State lobbying to limit group travel regulations


POSTED: Friday, February 13, 2009

The state, the U.S. Travel Association and travel leaders are lobbying to ensure proposed government regulations on business travel will not harm the lucrative group travel market.

While Hawaii is best known as a leisure destination, the group segment always has been highly prized because these visitors stay longer and spend more. If government policy or corporate decision makers crack down too stringently, the state could lose millions in corporate bookings and cancellations, said Murray Towill, president of the Hawaii Hotel & Lodging Association.

“;A handful of (Hawaii's) properties have had cancellations in the millions of dollars,”; Towill said. “;The lost revenue and lost work will ripple through Hawaii's economy on many levels.”;

Business travel to Hawaii began falling last year as the recession hit and has stalled further since President Obama asked recipients of emergency government lending to develop guidelines on conferences, events and employee recognition programs, said John Monahan, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

Many businesses have canceled trips or postponed decisions because they fear government regulations or public scrutiny like insurer AIG came under when reports came out about the thousands of travel dollars it had spent after receiving public money, he said.

“;There's no question that the tough economy has gotten everyone looking at their budget, and most budget lines are getting cut and business travel is clearly part of it,”; Monahan said.

While 2009 still looks very strong for the Hawaii Convention Center, the facility lost out on signing a very large corporate financial institution due to concern about how it would look to book in Hawaii, said Joe Davis, general manager of the Hawaii Convention Center.

The company, which Davis declined to name, was worried about negative publicity after Goldman Sachs made the decision to cancel a Las Vegas meeting and transfer it to another venue despite a $600,000 penalty, he said.

The USTA issued a proposed set of business travel guidelines earlier this week that are designed to protect travel jobs while ensuring transparency and accountability, said Roger Dow, the USTA's president and chief executive.

“;Our associations are hopeful that with stringent, transparent standards in place, policymakers and the business community can embrace meetings, events and incentive travel as responsible economic stimulants,”; Dow said.

While Hawaii supports the USTA's intent, state officials all the way up to Gov. Linda Lingle are working to ensure that any adopted guidelines allow for offshore travel, said state Tourism Liaison Marsha Wienert.

While only about 6 percent of Hawaii visitors came for business last year, the importance of this market segment cannot be discounted, she said.