Sustainability a recurring theme at Hawaii Leadership Forum: Travel Weekly

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Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

From the first speaker to the last, the Travel Weekly Hawaii Leadership Forum in Waikiki emphasized Hawaii's distinct qualities as a destination and the need to steward those resources as more visitors come each year to enjoy them.

Hosted at the Royal Hawaiian and Sheraton Waikiki on April 30, the forum was celebrating its 22nd year of bringing together a range of tourism professionals to discuss the latest trends for travel advisors, tourism marketing and Hawaii as a destination.

Hawaii Governor David Ige set the tone in his opening remarks, emphasizing the importance of tourism as the "heart and soul" of Hawaii's economy and the need to maintain balance. 

"We're also being thoughtful in speaking with our communities about how we can better manage our natural resources and manage the destination, and balance the interest of attracting and creating visitors here and being in tune with our communities across the state," Ige said. 

The governor applauded various hotel companies and airlines for investment in their Hawaii products and routes, and new efforts to promote responsible, sustainable tourism. 

"All of these things are important to keep the destination fresh and ensure our visitors know when they come to the islands they are getting more than value, because it is the people, place and culture that makes Hawaii important, unique and significant," Ige said, expressing a sentiment that was peppered throughout the program.

Karen Hughes, the Hawaii Tourism Authority's new vice president of marketing and product development, noted Hawaii enjoyed a seventh consecutive year of record arrivals in 2018 despite numerous challenges such as the volcano eruptions on Hawaii Island, and the agency is establishing several advisory committees and working toward collecting a broader array of input. 

"Our job is to make sure when [visitors] get here they have that aloha spirit from our community, which is why it's so important to make sure our community embraces our visitors," Hughes said. "We do that by making sure tourism gives back to the community more than it takes."

The main speakers for the program were asked to share quotes that inspire and inform their mission in the travel industry. Jenn Lee, vice president of sales and marketing at Travel Planners International, took the stage for the first keynote speech, and, brimming with energy and cracking jokes along the way, offered a poignant take on travel advisors having the courage and confidence to lead their clients with authority. 

"You're not selling 10 days at your resort to a honeymoon couple, you are kickstarting a 50-year marriage with those first 10 days," Lee said, arguing proactive advisors will see more clients come back to them for decades. 

"Listen, pay attention," Lee said. "The consumer doesn't know they can fulfill whatever is missing here in Hawaii. They know it's beautiful. They know there's culture. That's what I Iike about Hawaii. I can stay in the United States and have culture. I live in Orlando, Florida. You can't get any more vanilla than Orlando."

Jessica Hayes, a travel planner and the founder of Massachusetts-based In Touch Vacations, championed the value of on-the-ground experiences, adding that visiting Hawaii herself was invaluable for opening up the market for her. 

"We expect to see a 200% increase in Hawaii sales this year," Hayes said. "More flights and better pricing have made Hawaii a more attractive destination than ever before. ... In the next five years, I plan to flip my business on its head, and Hawaii will be my number one selling destination."

Hayes said Hawaii hits a sweet spot for certain travelers.

"Hawaii is a place where you're surrounded by unique culture but also feel comfort and familiarity," she said. "Guests currently have this desire for the exotic but a fear of leaving the country. Hawaii fills this niche perfectly, which means its on everyone's bucket list."

Executives from a collection of travel wholesalers all gave brief talks on trends they are seeing and their inspiration for building successful businesses. 

Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, updated the audience on projections for visitor arrivals in Hawaii, highlighting what he called "conservative" state estimates of reaching nearly 10.7 million visitors by 2022, after the state welcomed 9.95 million in 2018. 

"From my point of view, Hawaii is not at the point where there's too much tourism, it is at the point where we have to manage tourism better than we're doing today," he said. 

Richards, pulling from Charles Darwin, emphasized the need for adaptability.

"In order to grow your tourism, you need to be able to change the way you do it and adapt to the new way, and I think we can all do that," Richards said. "Make it manageable and sustainable. If it's hurting the reef, let's stop doing it. There are best practices in Europe ... Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Rome and other cities where there is so much tourism they've had to put in detailed plans on how to manage it. It's going to be an inconvenience for some people, but it works if you sustain it long term."

Jennie Ho, president of Delta Vacations, riffed on a Winston Churchill quote about having the courage to continue in the face of hardship to tell a moving story of her grandmother's journey from China, after the communist party victory in the country's civil war, to Taiwan, where she cared for five children by selling dumplings at a roadside stand before bringing the family to the United States.

"We need to change," Ho said. "In terms of an industry, in terms of how we think about bringing customers to Hawaii. ... I encourage everyone to take a moment and think about what is your purpose. To have that clarity and that will in turn fuel your courage to initiate change."

David Hu, leading with the Henry Miller quote "One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things," spoke on navigating successes and setbacks and taking ownership of the things that are within your control. 

"Life is a game of Chutes and Ladders," he said. "I'm going to figure out how to ride the highs and the lows to make sure I continue on my path forward." 

Ray Snisky, executive vice president and chief commercial officer for vacations at Apple Leisure Group, based his speech around the concept of "Begin in Gratitude," and how that spirit can help businesses and customer service.

"Customer experience is the competitive battleground," Snisky said. "Any destination in the world can build a higher hotel or whatever the case may be. If you really think about having a team full of gratitude, who are ready and eager to do a fantastic job to make a difference and effect the customer experience, think of the power that will harness."

During the lunch program, David Richard, Marriott's Hawaii and French Polynesia director of sales and marketing, gave an update on the company's projects in the Aloha State, including upgrades and renovations at Sheraton Waikiki, Sheraton Kauai, Waikiki Beach Marriott, Westin Maui, and the recent groundbreaking on the AC Hotel Wailea. Jay Talwar, chief marketing officer for Hawaii Tourism U.S., updated the audience on a campaign, Hawaii Rooted, that introduces unique characters and aspects of the Islands while also promoting responsible travel.

The second keynote of the day came from Erika Moore, the U.S. vice president and general manager of Travelport, who broke down how various technologies are influencing the travel advisor and booking business. As data and information sharing grows, Moore said, there are greater opportunities to tailor experiences to specific visitors and engage with them more personally.

"Use technology to be our friend, use technology to be our promoter, use technology to make sure influencers and advisors are getting our opinion out there," she said. "Everybody thinks they own the traveler. It's 'my passenger,' 'my guest.' It's not. One thing you'll see change the fastest as new technology takes over is that travelers want to own their data. And they'll demand to be serviced one way or another in a seamless fashion and will demand applications that allow sharing of information."

In individual Q&A sessions spread throughout the program, Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann and Publisher Bruce Shulman took turns leading a series of Q&A sessions with executives from leading airlines servicing Hawaii.

Jonathan Clarkson, Southwest's managing director of loyalty, partnerships and product, said the company is pleased with the first stages of its Hawaii rollout, and recently introduced inter-island flights from Oahu to Maui, with flights between Oahu and Hawaii Island coming before the end of May. 

"One of the big instigators for us was last year, or two years ago, we embarked on a strategy to win California," Clarkson said, adding that the state represents more than 25% of Southwest's revenue. "There was a merger between a couple of our competitors that positioned them with more strength along the West Coast  We took it upon ourselves to maintain our foothold in California, and one of the ways to do that was to make Hawaii a priority."

United Airlines director for leisure sales Vic Kerkoff said the company grew capacity into Hawaii 20% in 2018 and is adding 200,000 more seats, a 4% increase, in 2019. Meanwhile, Ryan Butz, Alaska Airlines managing director of guest loyalty, said the acquisition of Virgin America opened up connecting flights from the East Coast to Hawaii via Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Echoing the statements of the United and Alaska representatives, Hawaiian Airlines' senior vice president of corporate communications and public affairs, Ann Botticelli, said they welcomed the competition from Southwest and expect it to increase innovation. She also expressed deep disappointment that, for the fourth time, a bill to establish an airport authority, which many in the industry believe would expedite improvements to Honolulu International Airport, died in the legislature.

To close the day's programming, Rob Pacheco, a naturalist and founder of Hawaii Forest and Trail, shared his passion for Hawaii's unique environment as the most isolated archipelago in the world. 

"It's easy to think nature and culture are separate," he said. "But when we think this way we deny ourselves the opportunity to deepen roots and become more connected to place. A place like Hawaii is unlike any other place I've ever been, and has the power to teach and transform. Not everyone can venture deep into the forest, or hike the volcano. Not everyone can surf Waikiki, or stand knee deep in the mud of Loihi, but everyone can experience aloha."

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