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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 27, 2002

Travel agents' convention may map future

By Kelly Yamanouchi
Advertiser Staff Writer

The American Society of Travel Agents' annual convention next weekend won't be the largest meeting to ever have been held in Honolulu, but it could be one of the most influential in affecting leisure travel to the Islands in coming years.

American Society of Travel Agents

• Founded: April 20, 1931, as the American Steamship and Tourist Agents Association

• President and chief executive: Richard M. Copland

Headquarters: Alexandria, Va.

• The world's largest association of travel professionals has more than 24,000 members including travel agents and the companies whose products they sell such as tours, cruises, hotels and car rentals.

• The agency's mission is to enhance the professionalism and profitability of member agents through effective representation in industry and government affairs, education and training, and by identifying and meeting the needs of the traveling public.

Between 2,500 and 3,000 travel agents and visitor industry representatives are expected to arrive in Hawai'i a week from today for the association's five-day World Travel Congress, held annually at different cities around the world and last held in the state more than two decades ago.

For Hawai'i's $10 billion tourism industry struggling to regain its footing in the wake of the terrorist attacks and downturn in travel, the event presents the potential to convince the thousands of travel agents to sell trips to Hawai'i to their customers boosting travel to the state at a crucial time.

Such a boost is particularly valuable now as the state's travel and tourism-related economy is set to lose as much as $797 million this year attributable to the effects of Sept. 11, according to a national report on travel and tourism issued during a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting earlier this month.

With the stakes so high, the Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau and scores of local tourism businesses have embraced the opportunity in the form of thousands of dollars of sponsorships and free services for attendees.

"I think it's probably one of the most significant events to happen to our state in a very long time," said Kelvin Bloom, president of Aston Hotels & Resorts, which is hosting the convention's opening reception Nov. 3. "I think it's a real boost to the entire state. It comes at perfect timing."

Still, it has not been without challenges.

ASTA, a group of some 24,000 members including travel agents and tourism businesses, has struggled to entice members to come to the event. ASTA organizers said travel agents, whose revenues have suffered from the decrease in travel — compounded by some airlines dropping travel agent commissions — face problems that make it more important to keep up-to-date on travel agency trends but also make time and money scarce for their own travel to events such as the World Congress.

"Times are hard because people are shorthanded. They've got to cut back because commissions are bad," said Rachel Shimamoto, vice president of Travel Ways in Honolulu. "You can see the difference."

For Hawai'i, that means fewer conference attendees will be in town next weekend. Expectations were for about 3,700 and hopes were for thousands more — a Las Vegas ASTA convention in 2000, for example, drew about 6,000 attendees.

"We're in a different economic time than we've been in before," said event chairwoman Susan Tanzman, from Los Angeles travel agency Martin's Travel & Tours Inc. "What we'll end up with will be just fine."

Depending on attendance and individual spending, estimates for the immediate amount of money flowing into Hawai'i during the conference range from $3 million to $7.8 million including tax revenue.

But what could be more important for the state's long-term economic health is the multiplier effect of travel agents returning to work after the event with more knowledge and enthusiasm about Hawai'i.

"The fact that agents haven't been there for a while and they need to learn about it, I think is going to position Hawai'i better," said Liz Culkin, ASTA's vice president of meetings and conventions.

There are no official statistics on how much long-term economic impact a World Congress brings to a city, but according to the American Society of Travel Agents, cities typically report a 10 percent to 25 percent increase in tourism business between one and five years following the convention.

After the last ASTA congress here 21 years ago, Hawai'i saw a 7.6 percent growth in visitor arrivals in 1982. Over the five years following, visitor arrivals grew a total of 41.7 percent, according to state economist Pearl Imada Iboshi.

Although it's unclear how much of that increase was attributable to the ASTA convention, "When they were here 20 years ago, we saw benefit when they brought tour groups back," said Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau director of convention services Zenaida McLin.

Gauging potential impact by other cities' where ASTA has gathered in recent years also is difficult.

Last year's convention was planned for Seville, Spain, but after Sept. 11 was moved to New York City to encourage travel to the city. About 3,100 attended, according to ASTA.

"There was an exceedingly positive reaction for the travel agent community," said Keith Yazmir, spokesman for NYC & Co., the city's tourism marketing organization. He said it's too early to say what kind of impact the event may have had on improving tourism business.

For Hawai'i, Yazmir said, "It's a good opportunity to explain what the impact and importance of tourism is to Hawai'i and what the latest events have done to your tourism economy."

Las Vegas, which hosted the 2000 ASTA convention, saw a decrease in tourism business in the year following, but that was primarily attributable to the impact of economic concerns and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The city saw a 2.3 percent decrease in visitor arrivals in 2001 compared with 2000.

Tanzman is optimistic about the potential economic impact on Hawai'i and said this year's convention activities focus more on the host destination than in past years.

About a quarter of the educational seminars highlight Hawai'i, encouraging agents to learn more about the Neighbor Islands, adventure travel, honeymoons, spas, golf and other travel interests in Hawai'i, Tanzman said.

"I think people are going to go home with a whole new breath of fresh air about what Hawai'i is all about," Tanzman said. "Hawai'i is a market where agents' potential for growth is so enormous. It's a place where people feel safe."

Because there are a significant number of delegates coming from the East Coast and the Midwest, "the potential for Hawai'i is not only re-energizing the West Coast market but it is really bringing in the East Coast and the Midwest," Tanzman said. "It's going to be the people smiling and the politeness and the way people treat the delegates — that's going to be why it's going to be better."

Though most of the delegates will be from the Mainland, participants from nearly 40 countries also will attend, Culkin said. About two-thirds of the attendees are travel agents, with the remainder made up of tourism industry suppliers such as tour operators, airlines, cruise companies, car rental businesses and hotels.

Some delegates will arrive early or stay late for pre- and post-tours organized by ASTA, including Neighbor Island trips and a Norwegian Cruise Line cruise. Many will arrive in the middle of this week.

The Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau has already demonstrated its belief that contributing to the convention's success will benefit the state's tourism industry: It has allocated $1.1 million to the convention.

Part of the visitors bureau money goes toward providing use of the convention center without charge, using $150,000 from the Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau marketing flexibility fund. The visitors bureau is also putting up banners at the airport and giving out "goodie bags" of Hawai'i-themed merchandise to welcome delegates, giving 22,000 buttons to retailers, taxi cab drivers, restaurants, airlines and others, and 2,500 counter cards to stores while encouraging them to offer discounts and to be especially welcoming to ASTA delegates.

"We've gotten a tremendous reception from Hawai'i, both public and private," said Bill Connors, ASTA's senior vice president for meetings and education.

The visitors bureau has raised an additional $1.6 million in cash and in-kind sponsorship from local visitor industry businesses and others for the event. Sponsors contributing to the event include Aston Hotels & Resorts, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, the Hawai'i State Health & Wellness Tourism Association and Pleasant Holidays.

Aloha and Hawaiian Airlines are each providing free interisland flights for all conference attendees who signed up for free day tours called "Islands of Aloha" on Nov. 7 during the convention. Those entertaining them are also providing in-kind contributions. The travel agents will be able to visit attractions such as Golf Turtle Bay Resort and Atlantis Submarine Adventure, and take helicopter tours and snorkel cruises.

For the Neighbor Island trips, about 138 are signed up to travel to Maui, 125 to Kaua'i, 126 to the Big Island, 25 to Moloka'i and 25 to Lana'i.

"Hosting travel agents in the true aloha spirit is extremely important to our state's effort to attract visitors, and that's why we're participating," said Aloha Airlines spokesman Stu Glauberman.

Airlines also are offering reduced rates for travel to Honolulu for the convention, for fares in the range of $299 from the West Coast and $599 from the East Coast.

Among boosts from the event could be more travel agents who call themselves Hawai'i specialists and market the destination to customers.

About 150 delegates are signed up for courses during the convention to become certified specialists in selling travel to Hawai'i.

There are about 6,000 in the United States who have been designated Hawai'i destination specialists, and about 100 are attending the event, according to the visitors bureau.

The Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau gives leads to specialists certified through its training program.

Meanwhile, more than 450 exhibitors including hotels, airlines, tour wholesalers, attractions and others — including about 54 in the Hawai'i section of the event — are set to show their wares to the agents.

The trade show will be open to all Hawai'i travel agents for free Tuesday afternoon, said ASTA Hawai'i chapter president Danny Casey. About 50 Hawai'i travel agents have signed up to attend all or part of the convention.

Ultimately, when it comes to entertaining travel agents, every detail could make a difference in how the Islands are reflected to potential visitors.

McLin said the visitors bureau has been working with the city and county of Honolulu in a "quality experience planning task force," which is looking extra carefully at litter and traffic control, and trying to get construction at the end of Kalakaua Avenue completed before the opening event Sunday night at the Waikiki Shell.

"I was so amazed at what they do for the groundwork to make sure everything is in order," Shimamoto said. She said at a recent ASTA congress in Strasbourg, France, rainy weather and road construction that stopped up traffic made a bad impression on travel agents attending.

"We wanted to make sure all of those things were not repeated," Shimamoto said.

For Hawai'i, the opening of the convention center four years ago helped to seal the deal for this year. ASTA decided to hold the 2002 event here just as the convention center was being completed.

Now, Shimamoto said, it's particularly important that Hawai'i delivers, not only because it badly needs a boost in visitor spending, but also because the state has bid for the event multiple times in the past.

Reach Kelly Yamanouchi at 535-2470, or at kyamanouchi@honoluluadvertiser.com