Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Chris Tatum was appointed president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority in November 2018 after more than a decade in various managerial roles with Marriott in the Aloha State. 

With a series of natural disasters across the state in 2018, Hawaii on track to eclipse 10 million annual visitors for the first time in 2019 and growing demands for better strategies and solutions for balancing visitor and resident needs, Tatum entered the position with several areas to address.

I spoke with Tatum as he took stock of his first year in the post, and he discussed what the agency will be focused on in 2020 and beyond. 

Q: What were some of your first steps when you took the reins at HTA?

A: One of the most important things we did when we first got on was to evaluate how the organization was structured. We want to take a balanced approach to managing the destination. Marketing is important and branding is important, but we want balance as we look ahead. 

Fortunately Hawaii has been doing well over the last few years, but like the hotel business, if you don't reinvest, that's a short-term way of doing things. We want a long-term industry, and we want to further invest in our natural resources and parks. We are working with the Department of Transportation on road and traffic problems to see how we can support them. And our competitive advantage is our culture, so we want to make sure those programs and resources are supported long term.

Q: What organizational changes have you carried out?

A: When I came on, there were only two people reporting to the CEO: the marketing and chief administrative officer. We've flattened the organization. In addition to those two reporting to me, the director of cultural and natural resources and director of community engagement are also reporting directly to me.  

Q: What data or surveys are you most interested in tracking?

A: We still monitor RevPAR [revenue per available room] and the spend per person but don't focus as much on the total number of visitors. At the end of the day, the total revenue coming is our focus, not the amount of people.

We've changed our Key Performance Indicators now moving forward to four major indicators. First is resident sentiment -- how they feel about tourism. Their buy-in to the industry will not only help us in ensuring they'll support us on a daily basis and share aloha with visitors but also long term. The other key indicators are visitor satisfaction, spend per person and total spend.

We want to evaluate the travelers, what they spend on and make sure they have great products available to them, because people spend more money on great products. You can't just charge more, you have to give people their money's worth. Hotels have been reinvesting into their products, and we also have to reinvest in and provide better experiences. 

Q: What popular sites are you looking to as tourism management comes to the forefront?

A: An example is the north shore on Kauai. The community got together  that's a park that was getting 3,000 visitors a day, and it was not a good experience. By getting the community together, they are managing the area and taking it down from 3,000 to 900, but those 900 who get in have a wonderful experience. The others are frustrated, but we don't want them to go in there and have a bad experience, we want it to be memorable.

I think Kauai's north shore is a model in the way they got there. Maybe the system they ended up using isn't right for every particular spot, but it's how they went about it. It wasn't easy, but there were a lot of meetings and conversations, and bringing in of all the stakeholders, the community, state, county, tourism industry, everyone in that area. 

Q: As Hawaii is set to eclipse 10 million visitors in 2019, sustainability is top of mind for many people. How does HTA fit into managing that balance?

A: As an industry, we have to take a lead. Tourism is the largest economic driver, and it's key how we position and brand the Islands as more than beautiful beaches. It's the culture that gives a tremendous competitive advantage. Also, it's part of our branding to champion responsible tourism. In 2019, many hotel companies have agreed to eliminate small plastic bottles, and my challenge to the destination is to have none in the market by the end of next year. We have to take the lead, and if some are not willing to jump onboard, we will not promote them. We have to be perceived as best in the nation, and that will help engage visitors who also support us in that. 

Q: What lessons did HTA take from 2018's natural disasters?

A: Communication, communication, communication. There was a lot of miscommunication about where the volcano was and what areas it was impacting. We have to work with our own contractors throughout the world to make sure we get the right message out.

Q: There has been a noticeable decline in China traffic to Hawaii. Is that a concern?

A: It's not a huge market right now with some 130,000 visitors per year, but I think there is opportunity there. They have 20 million long-haul travelers, the biggest outbound market in the world, and they have a tendency to spend more than travelers from a lot of other markets. We have to start asking ourselves if we are China-friendly. Is it easy to come here for China? When they get here, are there people who speak Mandarin? Is it easy to pay bills with the apps they are accustomed to like WeChat and AliPay? We have a new China contractor starting January 1 and their role will be to target Chinese travelers that have the tendency to do long-haul trips while focusing on the culture, environment and experience rather than the beaches.

Q: One issue that comes up again and again is the airport system's need for updates. Do you feel an airport authority would help?

A: We've looked at best practices, and there are only a couple states that don't have that type of organization focused on airports. From the time people get out of the car or bus all the way through, we want them to have a good experience. From an organizational standpoint, I do think it would help to have a dedicated group of people focused on the airport.

Q: What's the focus for 2020 and beyond?

A: We will be continuing to position ourselves as an environmentally friendly destination. The Japan business dropped a bit this year, and we will be spending some time in 2020 re-evaluating the next generation of Japanese travelers. What their interests and needs will be going forward will be important to Hawaii as a destination. I'm going to Japan in February to spend time there and work with the team to discuss not just the next couple of campaigns but the next 10 years.

Additionally, hopefully we can pass legislation in Hawaii to help protect the natural resources and beauty of the state.

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