We need to protect Kauai’s brand before it’s too late

The head of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, George Szigeti, has been gently ousted in what is an unmistakable acknowledgment that the agency’s only strategy — best summarized as “more” — is weakening the state’s overall appeal amid concerns about over-saturation of visitors.

In other words, Hawaii has found out how much is too much.

Disclosures that HTA spends more than $80 million a year advertising Hawaii as a tourist destination while aggressively resisting any suggestion to divert some of that money to maintaining and improving the quality of the product, have finally found a receptive audience somewhere in state government.

A book could probably be written about this dilemma. But let’s focus on Kauai.

Many years ago, when I first went to work as the public relations director for the county court system in Los Angeles, I suggested to my boss that I should talk to the court’s judges about what “branding” meant for the court. I was told, unequivocally, that this would be a horrible idea.

I did it, anyway. Response was not good, but a small number of them, who saw the court as a public institution that needed to rethink the way it depicted itself to the public, hung in.

Kauai is in an analogous situation today.

The question for the island is best summed up as: What is Kauai’s brand; why is it unique and worth preserving; and what reasonable steps should be taken to refocus HTA money on things that matter?

That may sound harsh or like PR-speak, but branding is important to Kauai, as much as the quality of its environment and the appeal of its many and gorgeously varied destinations. Hands down, we have the best island. It is beautiful, remote and it retains much of its isolated, rural character, though those benefits are, arguably, at risk. Many here would argue the brand has already been compromised.

Imagine for a moment that you own a boutique winery and produce 200 cases a year of the most incredible red wine ever created. You hire a marketing consultant when you realize demand is far outstripping supply. The marketing consultant tells you: Make more wine. You do, but in accomplishing that goal, you start cutting corners and relaxing quality control.

Before long, you realize you are selling a hell of a lot more wine. But, in time, the market starts to realize that the quality of your product has been compromised. You discover that regaining your market appeal will be an awful lot more difficult than losing it.

Gradually, your customers realize that your wine isn’t what it used to be. They start passing you up in stores and not ordering you in restaurants.

A persuasive case can be made that this is what’s happened, or is happening, to Kauai. Our tourism marketing has so focused on creating more — more airline seats coming here; more “visitor days” per month; more visitor expenditures per stay; more revenue; and more employment — that it has lost its focus on what the brand means in the first place. This isn’t about exclusion. It’s about what marketers call protecting the brand.

The dynamic at play for visitors who come to Kauai is typically based on treasured memories from past visits or the breathless descriptions of experiences of friends and family — all enhanced by HTA’s shameless promotion. When they arrive, however, they encounter traffic jams, beaches with marginal water quality, parking so taxed it’s a joke, facilities that are over-used but not properly maintained, and understandable hostility of local residents. They set up their towels on Hanalei Beach, for example, not realizing that sewage from cesspools of nearby vacation rentals flows directly beneath them and into the turquoise water.

HTA would argue that Kauai should shut up and feel blessed to have record low unemployment, record numbers of visitor arrivals and stunning amounts of money pouring onto the island. But that is where the branding philosophy that “more” always means “better” breaks down.

Kauai residents know all too well record low unemployment often means people cobbling together two or three low-wage jobs — none of which, conveniently, offers enough hours to qualify for health insurance — and being run ragged between school, child care and other obligations. Plus, many of them find they can’t afford to rent anywhere near their work and end up congregating in vehicles at Anini Beach, or similar locations, which are perhaps Kauai’s largest houseless encampments.

The agency’s critics have argued that it should recommit some — or much — of its advertising and promotion budget to maintaining and renovating the visitor infrastructure that lures people here in the first place. In many cases, these are the same destinations and facilities whose neglect and overuse most frustrates locals.

Beaches and parks — used by everyone — are poorly, if at all, maintained. The roads are abysmal. Places that both locals and visitors cherish are hopelessly congested to the point of inaccessibility. Traffic congestion continues to worsen. The so-called Kapaa Crawl now has offspring in Kalaheo and elsewhere on the Westside and also afflicts Lihue.

North Shore residents observe that the closure of Kuhio Highway from Hanalei west to Kee has actually ended up, by some measures, simply relocating the congestion and parking problems from Kee to Hanalei. But still, airlines like United announce vast increases in the seats they sell to people headed to Kauai, only to have those visitors frustrated by what it they encounter almost as soon as they drive their rental cars out of the airport. United says, essentially, that it factors in cold-blooded equations of how many seats they can sell to Kauai, and nothing else.

All of this, in the short term, increases visitor arrivals, expenditures per day and employment on Kauai. But at what cost to the brand? How many of these visitors will leave concluding their Kauai was over-hyped and that the reality here is at odds with the projected brand identity? How long will it be before the branding image of Kauai is compromised in the market it most needs?

Many people on island may find these analogies offensive, but marketing and branding are what drive tourism and tourism is a major economic engine here. You may not like that, but it is the case. I make furniture that sells through galleries. I have severe concerns about tourist over-saturation on island, but I don’t oppose the sales of my coffee tables and koa boxes at those galleries and I happily make crates to ship them.

We all have to start getting away from such self-focused concerns. What’s at stake is Kauai’s brand. If we lose sight of that, and the market responds by rejecting us, we are doomed. At least until the next hurricane.

•••

Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident.

16 Comments
  1. Sisley July 8, 2018 5:05 am Reply

    I agree with this assessment of Kauai. My first visit was in the late 1980’s. I returned last summer & was very surprised & disappointed in all the traffic and HORRIBLE congestion & parking in the Kappa, Hanalei area. I live in San Francisco, CA and the parking in West Kauai is just as bad. Sad to say but Kauai looked run down to me. Please consider the comments & recommendations made in this article.


  2. Joseph M. George July 8, 2018 5:24 am Reply

    Kauai is often listed as one of the most beautiful places in earth. Protecting it entails a strategy of “less is more.” In many rural places (e.g. Cabo San Lucas, Mexico), the success of one development often leads to more developments which ultimately becomes over development. Once that happens, then tourists move on to somewhere else that is pristine. For Kauai, If there is less development, then there will be limited supply for tourists which will drive up tourist prices. Is that a bad thing? Not for Kauai’s residents who want to preserve the beauty. There will always be demand for Kauai if it remains one of the most beautiful places on earth. If it gets overdeveloped, tourist demand will decrease and Kaui’s residents will have a less beautiful island.


  3. Paula Reeves July 8, 2018 5:27 am Reply

    This is a good “starter” article that contains a lot of truth. I have seen the same problems on the islands of the Galapagos, for the same reasons cited. However, what is lacking are hard-core ideas for change that would affect the necessary changes. Where are the laws to protect the water and the land…shouldn’t Kauai start there? I also saw many of the same problems when visiting Maui but everyone involved seems to turn a blind eye. :o(


  4. james July 8, 2018 7:48 am Reply

    Agree to an extent. aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

    Less is more. People always want what they can’t have. Limit beds and it will increase desire and per visitor spending while helping the “brand”.


  5. Josh July 8, 2018 8:27 am Reply

    I fell off my chair when I read that $80M is spent every year to promote Hawaiian tourism. This while the beach parks, roads and life guards go with lack of funding. Start with the condition of our beach park septic systems then go from there. Like third world stuff.

    Who specifically is the leadership in Hawaii that makes these financial decisions? Articles like this are insightful but a what do concerned residents do about it? Spending a dollar on marketing an already over capacity destination is the best way to destroy what little natural beauty is left. Like we need another golf course dumping fungicides, herbicides, fertilizers and other chemicals into our already stressed and dying reef system?? Or another building permit issued without upgrading the infrastructure to accommodate the increased population.

    Who makes these decisions? Let’s make it easy to contact these representatives so we can get them representing our best interests.


  6. Charlie Chimknee July 8, 2018 8:54 am Reply

    Aloha Kakou,

    Mr. Parachini sites a few problems that could be fixed in a short period of time, 1 of them, the traffic, in a few days; the other, parks, beaches, and restrooms in a few more days.

    One of the problems, parks, beaches, and restrooms need cleaning, EVERY DAY…IMMACULATELY. That is why the free prisoner labor we are housing and feeding producing nothing is waiting at the Kaua’i Community Correctional Center and need to be activated…as in yesterday…not in months of meetings but get on it now. The system where parks are closed one day a week to rid the homeless and clean the bathrooms, should at least have the bathrooms cleaned immaculate every day.

    JANITOR SAYING: Clean them even when they are clean, that way they are never dirty.

    How can Mr. Lenny Rapozo run for Mayor for our County with many other important county departments when he cannot run the one department he has been the head of for some years, a department that is the source of continual “DIRTY” complaints. Let’s hear it from Lenny to defend the accusations against him regarding his not well run department? He deserves to reply and we need to hear why things are so bad.

    Traffic: police officers or even capable volunteers or paid traffic controllers, by use of traffic signal control, or flag directing of traffic at lighted intersections and wave through 100 cars at a time maintain current sped limit then let the mostly shopping centers empty of cars waiting to exit and then start the next 100 cars thorugh, on the east side from ABC Store / First Hawaiian Bank…all the way to Rice Street intersection in LIHUE, and wherever else is appropriate.

    If less than 100 cars open the shopping center exits quicker.

    The Kuhio Hwy / Coco Palms intersection should permanently close the pedestrian crosswalk and have Kuhio Hwy mauka side pedestrians go up to the Wailua Houselots intersection to cross over to the beachside of the Kuhio Hwy. Clean out the mauka side of Kuhio Hwy for pedestrians to walk in front of Coco Palms. With this set up, the Kuhio Hwy / Coco Palms intersection can be a Non Stop intersection for the northbound Makai-side lane like it is at the Hanamaulu turnoff intersection.

    Traffic aggravation reduced 90% in a few days or weeks.

    Parks, Beaches, Bathrooms cleaned up with a new Parks Department Director or updated system. Bernard should set an efficiency example or provide a reason for the ongoing problem.

    Mahalo to Mr. Parachini for opening our eyes. Too many tourists?… just have them wait in line in their home towns, but welcome them
    with ALOHA when they get here…!

    Mahalo,

    Charles


  7. hutch July 8, 2018 10:05 am Reply

    Step 1:
    De-fund the Kauai Visitors Bureau. Their only goal is increasing the number of tourists who come here, and we already have more than enough. Spend that money instead on improving the infrastructure. It should be a priority for at least some of the 3000 people running for County Council this year.

    Step 2:
    Repeat Step 1.


  8. Barry Herzog July 8, 2018 10:21 am Reply

    I love visiting Kauai and have vacationed there with my wife and kids, and now with the kids grown up with my wife, many, many times. We began our visits in Poipu but gradually shifted to staying in the North Shore due to its more laid-back vibe, the many beautiful beaches and Hanalei Bay.

    Sadly, on our last trip to Kauai the weather was cool and overcast. In our three weeks there in February, 2017 we were able to enjoy the beach twice; the rest of the time we huddled in our place or visited destinations we hadn’t seen before. This was after many happy February vacations we timed to visit after the Christmas holiday crowds had come and gone.

    Climate change? I still check Kauai weather reports on a daily basis and see lots and lots of rain. Not much Hawaiian residents can do about it, but without good beach weather we must look elsewhere to spend our vacation dollar. We’re not rich.

    We still love crossing the one-lane bridge into Hanalei Valley, five or six cars in one direction, the same in the other. We still love the small town feel, the sunshine markets, the wonderful people who live on the Island.

    But we are sadly weighing whether we will even visit Kauai again.


  9. numilalocal July 8, 2018 11:14 am Reply

    Isn’t the elephant in this room is the issue of the number of people moving here?


  10. PauloT July 8, 2018 11:27 am Reply

    Good write up. Though residents are mentioned, this is basically about our “branding” as perceived by visitors. If we are too crowded visitors might not like it. This island first and foremost is home to our residents. When branding considers residents’ concerns first and foremost, balanced tourism will follow. Currently no one is happy with our over saturated tourism except those perpetually seeking more money. $80 million a year to advertise for more tourism is farcical. If not criminal.


  11. Craig Callaway July 8, 2018 12:33 pm Reply

    Uh Allan, you make a very strong case that things need to change, but left us hanging waiting for your suggestions as to how to make these “branding” changes. Did TGI clip your article a tad short?


  12. Terry Kamen July 8, 2018 12:49 pm Reply

    Allan
    You are absolutely hitting the nail on the head. Tourism should be capped. Say at 2018 levels. Starting in 2019 , we limit airline seats, residents and tourists holding confirmed tourists cards bought on the internet from the County. Using the fee to improve our parks and roads etc. There is an Eco Island off of Brazil that has done this for many years. So we would not be the first. Unfortunately we live in the USA and pulling this off would be pretty hard under USA laws. Kauai would have to become entirely a National Park where entry could be controlled much like Yosemite.


    1. some guy July 12, 2018 2:47 pm Reply

      perhaps shipping californians back where they came from would be a good start.


  13. Reverend Malama Robinson July 8, 2018 2:53 pm Reply

    Quality is the issue!

    Not quantity…. Kauai has sold out!!! To Californians mostly who are over developing and displacing Hawai’i Nationals….

    Things are about to change!


    1. james July 10, 2018 8:34 am Reply

      Who are Hawaiian Nationals? 50% or more bloodline? 20% bloodline? What about 6th generation Kauains who have only other types of heritage but no “Hawaiian” bloodline? What about other types of Polynesian bloodlines ? Who decides? You? You need to think a little more before making stupid threats.


  14. some guy July 12, 2018 2:50 pm Reply

    hey allan, where are you from? NY? Massachusets? Vermont? Want to take your own advice?


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