Tourism summit looks to entice group travel to Hawaii

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KOHALA COAST — It was all about face time at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows Monday, as Hawaii tourism vendors wrapped up a weekend of courting representatives of the meetings, conferences and incentives industry from across the world.

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KOHALA COAST — It was all about face time at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows Monday, as Hawaii tourism vendors wrapped up a weekend of courting representatives of the meetings, conferences and incentives industry from across the world.

The business-to-business, speed dating element of the first ever Experience Aloha Business Exchange matched local suitors with clients who’d spent the previous few days learning firsthand what Hawaii has to offer by way of various excursions.

“The number one thing is getting people here,” said Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, after touting a 75 percent return visitor ratio. “We have such a great return rate from our customers. It’s not if, but when. We get them here, we showcase the island and they leave here a different person than when they came.”

Paired based on mutual interest, vendors from hotels to golf courses to activity operators hoped to capitalize after allowing the natural beauty of the islands to sell itself.

“When they’re here to experience it firsthand, they can sell it to their clients. Hawaii is more than just a beach destination,” said Melissa Millen, group sales manager with the 600-room Hilton Waikiki Beach. “I do think this will be helpful for Hawaii as a destination and I’m very hopeful it will bring at least one piece of business to our hotel.”

Jaydene Kanekoa, group sales manager with the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort and Spa, said the convention was meaningful because group tourism bookings of several rooms at once are what the hotel considers its foundation.

Priscilla Texeira, managing director of Hawaii Tourism Global MCI, said the target MCI groups for the weekend summit fell in the mid-range.

The MCI market is extensive worldwide, she explained, but not always in enormous groups. The Hawaii Tourism Authority sought out nearly 100 international clients who represent business that books 20-50 rooms at a time, something particularly attractive and manageable for neighbor island venues.

“The everyday traveler, the leisure traveler, they’re just as important, but they’re the icing on the cake,” explained Kanekoa, whose resort offers 295 rooms. “When you bring in conventions like these, often it’s not just to the benefit of the hotel. (Visitors) want to utilize rental cars and go to restaurants on the island. It impacts all the businesses around us.”

Birch explained the visitor split is about 70-30 in favor of leisure travelers over MCI landings, but the new direct flights that are boosting tourism numbers on Hawaii Island to all-time highs year after year with no decline in sight present opportunities to bring more MCI business to the Big Island.

He said Kauai has been close to its tourist capacity for years with Maui operating at about 80-85 percent of its capacity. The jumps in Hawaii Island visitation in recent years have pushed percentages up into the high 70s.

“We’re getting to the point that what we need is our local residents to understand that this is what the island is. We need to embrace it more than saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got too many tourists,’” he said. “People are finally getting smart on what island they need to come to.”

The strategy appeared to have the desired effect by Monday afternoon.

“There’s a lot to offer here,” said Rachel Buck of Key Conference Solutions in Melbourne, Australia, who visited Hawaii for the first time this weekend. “The climate, the natural beauty. The (summit) promotes the destination just by bringing everyone here.”

Gillian Kilpatrick with MCI Group’s Toronto office, said she was looking for someone to take her in as she wouldn’t be ready to say goodbye to Hawaii by today.

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“The thing that stuck out the most has been the aloha vibe,” she said. “I didn’t realize the meaning behind aloha. I just thought it was a hello and a goodbye, but it’s really stuck out as being tangible, something that lives in the people here. When we’re planning events meant to be a reward for hard work, it’s nice to fill (clients) with something other than food and drink.”

Birch said most deals probably wouldn’t be closed before details get ironed out in coming weeks and months. But he added he hopes the cumulative impact of the Experience Aloha Business Exchange, intended to be an annual event, may produce exponentially increasing dividends in years to come.

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