No aloha shirts! (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
I spent Wednesday at the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s spring market review. HTA pulls in its marketing contractors from “around the world” to tell the Hawaii visitor industry what is being done for them. I used quotes because HTA doesn’t market Hawaii globally. Hawaii’s official tourism marketing is restricted to the United States, Canada, Japan, China, South Korea, a little bit in Taiwan, Australia, a bit in New Zealand and a pittance in Germany and the United Kingdom. This is largely due to mythology that tourists won’t come unless they have direct flights.
While I am concerned about where Hawaii isn’t represented, the contract marketing people appear to be doing a pretty good job with the funding they have. Some have plenty (United States, Japan, China) while others bear up under the “do more with less” syndrome that afflicts governments everywhere. All in all, it’s a pretty creative bunch that ably cashes in on the “brand” that is Hawaii worldwide. I tweeted interesting tidbits during the event (@OldPaddler), but here are some more detailed notes about Hawaii’s international tourism efforts.
HTA’s message was upbeat. Yes, the recession hurt the tourism industry, but travel to Hawaii is rebounding and airline capacity to Hawaii is showing serious growth. The gaudy headline from 2011 is a 90% increase in capacity between Seoul and Honolulu, admittedly from a low base. Hawaiian Airlines added seats from Japan and Australia. Charter flights were launched from Shanghai, with continuing rumors of more to come. Hawaiian is starting non-stop flights to New York in 2012, which will give better connections to travelers from Europe. And, this May, little Mokulele Airlines will try a Honolulu-Chicago non-stop that will continue on to London Stansted. Talk about ambitious! Listening to David Uchiyama, HTA’s vice president for brand management, though, I came away with the read that it is the pre-existence of direct flights that governs where HTA spends its marketing dollars. While Uchiyama paid lip service to developing new markets, it was clear that if you can’t get to Hawaii without changing planes, he isn’t very interested. I have railed against that attitude for years because I have seen plenty of well-heeled, adventurous travelers who find hard-to-reach destinations among the most attractive. And they tend to spend a lot and stay a longer time.
Hawaii’s meetings market got a tremendous boost in 2011 when Honolulu hosted 21 heads-of-state and thousands of others for APEC in November. All those news broadcasts showing APEC delegates in tropical surroundings were gold for the tourism industry – and especially for the meetings industry. Hawaii has long been attractive for incentive travel, but has big problems when it comes to large meetings, conferences and trade shows. A major international trade show is a no-go in Hawaii simply because of shipping logistics. It takes a lot of time and even more money to move large, heavy exhibit materials and products to Hawaii – a disadvantage to being a paradise in the middle of an ocean.
Hawaii has done better with conferences and regularly attracts big groups in the medical and scientific fields. Cardiologists and dentists find us especially attractive. Honolulu has hosted the Pacific Telecommunications Council annually for many years, and there is a new annual green energy conference that shows considerable promise. But these big conferences aren’t as easy to come by as you might imagine. Randall Tanaka, assistant general manager of the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu, pointed out that a convention organizer has to really want to place an event in Hawaii because he is going to take a hit on attendance. Any Hawaii meeting or convention is going to be called a boondoggle by somebody, plus the industry still suffers from “AIG syndrome”, a backlash against seemingly exorbitant corporate travel. That, says Tanaka, gives destinations such as San Diego or San Francisco a strong advantage over Honolulu. He cited the example of the American Dental Association, which often comes to Hawaii despite the knowledge that they can draw twice the number of dentists if they meet in Las Vegas. Here’s the presentation on MICE travel. It’s big, takes a while to load.
One lesson from APEC that Tanaka and others can’t mention in public is that the travel cost and distance to Hawaii can minimize potential protestors if your meeting is at all sensitive. We saw this in spades with APEC. The November 2011 meetings were in the heyday of the “Occupy” movements and some predicted a tropical “Battle of Seattle”. Never happened. See my post on the “bikini protests“.
A similar point is that meetings can be held in Hawaii with relative anonymity. Working closely with the consul general for Japan, it took me years to convince the guys with green eye shades in Tokyo and Washington to use Hawaii as a site for bilateral trade negotiations. Our arguments were that neither negotiating team had to travel as far or get as jet-lagged as going to one of the capitols, that Honolulu cost less than either Washington or Tokyo, and that we could stage meetings that the press would never hear about unless we wanted the coverage. That is still largely true. We began holding bilateral trade talks in Hawaii in the mid-1980s, added more countries to the mix and, so far as I know, they still happen here. But nobody knows.
We’ll get into more country-specific tourism talk in upcoming posts.