Hawaii Faces Shifting Sands

With Airlift Down, Will Conventions Continue to Prosper?

Busy for now: The Hawaii Convention Center
It's a turbulent time for Hawaii. The demise of Aloha and ATA airlines this spring, along with escalating fuel costs and airfares, have led to steadily decreasing numbers of visitors to the islands. And while the 50th state's convention business looks to set an all-time record for room nights in 2009, the big question is: What about 2010 and beyond?

According to figures released in August by Hawaii's Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, visitor arrivals by air statewide during July declined 16.4 percent in comparison to July 2007.

In addition, the tourism agency projects the total number of seats available on flights to the islands will decline by 13.3 percent from August to October. (For more, turn to this month's cover story, "The Load Factor," on page 56.) And with airfares this past summer nearing the $1,000 mark, travel to Hawaii has grown increasingly difficult for planners to justify.

When it comes to conventions, however, business is up -- at least for the near term. The Hawaii Convention Center is poised to generate the most room nights ever. At press time, 17 events were on the books for 2009, expected to bring a total of 97,285 delegates, compared with 73,949 registered for this year. The total 944,749 committed and tentative room nights projected for 2009 represents a more than 100 percent increase over this year's estimated total of 455,327.

HCC general manager Joe Davis attributes the upturn to landing large conventions, like that of the Ameri­can Dental Asso­ciation, which will bring in 30,000 attendees. In addition, he says, "we're becoming increasingly attractive to overseas groups, such as from Japan and Taiwan."

What's not clear is whether the center can continue to draw record numbers given current trends. So far, the HCC has logged in 10 events for 2010, for a total 698,021 committed and tentative room nights, and nine for 2011, with 640,834 associated overnight stays.

At press time, the HCC was attempting to save a United Church of Christ meeting, set for June 2011, after the church declared that rising air costs and other factors had forced it to consider alternative sites. Center officials were working with local hotels to offer incentive packages to the expected 3,000 attendees, and negotiations were under way with airlines to find a group rate acceptable to the church.