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StarBulletin.com

New tourism captain should steer back to traditional market


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POSTED: Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mike McCartney, the newly appointed CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, says he is ready to take the helm of the ship (not a canoe) of our tourism industry and sail it to more tranquil and prosperous waters. We all hope that he succeeds and wish him the very best in the challenging and somewhat arduous journey that lies ahead of him.

However, here are some points for us to ponder. In his March 22 interview with the Star-Bulletin, McCartney used a modified version of the well-known anecdote: “;We can't change the wind, therefore we must adjust the sail.”; But what if there is no more wind to push the sail?

Let me use the same analogy and elaborate a little further. For 15 years a strong wind was blowing on the sail of our tourism industry and its members got all excited, thinking that we were moving rapidly toward the high seas of prosperity. Quick-thinking people appointed themselves as captains, went to the bridge and took command of the ship. They made all the changes they believed were needed, redesigned the structures and charted a new course. The winds and the currents were strong. El Dorado seemed to be ahead and waiting for us. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction and the skippers neglected to study the charts before embarking on the voyage.

Now the wind has died down and the ship is stuck in the middle of nowhere, with no land in sight. The ship has no propellers and it is too heavy to row.

In previous columns, I expressed an opinion on the changes that were made to the infrastructure in the unrealistic hope of attracting the new “;elite,”; high-spending visitors. It was a bet that was lost and in the process we turned away our traditional, solid and returning visitors. We neglected one of the basic principles of marketing: “;The best client is the one you already have.”;

Since we taxpayers are footing the bill, we should know what the role of HTA is. Is it a policy-making body or just an advertising coordinator? If it's the former, then close liaison with city and state officials is mandatory and its input on how to shape the landscape and make it desirable to visitors is vital.

In the case of the latter, in his interview, McCartney stressed the importance of marketing and advertising to make the rest of the world “;aware”; of Hawaii and all it has to offer. Well, I am sure that the majority of the world has heard and knows of Hawaii. A lot of people perhaps imagine or dream that one day they will visit Hawaii. What they don't know is that the Hawaii of their dreams doesn't exist anymore. The tropical paradise that they might have seen in movies and fantasized about while listening to the gentle sound of Hawaiian music has been replaced by urban development and traffic congestion, the same as visitors find in their own towns without having to travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars. The occasional glimpse of an unspoiled corner of our islands might not be enough of an enticement.

To be effective, advertising must have a message and since Hawaii does not have a monopoly on sun, sand and sea, what will our message be?

No doubt the economy is partly to blame for the decline in visitors to our islands. The people who perceived themselves as rich discovered that they were not really rich, just intoxicated by the temporary spending power that the little plastic rectangular credit card gave them. And temporary it was. But our “;tourism experts”; did not realize it and rushed to cash in, built and expanded, altering and in some cases obliterating the natural beauty of this land until Hawaii was no longer recognizable.

When the economy recovers, and it always does, there will be profound changes in people's spending habits. Tighter credit policies will be implemented and, as a result, the legions of the really wealthy and famous will have probably shrunk into mere platoons. Hawaii will have to readjust once again and go back to catering to the traditional visitors of the past and, in order to compete, will have to lower the entire pricing structure. Have we adjusted our sail yet?

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Franco Mancassola, a frequent contributor to the Star-Bulletin opinion pages, founded Discovery Air and Debonair Airways. He also was vice president of Inter