Selling Hawaii or not


I attended the Hawaii Tourism Association’s (HTA) Spring Marketing Update yesterday to get a feel for how Hawaii is spending its tourism promotion funds around the world. You can get a good sense of HTA’s direction from their Strategic Plan for 2010–2012, which I won’t repeat here. I’m just catching you up with some of things that struck me during a morning of sometimes attentive listening.

I was struck by the central role tourism plays in Hawaii’s economy: visitors spent about US$35 million every day in 2007, but the recession has cut that to US$27 million a day now. That’s a big shortfall for a small economy to make up.

South Korea is the brightest spot Hawaii has. Visitor traffic from Korea is booming, in large part thanks to the US visa waiver program, which has enabled Hawaii to more than escape the recession downdraft among Korean travelers. Total international traffic out of Korea last year dropped 21 percent, travel to the United states decreased by only 9 percent – but travel to Hawaii boomed by 44 percent! Well done.

Just think what Hawaii could do if if it were easier for travelers to get visas from China. Our Chinese visitors decreased by 17 percent in 2009, but they are spending more. In fact, the Chinese spend more than anybody: upwards of US$300 per person per day!

There are good creative programs in Japan and Australia. A curiosity about Hawaii’s Asian customers is that, for most Asian markets, Hawaii is the number one foreign destination for honeymooners.

There were impressive presentations about what HTA is doing to increase traffic from the US mainland, showing tremendous energy and creative marketing. They highlighted media blitzes in major US cities, but I was taken aback by a chart of the results. Only on the screen for seconds (hey, all conferences run late), it appeared to show a sharp rise of reservations during the blitz campaign, followed by a quick return to normal or below-normal visitor counts.

I was disappointed to hear the presentation about Europe, as the news was dismal. Despite only devoting US$100,000 a year to Europe, Hawaii last year managed to attract 104,000 European visitors halfway around the globe. But, they say due to budget issues, HTA doesn’t plan to boost its spend in Europe. The first hint was when we were told that “Europe” means the United Kingdom and Germany only. That’s where most of our European customers have come from in the past, so that’s where the money is going now. When challenged to try other markets, like Italy or Russia, the response was that there is little history of travelers from these countries, so no money will be spent on them. Not a recommended way to build business, I would think.

I was dismayed when we were told that Hawaii had no stand or exhibit at ITB last week in Berlin. ITB is the single most important travel industry trade show in the world, but Hawaii was not there! It was clear that HTA views ITB as a German show, maybe a European event, when it is actually the premier event in this industry worldwide. If you are not there, you are not serious.

Don’t get me wrong. There is much that is admirable about what HTA is doing around the world. When they decide to go into a market, they do it professionally and well. But they are stuck in the rut of only looking at what has worked in the past and focused on the markets of the past. That is not the way other industries achieve new growth. I see well-to-do, wide-ranging travelers from Europe, Latin America, India, other untouched Asian markets, and the Middle East – and Hawaii is doing nothing to win them.