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Hawaii scores with the return of the Pro Bowl

Hosting the game, with its opportunity for more tourism and exposure, comes at a hefty price

By Allison Schaefers

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Hawaii's visitor industry will score when the Pro Bowl returns to the state this month after its controversial one-year move to Miami.

The Pro Bowl's return to Hawaii, where it had been held consecutively from 1980 to 2009, is part of a two-year agreement between the NFL and the state of Hawaii to play the 2011 and 2012 games here. As it did last year, the game will precede the Super Bowl, which will be played in Arlington, Texas, on Feb. 6.

From a travel booking standpoint, the Pro Bowl's new position in relation to the Super Bowl is less advantageous. The old schedule made it possible for fans to attend the Super Bowl and then head to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl and an extended stay. Also, stars from the two Super Bowl teams no longer participate in the Pro Bowl.

Nevertheless, members of Hawaii's visitor industry are counting on the game's return to boost visitor traffic and push hotel rates higher. Economic improvements and advertising advantages also will provide a strong base to build on for the rest of the year, they said.

"We are looking at less pickup in arrivals than in Pro Bowl years past; however, our average daily rates are 15 to 20 percent higher than they were a year ago," said Benjamin Rafter, president and chief executive officer of Aqua Hotels & Resorts. "This could be the best January and February that we've had since 2008."

The NFL's official package provider, Pleasant Holidays LLC, and chosen hoteliers the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, the Sheraton Waikiki and the Halekulani are expecting to see gains, said Jack Richards, Pleasant's president and chief executive officer.

"There's no doubt that this is great for Hawaii," Richards said. "Even with bookings still coming in, arrivals are up, and package spending is up 4.5 percent year over year."

The results are in contrast to last year when the game's absence caused the visitor industry to lament the loss of 18,000 visitors and $28.6 million in spending, the Pro Bowl's impact in 2009. The Hawaii Tourism Authority reported Hawaii's domestic passenger counts fell an average of 11.4 percent during the time that the game was in Miami.

Any increase in visitors drives rates and helps build a base of business, Rafter said.

"A strong Pro Bowl weekend can help make the whole month," he said.

The HTA originally balked at paying the NFL $8 million to get the two games played here, but state and city leaders and some visitor industry members lobbied hard for its return.

Although the game's cost probably would yield better returns if directed elsewhere, a lot of people value it, said Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Hawaii and French Polynesia.

"There's no question that people come to see this game," Vieira said, "but it's a big payout for the activity."

East Coast and Canadian bookings were bolstering January and February even without the Pro Bowl, he said.

However, the Pro Bowl's benefit to Hawaii extends past bookings, said Michael Story, the HTA's tourism brand manager.

The game, which will be played at Aloha Stadium on Jan. 30 at 2 p.m., will be televised live nationally on Fox.

The NFL has said its decision to play the all-star game the week before the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year follows a significant increase in viewers for the 2010 Pro Bowl, the first Pro Bowl to precede the Super Bowl.

"They say viewers climbed from about 5 million households to around 9 million," Story said. "Even if these viewers don't come to Hawaii, we hope they are all huddled in their homes in the dead of winter watching the game being played in beautiful Honolulu. We couldn't buy that kind of advertising."






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