New tourism chief jumps into the breach


POSTED: Sunday, March 22, 2009

Hawaii's visitor industry is in the throes of a downturn unrivaled since the Great Depression, but Hawaii-born-and-raised Mike McCartney, who has been tapped to lead the state's tourism efforts, is seemingly undeterred by the coming challenges

One could say the Hawaii Tourism Authority's new president and chief executive still has the same stars in his eyes that were present when his father, a teacher, revealed one of the secrets of the universe to him as a young man.




Mike McCartney at a glance


        » Birth date: Dec. 17, 1959

» Current position: Executive director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association


» Starts his new job: April 6


» Tourism background: Former chairman of the Hawaii Tourism Authority


» Political background: State senator from 1988 to 1998 and Democratic Party Chairman in 2006


» Education: Graduate of Castle High and Pacific University in Oregon


» HTA contract pay: $205,008 a year with up to $35,000 in bonus money for meeting specific goals


» HTA contract length: 30 months


“;On my 21st birthday, my father told me, 'The cosmic dust that you borrow from the universe, give it back in brighter coin than you received.' “;

While there's no doubt that Hawaii's tourism industry is headed downward, the 49-year-old McCartney has preserved the idealism and optimism of his youth.

“;We just need to adjust,”; he said. “;It's like being on a voyaging canoe. You adjust your sails in the direction that the wind has changed. You don't spend your time trying to figure out whose fault it was. It's no one's fault.”;

But instead of a compass, McCartney looks for direction in the words and thoughts of Auntie Pilahi Paki, the Maui-born kupuna, whose impromptu speech to the Hawaii Legislature in 1970 later became the Aloha Spirit Law.

“;I carry the Aloha Spirit Law with me everywhere. Here, take a look,”; said the former state senator and head of Hawaii's Democratic Party as he handed over the text of HB 2569-86.

Though McCartney was just a small child when Paki spoke to legislators and her Aloha Spirit Law was passed in 1986 - two years before he began his decade of service as a state senator - her words and thoughts transcend time, he said.

“;Right now it's incumbent for me to meet and listen to what representatives of the host culture and our kupuna have to say,”; McCartney said. “;There is a lot of wisdom there, especially in the piece that I just gave you. The kupuna have the original instructions. They know what to do.”;

McCartney succeeds former HTA Chief Executive Rex Johnson, who abruptly resigned in October after allegations surfaced that he had used his state laptop to forward pornographic e-mails and racist and sexist jokes to friends.

While McCartney was unanimously endorsed by HTA board members, some in the community have been critical of his limited travel industry and business background. But McCartney, who was born and raised in Kahuluu, said his ties to Hawaii and varied professional background will serve him well in his new role.

McCartney's prior tourism experience is limited to his role as HTA chair from 2002 to 2004; however, he's not short on his own thoughts about what it will take to turn around the state's key industry.

McCartney clearly inherited the gift of gab from his father, an Irishman from Oklahoma, who came to Hawaii in 1930 to teach at Maui High School. McCartney said his dad was told by a plantation manager that his job was to teach the students, but not to teach them so much that they would leave the plantation. McCartney's father ignored that advice and went on to educate notable locals such as Leonard Rego, Mamuru Yamasaki, Nadao Yoshinaga, Tadao Beppu and Water Higa.

Knowledge is power, McCartney said. That's what his father taught him and that's why he sees his new role as a conduit to change, he said.

“;It's about the coordination of the heart and the mind, and the people and the place and respecting the host culture,”; McCartney said.

But McCartney's not a flimflam man who would have you believe that glib answers, cosmic dust or the wind are going to change the direction of Hawaii's visitor industry. His Okinawan background, from his mother's side, and Hawaii-centric rearing are reflected in the humility he brings to his new plum job.

“;Mike McCartney doesn't have all the answers,”; he said. “;My job is to be a bridge. I'm the guy who is going to bring all our experts together.”;

Question: What do you think are the biggest challenges that Hawaii's visitor industry is currently facing?

Answer: We have to balance the need for marketing with the need to refresh and improve product development. What we face is a changing world with increased competition. There is a new world and there are new markets, so we need to rethink our strategies and double the efforts in our base markets.

In the long term, we have to grow new markets like China and Asia; however, we have to realize that it takes awhile.

Q: How can Hawaii best measure visitor industry performance?

A: We can't just focus on measuring tourism by using daily spending or arrivals. We have to look at how many jobs that we are creating and how tourism benefits the people of Hawaii. I have been meeting with members of the downtown business community such as the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce, that can help improve Hawaii's visitor industry. Tourism is the lead segment of Hawaii's economy, so the business community and the visitor industry need to work together to find solutions.

Q: There is currently a great deal of debate in the industry regarding how much money should be funneled into marketing and how much should be put into tourism development programs that focus on sports, culture, art or natural resources. Where do you stand?

A: My gut tells me that it's all about marketing and that we'll need to ease into product development. But you can't lose sight of the quality of life in Hawaii. If the population of Hawaii is happy and pleased with tourism, then that adds tremendous value. We should never take that for granted.

Q: Do you think the HTA gets a large enough portion of the transient accommodations tax (TAT) or will you seek restoration of these funds during the downturn?

A: We must make clear that spending money on this industry is a good investment for Hawaii's economy. Now is not the time for us to hold back and cut valuable marketing funds. This is essential to Hawaii's future and the state's overall economic recovery. I will be a strong and purposeful advocate for this position with our state Legislature and the state's administration

Q: To what extent do you think Hawaii's visitor industry drives the overall economy?

A: It's significant. Tourism provides an opportunity for people to have jobs, to feed their families, to pay their mortgage, to live here and, without it, Hawaii would not be able to sustain the quality of life that it has today. We'd only be relying on federal government spending and the military. Tourism connects to everything from the food that we grow here to the restaurants to the construction industry that we have - it's all interrelated. Approximately $12 billion of our state gross product is from tourism, so can you imagine if we have a 10 percent cut in tourism, that's a $1.2 billion loss to Hawaii's economy.

Q: In the last several years, the HTA has made strides in bringing Hawaii's host culture and its visitor industry together. However, cultural programs took a large hit during the last budget trimming sessions. How can the HTA keep Hawaii's host culture at the forefront during this downturn?

A: Talking, communication, common understanding and trust. For me, it's important that we respect and honor the host culture. I've already gotten many, many calls. They all know that there is no money, but there are other things that we can do. It's not just about putting money into programs, it's about relationships.

Q: You are taking over the HTA during one of the worst downturns that Hawaii's visitor industry has ever faced. Have you ever been in a similar leadership position during another downturn and how did you navigate throw those waters?

A: The last time that I was chair of the HTA was during a major downturn. It was just after 9/11 and we also had a senate investigation on HTA and HVCB (Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau). But we worked through. We answered questions, we focused and we changed our strategic direction. Twenty years ago, we had the Gulf War and as a senator I faced difficult decisions. We had 15 percent growth one year and negative growth the next. When PBS (Public Broadcasting System) went from a state agency to a private entity, I faced challenges. I've been through this many times. The key is getting everyone together and using our time and our energy wisely. Our No. 1 job will be to focus on how to grow this piece of Hawaii's economic pie.

Q: What are some ways that the HTA can ensure that its marketing dollars go further during this downturn?

A: There are great buys in the market as the world changes. We need to work together with the industry to leverage state dollars with private dollars. We need to work hard to get free media stories and we need to utilize Hawaii's people. They are some of the best ambassadors. We need to have conversations with groups like the AARP and teachers associations to see if they can sway their members to come to Hawaii. When our students perform at events on the mainland or colleges host luaus or other events, we need to see how we can take advantage of these opportunities.