In a new era for Hawaii tourism, an old partner is not going quietly

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The Honolulu skyline.
The Honolulu skyline. Photo Credit: SvetlanaSF/Shutterstock

It's been more than a month since the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), the government agency responsible for supporting tourism in the Aloha State, shook up its U.S. destination management program by failing to renew its contract with the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB), its longtime marketing partner.

Following a request for proposals, the HTA said in early June that it had awarded the multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, a nonprofit that's largely known for helping the Native Hawaiian community through cultural and economic programs. 

The change is still in transition, but the HVCB is not going quietly.

For more decades than anyone can remember, the HVCB had been given responsibility for U.S. brand management and visitor education services by the HTA. So when the contract was awarded to a new organization, it would be an understatement to say that it was an unexpected turn of events. Part of the shock to the status quo is that many people who sell Hawaii but are not based in the state are unfamiliar with the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.

But its presence in the Islands is not insubstantial. The council manages $100 million in annual program revenue and employs nearly 100 staff across six divisions, including advocacy and community programs.

"The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement is humbled that the Hawaii Tourism Authority entrusted us as the entity to deliver the change that Hawaii has long demanded of our visitor industry," the group said in a statement. 

Soon after the award was announced, the HVCB filed a protest, and as part of the appeal process, the proposals are being reviewed by the state's Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. While this is being done, the HVCB's contract has been extended until Sept. 28.

"After conferring with HTA president and CEO John De Fries, we agreed that granting this extension is in the best interest of our state and creates the necessary time frame within which the protest can be resolved," department director Mike McCartney said. 

Overtourism in sharper focus

A segment of Hawaii residents have long grumbled about the ever-increasing number of tourists to the Islands, pointing to overcrowding in natural areas, traffic congestion and damage to the environment.

During the pandemic, residents got a glimpse of how the Islands looked without tourists: near-empty beaches and hiking trails and significantly reduced traffic. It resulted in an awakening of sorts, and when visitor arrivals to Hawaii once again broke records once pandemic restrictions were lifted, concern only heightened.

In 2020, De Fries was appointed CEO of the HTA, the first Native Hawaiian to hold that position. He oversaw the development of destination management plans involving local stakeholders, the addition of reservation systems at popular tourist sites and the creation of the Malama program that focuses on connecting visitors to local businesses and communities.

What's behind the change?

Still, it's unclear to many local travel industry partners why the HTA picked the council over its longtime partner and what made its proposal more attractive. Representatives for the HTA, HVCB and the council declined to be interviewed for this story.

"Hawai'i sits in an unpredictable sea of climate change, overtourism, economic instability and global pandemics," wrote Kuhio Lewis, the council's CEO, in its request for proposal for the HTA contract.

Lewis added: "Our love for Hawai'i and its people compel us to ensure the long-term vibrancy of our natural environment, our culture and our people. As a natural consequence, we will also ensure that Hawai'i remains a prime destination for worldwide travelers."

The council's proposal includes the creation of the Kilohana Collective, a separate division that would oversee tourism with a management team and subcontractor partners. It was recently announced that Douglas Chang, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach, was appointed chair of the Kilohana Collective's transition team.

Other members include Micah Kane, CEO of the Hawaii Community Foundation, and Aaron Sala, director of cultural affairs of the Royal Hawaiian Center and former HTA chair.

The HVCB's initial proposal also addressed community concerns. The bureau's vision, per the proposal, continues a regenerative tourism path that puts residents first. It shifts from "visitor-first marketing to resident-focused messaging."

"The reality is that [the council] has done a fantastic job of developing the trust of Hawaiian and local communities over their 20-year history. HVCB has done a fantastic job of attracting quality visitors to Hawaii for as long as they have managed visitor engagement with our Islands," said Kekoa McClellan, speaking on behalf of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance.

Keeping the destination top of mind

Until a decision is made whether to move forward with the council or decline its offer, some in the industry say they feel they're in limbo.

"We have no relationship with anyone at [the council], whereas we had deep and long-term relationships with everyone at HVCB," said Jack Richards, CEO of Pleasant Holidays, who has twice served on the bureau's board of directors.

The HVCB is, in part, supported by members within the tourism community -- Pleasant Holidays is a member -- and Richards said that among members benefits are access to data and research, sales and marketing materials and training and educational events for travel advisors.

"They're very supportive of our sales and marketing initiatives to keep the Hawaii brand top of mind against competing destinations, and I think that is one of the questions that has to be asked of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement: How are you going to keep the Hawaii brand top of mind against competing destinations?" Richards said, adding that the state's biggest competitors are Mexico, the Caribbean and French Polynesia.

"Things are slowing down for 2022 and 2023, so I think it's very, very important that whoever gets this contract keeps the momentum going in terms of keeping Hawaii top of mind," he said. 

The competitors, he said, "know that, right now, Hawaii is in the middle of a contractual dispute for marketing and tourism management. They're aggressively marketing their destinations to get people to come to Mexico and the Caribbean."

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