Blending Old and New Marketing

Small companies focused on tourism use innovative and tried-and-true tactics to bring in visitors

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Word-of-mouth advertising is prized above all others in the marketing efforts at Mama's Fishhouse Restaurant & Inn, whose popular dishes include fresh fish prepared Upcountry style, with caramelized Maui onion, avocado and jasmine rice.

The fishermen who bring their catches directly to the Maui restaurant are recognized on menus as a way to make the culinary experience real to tourists, who make up as much as 90 percent of the business, says Karen Christenson, VP of the business her parents started 37 years ago.

"We make sure our guests want to come back and that everyone they know wants to come here, too," Christenson says. "There's no marketing that you can buy that is as effective as word of mouth."

A surfing school with locations in Kihei and Lahaina woos customers with a blend of old and new strategies. On the one hand, the family-owned Maui Wave Riders connects with tourists through a new website and the online travel site Expedia.

On the other hand, the company has expanded its presence at activity desks in hotels on Maui and continues to offer incentive payments to taxi drivers, who bring in a lot of clients, says office manager Monica Redins.

In Hawaii, there is no law against incentive payments or commissions offered by companies to persuade taxi drivers to steer business their way.

In fact, taxi drivers have long played a key marketing role for Club Rock Za and its roster of exotic dancers, says Yvonne Dang, who for 23 years has owned the strip club located across the street from the Hawaii Convention Center on Kapiolani Boulevard in Honolulu.

She says tourists make up about 60 percent of the customers who keep her dancers' G-strings stuffed with dollars. Dang pays cabbies as much as $10 for bringing her legitimate business.

A block away at Club Femme Nu, cabbies are also paid for delivering tourists, though they make up only 25 percent of club's clientele. However, the club's general manager says it is bracing for a marketing boost from an episode of "Hawaii Five-O" in which the club appears in a chase scene.

Greg Longnecker, owner of X-Treme Parasail and Jet Ski in Kewalo Basin Park, says he just started blogging about the adventures his company offers off the coast of Oahu. He's also invested heavily in his website and in search-engine optimization – SEO – designed to keep his company high in Google search results and a step ahead of rivals in the race for business from thrill seekers.

He says these new efforts have complemented his traditional approaches, which include paying for fliers in racks and kiosks, commissions to travel agents, and ads in tourist publications.

"Over the last year, we have put more emphasis into our website and social media," Longnecker says. "It now accounts for about 10 percent of my advertising budget."

His marketing paid off big in February, when pop princess Rihanna booked a parasail with his company.

"She rolled up in three black Cadillac Escalades, carrying two of her girlfriends, a guy and a bodyguard," Longnecker says. "She had a wig on and was trying to be very incognito. She was trying to stay out of the spotlight."

     At Lulu’s Waikiki, all hotel workers get 50 percent off all food and
     drinks on “Hospitality Mondays.” Marketing and events director
     Skip Lambert, center with white beard, along with other
     members of Lulu’s team, says the discount is a great way
     to spread the word about their restaurant.
     Photo: David Croxford

It's all see-and-be-seen at Lulu's Waikiki, a restaurant and bar across from the Honolulu Zoo on Kalakaua Avenue, where movie star Adam Sandler is a repeat visitor who enjoys unwinding with friends over beer and Mai Tais.

Skip Lambert, marketing and events director, says the ocean-themed restaurant and bar has also been rebranded to appeal to customers who can walk off Waikiki Beach dripping wet, put a surf board on a rack, and go to the bar for a beer and hamburger.

"We have a very relaxed dress code that appeals to beachgoers," he says.

Hotel concierges get complimentary meals for good referrals. And on "hospitality Mondays," all hotel workers who can show proof of employment with a pay stub or some other form of identification get 50 percent off all food and drinks.

"That marketing program has been a huge success," Lambert says. "It started out as just a way to spread the word about us and it has really taken off."

A few blocks up the street, in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center,

P.F. Chang's China Bistro has taken a new approach to drum up business from tourists.

     Hula Pies are a big draw at Duke’s and are highlighted on the
     restaurant’s website.
     Photo: David Croxford

All appetizers and drinks are now 50 percent off between 3 and 6 p.m., says manager Ed Locke. "When we first started, we saw 15 to 20 people," he says. "Now we see 200 to 250 people for happy hour."

Those numbers are encouraging for a company unaccustomed to putting money into marketing, Locke says.

"Before now, we just opened sites in prime locations, the word would get out and we would build our reputation on our food and execution. But our happy hour attracted people who worked in the hotels and they would spread the word. That has created a lot of buzz."

Another key effort is creating Chinese and Japanese menus and hiring employees who are fluent in those languages, as well as Korean and English. "It just makes guests feel comfortable," Locke says.

A half block away, Japanese tourists are the main targets of Doraku, a sushi restaurant whose only other location is in Miami's South Beach. To reach Japanese tourists in Hawaii, the restaurant sinks between $300 and $400 a month into promoting 10-percent-discount coupons in "KauKau," a free monthly magazine distributed in Waikiki.

"Everything else is word of mouth or Yelp," says Hide Yoshimoto, an executive chef at the restaurant. "But three out of every 10 of our Japanese customers have seen the ad with our coupon."

Back at Duke's in the Outrigger Waikiki hotel, Ching gives a detailed account of the behind-the-scenes efforts to raise the restaurant's profile.

He talks about putting money into special marketing ventures, such as sponsoring canoe races. He also refers to the burst of business the restaurant gets every February during NFL Pro Bowl week. That's the busiest time of the year largely due to parties hosted by Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon and Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez. Visitors of all stripes delight in unwinding with the two NFL stars, he says.

To keep up with the times, he has rolled out a Facebook page, which helps customers stay connected on the restaurant's moves.

But, he says, there is no higher priority on his marketing to-do list than cultivating strong business relationships with doormen, bell captains and concierges at hotels in Waikiki. For doormen and bell captains – usually the first and last people hotel guests see – that could mean buying them an occasional beer at his restaurant.

The strategy for concierges is a little more complex. For them, he's assembled teams of employees who are routinely dispatched to crisscross Waikiki in a quest to establish rapport with concierges, whose main agenda is to make hotel guests happy.

His teams warm up to concierges in part by keeping them updated on the action at the restaurant and bringing them complimentary cookies, pies and invitations to eat at the restaurant.

"We rely on them to recommend us and we want them to feel comfortable that we will deliver."


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