The Hawaii Convention Center lost a lucrative American Association of Orthodontists meeting of 17,000 people to Miami because the state couldn’t guarantee what its COVID-related travel restrictions and social distancing requirements would look like next spring.
Teri Orton, general manager of the Hawai’i Convention Center, said the facility was well on its way to having its best year ever in 2020, and then COVID hit and decimated the market immediately. The losses included the Rotary International Convention, which was expected in June 2020 with 20,000 attendees, making it the state’s largest corporate business that year.
Orton said the convention center was able to move most of the group’s business to new dates in 2020. However, she said the closer a group gets to their deadline, the more important the continued uncertainty about the requirements is. The convention center must re-host the Orthodontists Association’s annual meeting, which was due to be held in Honolulu from April 27 to May 4 and which was the largest planned deal on the center’s books through 2035, Orton said.
“AAO was a great loss to our state. Her meeting planner needed to know today what to plan for April, ”Orton said. “I couldn’t guarantee her or anyone in the government that there would be no restrictions.”
So the orthodontists are bringing their convention to Miami.
Brian Lynx, area director of sales and marketing for the Outrigger Waikiki collection, said Hawaii’s track record in COVID security should have given him an edge in the risk-averse group business travel market. Lynx also said that easy access to the islands from North America was next to never before thanks to an influx of airfields that ever supported the domestic market. Planners also have more choices of hotels at different prices as Hawaii’s leisure market also recovers, he said.
“There’s never been a better time to negotiate because hotels need business too,” said Lynx. “We’re starting to see interest. Our group leaders have increased by 1,500% compared to the previous month. But they’re just inquiries; very few want to confirm contracts.
“I think we need to sit down for the next two months so that we are no longer in limbo, so that the target message is crystal clear and the world knows that we are open for business again.”
It’s difficult for Hawaii to compete when other US destinations have already done away with COVID testing requirements for fully vaccinated travelers and most have done away with masking and social distancing requirements, especially those required for professionally organized meetings, conventions, and incentive trips. Travel apply.
Added to this are fears that counties could raise the temporary lodging tax by 30%, or 3 percentage points, which could drive hotel prices up and hit the corporate segment hard, said Stephanie Donoho, administrative director of the Kohala Coast Resort Association.
Orton said one reason Hawaii lost the Orthodontist Convention to Miami is because Florida has no travel restrictions, which is in sharp contrast to Hawaii.
Trans-Pacific travelers must continue to meet Safe Travels Hawaii requirements which require a negative COVID test from a trusted travel partner. Governor David Ige has said the state would end Safe Travels if 70% of the Hawaiian population are vaccinated against COVID, but it’s not sure when or if it will.
Oahu eventually paved a way for the group business to return to the island on March 11 when it shifted into its Tier 3 reopening strategy that allowed for restricted gatherings, meetings, and events. But Orton said that’s also where Hawaii has fallen behind other competing destinations as most have already lifted restrictions on group business travel. Even Los Angeles, one of the slower destinations reopening to group business travel, got the go-ahead in April, she said.
Friday’s move to Tier 4 provided some additional opportunities to win back group business travel as it would finally allow groups to host trade shows and exhibitions at 50% capacity, rather than just holding static events where attendees reserve a seat for the event and event leave without mixing.
Tier 4 is much less restrictive than Tier 3, but meeting planners may still need to contract larger rooms to accommodate groups than they were before the pandemic, and they may not always be available or on budget. Orton said some meeting planners who had business on the books before the pandemic will now have to completely switch venues or redesign their programs.
Orton said the convention center’s first citywide offshore conference since the pandemic began is Best Western, which will bring about 2,200 delegates to Hawaii in October.
“We had to repeat her entire program because of social distancing and food and drink requirements,” she said. “You now need more space: where you would normally need one meeting room, you now need two.”
Orton said the convention center is doing the same for the other three small meetings – a convention or event large enough to fill multiple accommodations and other venues – that will make up the remainder of 2021.
The Hawaiian visitor industry has invested heavily in improving the state’s positioning as a business travel destination.
Business travel is a small segment historically, accounting for just 467,231 of the 10.4 million visitors who came in 2019. However, it’s a far more important segment of Hawaii’s overall visitor recreation than the numbers suggest. It forms a business base that allows accommodations to take advantage of leisure pricing. It’s also one of the most labor-intensive segments of the Hawaiian visitor industry, so its recovery is necessary to bring more workers back.
Establishing Hawaii as a place for serious business has always been a challenge given the strength of Hawaii’s recreational tourism brand, which has led some to consider it a “boondoggle destination.”
An important lynchpin in Hawaii’s endeavors to be perceived as a reputable location for group business came in 2011 when the Asia-Pacific economic cooperation brought 21 member countries to Hawaii. The high profile international business and government event helped establish Hawaii as the crossroads of the Pacific.
The event, which was the first APEC summit in the United States since 1993, brought approximately 15,000 government and business leaders from around the world and an entourage including auxiliaries, security personnel, the media, and friends and family to the islands. It also filled hundreds of thousands of hotel nights during the off-season in Hawaii.
APEC helped Hawaii become the first US venue to host the World Conservation Congress, which brought conservationists from 160 nations to Hawaii in September 2016. The same year the Hawai’i Convention Center opened, which opened in 1998, made its first profit.
HCC is far from turning a profit this year.
Duke Ah Moo, Hilton vice president and commercial director for Hawaii and French Polynesia, said that during the height of the pandemic, most of the groups on the books were canceled or rebooked, and the number of new, potential groups slowed significantly. Ah Moo said weddings and small social groups are traveling now, and group business travel is in recreational mode, with great interest for arrivals in fall 2021 and beyond.
However, he said the Hawaii group business segment “returned much more slowly” compared to other locations with fewer restrictions.
“There are still no clear guidelines for holding large group meetings,” said Ah Moo. “Groups hesitate due to quarantine and convention restrictions.”
Ah Moo said Hawaii still has a lot more restrictions than alternative destinations like Florida, Las Vegas, and California. Safe Travels’ immigration regulations and the lack of travelers from international destinations eager to reward their employees with incentive trips to Hawaii remain a challenge.
Ah Moo said the rebound in the group travel market “is important in order to increase demand during off-peak periods such as fall” and because it “provides job opportunities for all banquet activities”.
Still, there are signs that there is potential in the group travel market, which is performing better on some of the neighboring islands, said Brad Doell, director of sales and marketing at Mauna Kea Resort.
Doell said the Hawaiian visitor industry was working with Hawaii Mayor Mitch Roth to develop a process that will allow group business trips to return, and the results have been seen since April.
“Companies are easing their travel restrictions, and Hawaii has definitely been designated a travel destination,” said Doell. “The appeal is there, aside from having to do a COVID test before getting to the islands, which some companies may have found an obstacle in the past. Other companies find (tests) positive to ensure their group is COVID-free on the way to the island. “
LEVEL 4 RESTRICTIONS
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi announced the move to Tier 4 on Friday. Some of the guidelines:
>> Social get-togethers allowed outdoors with up to 25 people.
>> Social get-togethers allowed indoors with up to 10 people.
>> Sports organized in the hall are allowed; Spectators are permitted up to 33% capacity (subject to approval from the Department of Parks and Recreation and facility availability).
>> Commercial pleasure boating allowed without capacity restrictions. (If the consumption of food / drinks is allowed, the restaurant / bar rules apply.)
>> Social facilities such as dance / nightlife / karaoke can be used up to 50% if all participants are tested or provide a complete proof of vaccination.
>> Outdoor weddings are allowed for up to 200 people.
>> Indoor events such as concerts, meetings and congresses are allowed with a reduction plan and a capacity of 50% if all participants are tested or provide full proof of vaccination.
>> Outdoor events at venues with defined capacity limits are allowed with a reduction plan, 33% capacity or 67% capacity, if all participants are tested or provide a complete proof of vaccination.
>> Outdoor events at venues with no defined capacity but with controlled entry and exit are allowed with a mitigation plan, at 30 people per 1,000 square feet or 60 people per 1,000 square feet, if all participants are tested or provide full evidence of vaccination.
>> Gambling halls are allowed without capacity limits. (If the consumption of food / drinks is allowed, the restaurant / bar rules apply.)
>> Road races and triathlons allowed with permission; Start group size depends on the meeting size limit.
For more detailed information on transitioning to Tier 4, see the Honolulu City and County Reopening Strategy at oneoahu.org/reopening-strategy.
Source: Honolulu City and County
Correction: The American Association of Orthodontists misidentified an earlier version of this story.