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.