Tourism officials focus efforts on O'ahu
By Kelly Yamanouchi
Advertiser Staff Writer
Perhaps no more clearly than on O'ahu can the continuing struggles of the state's tourism industry be seen.
Travel to the island which accounts for the vast majority of jobs and hotel rooms in the state's biggest industry continues to lag the Neighbor Islands and the prolonged slump is reaching what some say has become a critical stage.
A continuing decline in Japanese tourists has kept O'ahu's vital industry from recovering as quickly as the Neighbor Islands'. Visitor arrivals on O'ahu were down 7.2 percent for this year through September, compared with the same months last year. Meanwhile, the Neighbor Islands saw increases in arrivals, or at least smaller decreases.
On O'ahu, Japanese arrivals which, at nearly 1.1 million made up nearly 34 percent of all arrivals were down 17 percent. Domestic arrivals were essentially flat at nearly 1.9 million.
"When visitor counts drop off in O'ahu it's a very, very big deal," said Rex Johnson, executive director of the Hawai'i Tourism Authority, the state conduit for money for tourism whose primary marketing contractor is the Hawai'i Visitors & Convention Bureau. "It's such a huge piece of the whole state's economic pie (that) it certainly warrants some extra consideration ... Waikiki's obviously got some problems."
The extended downturn has spurred tourism industry officials in recent months to begin devoting even more attention to trying to boost visitor business specifically to O'ahu.
The tourism authority convened an investigatory committee headed by board member Sharon Weiner that gathered ideas from industry and community leaders on how to boost visitors and spending on the island. The authority also has been working on a plan to improve visitor levels on O'ahu in the next several months and has hopes of allocating money to a marketing partnership with Japan Airlines as part of the plan.
The authority withheld about $1.6 million from plans for a Japanese television campaign, and some of the money for the new O'ahu plan may come from that savings.
Weiner, who is also DFS group vice president, said she and Frank Haas, tourism authority marketing director, are planning to travel to Japan in coming weeks to work on the partnership with Japan Airlines and to learn more about how to attract Japanese visitors. She said the tourism authority also is trying to set up a committee of senior-level officials in Japan's tourism industry to be advisers.
"We need to make sure we're adapting the way that HTA does business with the way Japanese do business," Weiner said.
Meanwhile, the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau is in the process of finalizing a marketing plan for Japan, which is one segment of its budget approved last month that was left up in the air.
HVCB president Tony Vericella said he hopes the plan will be completed this coming week.
"O'ahu has obviously had a slower and longer recovery period overall than each of the Neighbor Islands within the chain," Vericella said. "Even though the Japan recovery has been better for Hawai'i than other destinations it's still not at the level we need it to be."
One of the things Weiner hopes to see changed in marketing to Japan is a shift from "image" campaigns, which she says put the idea of going to Hawai'i in the minds of potential visitors, to more direct and targeted messages.
"We need to have a specific message against the competitors. We need to deliver people to Hawai'i. We don't need to deliver nice thoughts," Weiner said.
She said she would like to see marketing explain why Hawai'i is a good destination for weddings, honeymoons, elders and families. For example, she said, gambling in Las Vegas could be a reason grandparents would want to take their grandchildren to Hawai'i instead.
"It's a tremendous competitive advantage for us right now," Weiner said.
"The challenge with the marketing ... is the 'Been there, done that' syndrome," said Haas, tourism authority marketing director. "Nature has provided us with some pretty exciting attractions. We just need to tell people about them."
Les Enderton, O'ahu Visitors Bureau executive director, said his strategy toward the problem is to attract "active vacationers" who want to do more than relax on the beach and will spend more.
The bureau, with eight staff members, is targeting visitors who want to do outdoor water sports, visit museums and spend money in restaurants.
Because of tighter spending across a broad range of the population, "Instead of going for the $75,000 household income, maybe we have to go for a $125,000 household income," Enderton said. "We don't necessarily want to have only visitors that go only to Waikiki, eat out at fast-food restaurants and bring the beach mat that they bought last time."
Another way the bureau is trying to increase visitor expenditures is through the O'ahu specialists program, which trains travel agents to promote travel to O'ahu next year.
Next year, training sessions will be held in eastern states, which could bring higher-spending visitors to Hawai'i. Eastern visitors spent an average of $154.80 a day in August, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.
"We can't attract all four- and five-star hotel guests to our island," Enderton said. "What we want to do is attract people with an active lifestyle. That's what keeps our small companies alive and what keeps our industry growing."
Because of the shift to more lower-spending, domestic visitors, much of the focus in plans for a recovery has also been on attracting Japanese visitors back to the island.
But some say the push for more Japanese visitors has left opportunities for O'ahu untapped.
Janis Koh, a spokeswoman for the Centennial Committee of Korean Immigration to the United States, said South Korean visitors are a high-spending group, but Guam and Las Vegas marketing have been better at attracting them.
"I always thought, rather than waiting for China to come, I think Korea would be the easiest market," Koh said. "Hawai'i doesn't realize that. They're always going for Japan."
And still others think the changing tourism landscape in Hawai'i means it's not necessary to depend so heavily on Japanese in the future.
David Carey, chief executive of Outrigger Enterprises Inc. and an authority board member, says more budget-conscious visitors, such as those from the West Coast and Canada, are ideal candidates for the mid-range hotels in Waikiki. Outrigger specializes in off-beach properties in its Ohana line of hotels.
Others say there is little sign of an imminent recovery for O'ahu.
After substantial declines in hotel occupancy on the island earlier this year, O'ahu got a boost recently from the American Society of Travel Agents convention, said Joe Toy, president of hotel consulting firm Hospitality Advisors LLC.
But hotel improvements and renovations expected in coming years, especially in Waikiki, are crucial to a stable tourism business on O'ahu.
"I'm still really positive about Waikiki and O'ahu, but really for 2004 and beyond," Toy said.
Reach Kelly Yamanouchi at 535-2470, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.