Tourism leaders: Can’t put value on memories

WAIKAPU – As visitor arrivals and expenditures leveled off in the second half of 2013, businesses need to focus on “elevating the experiential elements” that are unique to Hawaii in order to stay competitive with other destinations that may be less expensive, island tourism leaders were told Thursday.

“Price is a factor when you’re planning a vacation for a family of four but, at the end of the day, if you got memories that are gonna be with you for a lifetime, how you gonna put a value on that?” David Uchiyama, Hawaii Tourism Authority’s vice president of brand management, said Thursday morning during the authority’s annual spring update meeting. About 50 industry professionals attended the meeting held in Kahili Golf Course’s Nahele banquet room.

In addition to the tried-and-true tourist attractions like Haleakala National Park or the Bishop Museum on Oahu, those in the tourism industry should also be looking at promoting events like Kamehameha Day celebrations, May Day, Mele Mei, Hawaiian music concert series and Aloha Festivals, Uchiyama said.

“We can elevate the experiential elements here by supporting festivals and events and county enrichment programs,” Uchiyama said.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority supports dozens of product enrichment programs in Maui County, including World Whale Day, the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival, Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championships, the Pailolo Challenge Canoe Race, Wailuku First Friday and more.

Uchiyama said repeat visitors, some of whom have been coming to Hawaii for decades, are wanting more to “become part of the community” and immersing in the culture specific to Hawaii.

Part of elevating the visitor experience is also making sure customer service is up to par, Uchiyama said. A common complaint his office and others receive is that visitors “pay five-star prices for three-star service where I can go elsewhere and pay three-star prices and get five-star services.”

State tourism officials are compiling visitors’ complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau, tour operators, wholesalers and other agencies and hope to publish a report this year with concerns specific to each tourism sector, including rental car companies, hotels, restaurants and retailers.

Maui Visitors Bureau Executive Director Terryl Vencl said that part of her job is finding out what visitors expect on their vacation and how they define value.

“The Maui visitor has told us what they love about Maui is the choice. Whether it’s accommodation, our cuisine or shopping or activities, they love being able to make choices,” Vencl said after the meeting Thursday. “The more we let them know what’s going on in the islands, the more they may attend and become a little bit more immersed in the community. That in itself is value added to their vacation.”

She said that the bureau has made great efforts to promote First Fridays in Wailuku, as well as market a number of other county programs when it makes presentations to audiences abroad.

She added that industry professionals may have to consider a combination of adding value and making their prices more competitive in the coming years.

“All of us need to look at what value means to our visitors. Within that, there is price, the feeling of aloha, the service, and all of us have to price ourselves in a way that the visitor will feel they’re getting what they paid for,” Vencl said.

Maui has a reputation of attracting higher-end visitors with more money to spend, but Vencl said the value of what Maui has to offer is what keeps all types of visitors coming back.

The bureau plans to focus marketing efforts this year on up-and-coming markets like China and Taiwan, while maintaining strong existing markets in Korea and Oceania, Vencl said.

Maui island saw nearly 2.4 million visitors in 2013, up 2.3 percent from the year before. Total visitor expenditures on the island actually grew last year to $3.7 billion, up 8 percent from the year. Molokai saw about 55,237 visitors and Lanai saw 74,526, according to HTA statistics.

Tourism in Hawaii has seen record gains since 2010, but state officials say the growth has tapered off and will continue to do so in the coming years. They are aiming to attract 8.4 million visitors this year, only 2.5 percent up from last year’s 8.2 million visitors as opposed to the double-digit percentage gains in years past.

Fluctuating currency exchange rates, growing competition and the increasing cost of a Hawaii vacation have all contributed to the slowed growth and decline of visitor spending, which has been declining for the last five consecutive months, officials said.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at