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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Hawai'i holiday bookings more sluggish than usual

 •  Flights to be cut Dec. 1
 •  Fewer flights limit good holiday deals

By Kelly Yamanouchi
Advertiser Staff Writer

Late December typically marks the start of the busy winter season for Hawai'i's tourism industry, but this year many in the business say they haven't seen the usual early rush for holiday reservations, raising concerns about the direction of a season that has been reliably busy in most years.

While some airlines and hotels say they are already full, many others say a trend toward later bookings by consumers has extended even to their Christmas plans, and reservations are coming in more slowly than usual.

The sluggishness in some bookings comes at a key time for an industry still struggling to fully regain its footing after last year's terrorist attacks sent visitor arrivals plummeting. Many businesses count on strong holiday visitors to help boost year-end results.

"Booking activity is sluggish. We are hoping to be full, but as this year has gone there is some concern," said David Uchiyama, a spokesman for Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. "Normally about this time we would have probably been sold out from about the 24th or 25th all the way through January. We're staying optimistic that the short-term booking activity is still going to happen for us here."

Joseph Toy, president of consulting firm Hospitality Advisors LLC, said he has heard mixed signals about the pace of bookings for the holidays, but he said hotels will likely see a slight gain over last year's occupancy levels, which were about 70 percent and peaking at about 75 percent around New Year's.

But that is little comfort to hoteliers and others in the industry now.

Usually, visitors book holiday travel in September or October after schools resume classes. This year, "I don't see the hotels being as full yet," said HNL Travel Associates president and chief executive Wendy Goodenow, a travel agent and Hawai'i specialist.

At Outrigger Hotels & Resorts, which has more than 12,000 hotel rooms and condominium units in the Pacific region, bookings for December are about 3 percentage points higher than the same period last year.

The period between Christmas and New Year's is historically jammed, said Outrigger chief executive David Carey, but this year, "It looks like it's OK so far."

Some Outrigger hotels are sold out for the holidays, including the Outrigger Waikiki and most properties on Kaua'i, the Big Island and Maui. But others still have space available. The good news is that visitors over the holidays are reserving rooms for stays an average of a day and a half longer than usual, said Outrigger spokesman Jim Austin.

Half of Outrigger's bookings come in six weeks before arrivals, and though holidays are typically booked earlier, Outrigger expects more reservations next month. The company also is promoting its rooms to kama'aina to attract business for the holidays.

Aston Hotels & Resorts president Kelvin Bloom said the chain's hotels still have space available, but most of its condominium properties, which are popular among families, are fully booked.

"We anticipate in this post 9/11 environment that we'll have more families and more extended multi-generational families than we've ever had," Bloom said.

Most Aston properties, including hotels, are 85 percent to 100 percent booked now at rates ranging from $100 to $1,300 a night. That's better than last year and close to the pace in 2000, Bloom said.

While Aloha Airlines flights are mostly full over the holiday weekends, Hawaiian Airlines and United Airlines said they both have room on some flights. All three carriers have added flights between the Mainland and Hawai'i since last Christmas.

"At the moment, bookings for the holidays are behind the pace of last year, but we feel fairly confident that they will come in consistent with this trend toward later booking," said Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Keoni Wagner. The airline usually runs full flights over the holidays, but most flights still have available seats, he said.

On United Airlines, seats to Hawai'i are still available, said spokesman Joe Hopkins.

Still, travel agents say airline tickets have been harder to find than hotel rooms for the holidays.

"If I have a client who wants to go for Christmas, I check the flights and go from there," said Angie Borrelli, a Hawai'i specialist at Peak Travel Group, a travel agency in San Jose, Calif. For both hotels and air seats, "There's still some availability as long as you have a lot of flexibility," she said.

The exceptions appear to be luxury hotels. Many are fully booked, as guests to the Islands' most expensive hotels often make reservations a year or more in advance for the holidays.

Typically, high-end hotels do better than less-expensive hotels over the holidays, industry experts said.

"Maybe it's because the people with the discretionary income are still willing to spend it and enjoy paradise during the holidays," said Mark Benson, director of sales for the Ritz-Carlton on Maui.

Neighbor Islands also appear to be particularly popular among holiday visitors.

Maui and Kaua'i are doing well for holiday bookings, while there is still space available on O'ahu, said Suntrips director of sales and marketing Paulette Toledo.

For Castle Resorts, Kaua'i properties have been doing very well, said Castle director of marketing Kathryn Acorda. Most of Castle's properties still have rooms available for the holidays, but "We expect to be full," Acorda said.