikers of all abilities.Credit: 2019 Hawaii Bicycling League
University of Hawaii volleyball games are popular with visitors and locals.Credit: 2019 Hawaii Athletics
Scoring Points With Spectator SportsHawaii has been going the extra mile to elevate its brand as a host destination for top-tier competitions in a range of sports.
Football, for instance, has proven to be a hefty visitor magnet, even though Hawaii doesn’t have its own professional team. Big-time exhibition games — such as this year’s bout between the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys at Aloha Stadium (scheduled for Aug. 17) — lure avid fans and create enviable exposure for the islands through digital and social media platforms.
Tennis lovers can get a firsthand look at world-class stars in action — including last year’s champ Kei Nishikori — during Honolulu’s Hawaii Open (Dec. 27-29). At Maui’s Royal Lahaina Resort, clients can see legends of the tennis circuit such as Michael Chang and John McEnroe during special professional tournaments.
Basketball buffs can time a Hawaii getaway with the Maui Jim Invitational, where the nation’s best college teams go head to head in Lahaina (Nov. 25-27). Soccer groupies have put Oahu on their travel itinerary for the past two years in order to witness the Pacific Rim Cup, a professional showcase that is eyeing a Hawaii return in 2020.
On the golf scene, Hawaii’s award-winning courses set a stunning stage for annual PGA tournaments, which are broadcast globally and headlined by famous players. In January alone, high-profile matches range from the Sony Open on Oahu and Sentry Tournament of Champions on Maui to the Mitsubishi Electric Championship on Hawaii Island.
After viewers have seen the state’s tantalizing fairways on television, they might just decide to head to Hawaii to try out the same golf course.
“Hawaii’s golf events draw small crowds, but they generate positive media,” Xterra’s Kiely said.
Helping Clients Play the GameTravelers who like to work up a sweat can schedule a trip timed with one of Hawaii’s abundant contests for amateurs, Kiely says.
“Travel advisors should consult Hawaii’s current lineup of sports events, then delve into those that might interest their clients,” he said.
For example, they can reach out to a local running club to package a trip centered around a Hawaii road race or tell a local swim club about Hawaii’s ocean events, he says.
Hawaii’s participatory sports calendar is loaded with year-round fun runs, ocean swims and cycling events. Among the most beloved are the Great Aloha Run (Presidents’ Day), Waikiki Roughwater Swim (Sept. 2) and Honolulu Century Bike Ride (Sept. 29).
Then there’s the Honolulu Marathon (Dec. 8), a vacation focus for runners since its origins in 1973. Starting at Ala Moana Beach Park and ending in Kapiolani Park, it now brings in tens of thousands of out-of-towners and reaps $140 million in economic impact per year.
Marathons on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii Island call to fewer but equally enthusiastic joggers, who are raring to run 26.2 miles surrounded by unparalleled tropical splendor.
Serious jocks can make a pilgrimage to Hawaii Island for the Ironman World Championship (Oct. 12). Appealing to an elite category of rugged athletes of many nationalities, it comprises a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon run. Meanwhile, at Xterra’s Trail Run World Championship, participants can hoof it through the wilds of Oahu’s picturesque Kualoa Ranch (Nov. 24).
In all cases, advisors can boost their profits by booking trips not only for the athletes, but also for their well-wishers.
Showcasing Hawaii-Specific SportsThese days, a growing number of clients want to dig into the history and culture of their chosen destination. In response, agents can present them with a selection of Hawaii-rooted sports, many of which involve the water.
“What most interests vacationers is Hawaii’s beauty and ocean,” Kiely said. “Ocean sports are the essence of Hawaii.”
That explains the popularity of Duke’s OceanFest, an annual Waikiki spree that creates a big splash with visitors. Clients enjoy watching a full week of sun-drenched spectacles such as surfboard water polo, beach volleyball and tandem surfing, all from the comfort of the sand (Aug. 17-25).
Outrigger canoeing offers travelers insights into one of Hawaii’s most revered traditions. On Hawaii Island, the Queen Liliuokalani Canoe Race — the largest of its kind — wows visitors, who applaud from the water’s edge (Aug. 29 to Sept. 2). During the Hawaiian Airlines Molokai Hoe, more than 1,000 paddlers from around the world propel their way across the 26-mile Kaiwi Channel, with a not-to-be-missed finish in Waikiki (Oct. 13).
Surfing, which is practically synonymous with Hawaii, helps the state ride the sports tourism wave to the hilt. Case in point is Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, held in November and December, when mammoth swells pound Oahu’s North Shore. International competitors hang 10 with ease, captivating the crowds on the beach.
College sports provide yet another way for island vacationers to catch some aloha spirit through athletics. Visitors join forces with residents as they root for the home team at University of Hawaii games, particularly those featuring its nationally ranked men’s and women’s volleyball teams. Outrigger Hotels and Resorts sponsors several university tournaments each year, with discounted Outrigger hotel rates for clients who attend certain on-campus contests.
Building the Next Generation of Sports ClientsIn 2016, the Hawaii Convention Center (HCC) jumped on the sports tourism bandwagon by spending $1.1 million on fully portable courts for a variety of indoor competitions. Since then, HCC has secured agreements with three sports organizations to host national futsal, basketball and volleyball tournaments. Teams from outside the state can fly to Hawaii to take on island-based squads, with supporters coming along for the fun.
“Investing in the courts allows us to develop a new market segment that holds potential for group business in the years to come,” said Teri Orton, general manager for HCC.
Hugging the edge of Waikiki and its more than 30,000 hotel rooms, HCC boasts an ideal location for sports-minded organizations, Orton adds.
HCC also anticipates hosting esports events, a fast-rising phenomenon where participants compete using video games. Forward-thinking travel advisors would do well to tap into the esports trend, which targets a demographic of 11- to 34-year-olds, says Schneider of SportsTravel.
“Savvy marketers should emphasize connecting with the next generation of travelers as a way of setting preferences and patterns that can last a lifetime,” he said. “This will be key for attracting active younger adults, as well as families with young children.”
Hawaii and sports tourism make a perfect team — both are trending sky-high among travelers, and together, they are turning the destination into a winning ticket for agents who learn how to play the game.
“For advisors, the value proposition is to really know their clients,” Schneider said. “It’s all about matching client passions and interests with sports events that touch all the bases — and hopefully maximize what they spend on the trip, booked through the agent.”