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Hawaii should be a gathering place, even in recession


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POSTED: Sunday, April 12, 2009

The depth of Hawaii's problem hosting conferences during a recession has reached a new low with a flap in Minnesota about six criminal investigators attending a six-day session in Waikiki last month on organized crime. Increasingly, overseers of government and business unfairly see a red flag when Hawaii is mentioned as a destination.

Minnesota's public safety commissioner said the Metro Gang Strike Force investigators' trip to Hawaii “;in these economic times ... is of concern,”; even though the $17,000 used to pay for it came not from taxes but from property and money seized from criminal activities. The Minneapolis Star Tribune piled on, opining that “;spending such a chunk at the Sheraton Waikiki does not suggest good stewardship.”;

The International Conference on Asian Organized Crime and Terrorism has been held annually for 30 years at various locations. A spokesman for the International Organization of Asian Crime Investigators and Specialists said it was held in Hawaii in 2005, in San Francisco last year and is scheduled for St. Paul, Minn., next year. Hawaii is a favorite midpoint host because participants come from the U.S. mainland, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Public anger at extravagant spending by companies receiving bailout tax dollars has extended throughout corporate America and created a sharp decline in travel to meetings in Hawaii, described as junkets. The state's tourism industry is suffering as a result and faces a huge challenge in trying to revitalize business travel to the islands.

The 442,000 business travelers to the state for meetings last year accounted for 7 percent of total visitors and 12 percent of all visitor spending. In the first three months of this year, 132 groups canceled meetings and incentive trips, costing the islands' travel industry nearly $100 million in revenue.

Gov. Linda Lingle, 90 business leaders and the state's four mayors have urged President Barack Obama in a letter to oppose any measure that unfairly restricts companies receiving federal funds from using business meetings “;as a legitimate business tool.”;

The stimulus bill approved by Congress requires companies receiving federal funds to have policies regarding “;excessive or luxury expenditures,”; a term that the Treasury Department is now working to define. The Lingle letter defends conventions, meetings and incentives as “;legitimate business tools”; that shouldn't be regarded as excessive.

Wells Fargo Co., one of the companies that canceled a trip to Hawaii, already had canceled a Las Vegas trip after being criticized for misusing $25 billion in bailout money. The company took out a full-page ad in the New York Times explaining that the employee recognition events weren't funded by the government, but the public has difficulty accepting such a distinction.

The Obama administration and other government officials shouldn't allow misplaced public outrage to sink the travel industry into an even deeper economic quagmire.