Vericella’s departure
reshapes HTA debate

The tourism authority faces
a decision on HVCB's marketing role

Tony Vericella fell on his sword in resigning from the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau, a rebuked organization that faces a watershed decision tomorrow when the state awards its tourism marketing contract, insiders said.

"He put the organization before himself in resigning," said Ken "Bones" Johnston, member of an executive committee of the HVCB's board and former head of the bureau's Big Island chapter.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority board will hold a closed meeting tomorrow to review proposals for the state's multimillion-dollar tourism marketing contract, and the authority is expected to announce a decision Friday. The board will act on the recommendation of its marketing committee, and its options include removing the bureau from the contract entirely, or from portions of the deal, such as marketing Hawaii to certain geographic regions, like Japan or Europe.

The bureau has always held the contract to market Hawaii to tourists.

Vericella, who resigned as the HVCB's top executive in the aftermath of a critical state audit, said yesterday he wants people to focus on marketing Hawaii and not on the bureau's history or on him personally. The audit, released July 1, slammed the visitors bureau for misspending public funds, and faulted the state tourism authority for lax oversight. Bureau officials have since appeared at multiple public venues to answer questions about the audit.

Vericella, 50, came to the decision to resign over the weekend, he said, and the bureau announced it Monday night. "Nobody asked me to leave or forced me to leave, or any of those kinds of things," Vericella said. He also said that he did not resign to aid the bureau in getting its state contract.

Still, it was apparent that Vericella thought the bureau's marketing contract was in jeopardy because he felt like a lightning rod for criticism, Johnston said. "The story just wasn't going away," Johnston said, adding that the bureau's accomplishments have been lost in the audit's revelations.

The multi-faceted audit cited Vericella for using state funds for personal uses, such as paying for parking tickets and hotel-room videos. Vericella has apologized and reimbursed the bureau the few hundred dollars that the audit questioned.

Vericella was known inside and outside of the bureau for his intense management style, observers said.

"Tony is very tenacious, but he gets the job done," Johnston said.

Johnston said Vericella did an honorable thing in resigning, and that it took guts.

"I think he saw it as a way to say that, 'Hey, I want to do what's best for the organization,'" said Keith Vieira, board member of the Hawaii Tourism Authority and senior vice president of operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.

"This was a decision that Tony wanted to make, that it was important to remove any bad press that he was giving the agency," said Vieira, a friend of Vericella's.

Asked whether Vericella's resignation would help the bureau keep the state contract, Vieira said, "Obviously, Tony's resignation is a major statement that there are changes."

Vieira said he believes the state tourism authority shouldn't make a major change to its tourism marketing contract without considering the negative effects.

Frank Haas, tourism marketing director of the HTA, said neither the audit nor Vericella's resignation will affect the recommendation of the authority's marketing committee. The recommendation has not been disclosed.

State Sen. Donna Kim, who called for the audit, said the HVCB's problems don't end with Vericella's resignation, since they were caused by a lack of oversight at the state tourism authority.

"I've always said that the issue was with the Hawaii Tourism Authority as well as the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau," Kim said yesterday.

The bureau is a private marketing organization run by the tourism industry, but it relies on state funds for the bulk of its funding. When the authority first formed to contract with the bureau in 1998, many of its board members had ties to the bureau.

The authority's board was too far removed from its operations, Kim said.

Vericella, a Pennsylvania native who moved to Hawaii in 1983, said his immediate plan is to take time off with his family, then to look at his options.


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