Talk Story: Mufi Hannemann

The new head of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association promises to keep an eye out for Kauai. 

Mufi Hannemann, who begins work as president and CEO for the HLTA on July 20, knows from experience that the Garden Isle has a lot to offer when it comes to promoting Hawaii.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with the people of Kauai,” Hannemann said. “Right now, it’s a wonderful opportunity to help Kauai move forward in this particular case with the tourism industry. Quality tourism not quantity tourism. Quality tourism will be beneficial not only for today, but for tomorrow.”

A 30-year leader in business, tourism and politics in Hawaii, Hannemann also served as mayor of the City and County of Honolulu from 2005 to 2010, and as a member of the Honolulu City Council.

He previously served as president and CEO of HLTA from January 2011 to July 2012, where he supported the lodging industry’s interests on bills and measures brought before state and county lawmakers, increased its membership statewide and is credited for building stronger alliances on the Neighbor Islands.

The latter is something he wants to continue in his return to his old post.

Kauai does a number of things well, Hannemann said, including showcasing its natural beauty and attracting honeymooners and environmental enthusiasts. But there are still some hidden gems Kauai can promote harder to make it even more of a top-end destination.

“There are some sports activities that can take place on Kauai that I think you haven’t scratched the potential of — triathlons or things that have to do with water,” he said. “Kauai has a certain charm to that. Sports tourism is another natural attraction for Kauai.”

Hannemann talked story with The Garden Island last week about the important roles Kauai and Neighbor Islands play in promoting the state.

How big of a role do the Neighbor Islands play in promoting Hawaii tourism?

It’s a major factor. We’ll always get the lion’s share on Oahu because this is where most people live and certainly the capital and the like, but more and more people are recognizing that visiting Kauai, Maui, Molokai, Lanai and the Big Island are also a different kind of experience to add to the mix.

More often than not, they come through Oahu, so we need to keep saying we have a product that’s constantly evolving, a product that is rich in its cultural heritage and for things people want to do. We are not just a sunset, fancy surf destination, that the island brings some cultural attributes to the table that make it a great place to visit. They are very important and we always need to make sure, whether it’s in our promotional ads, whether it’s the way we market Hawaii, that we’re talking about the whole state of Hawaii and not just Honolulu or Oahu.

Any specific plans in promoting Kauai or the Neighbor Islands?

We want to work with our marketing partners and that’s of course Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Hawaii Visitors Bureau and the Neighbor Island chapters that do marketing. Our job at HLTA is in education and advocacy organization.

We’ll always make sure whether it’s lawmakers or it’s Joe Q. Public that they all state that a portion of our tax revenues have to be placed into the marketing of Hawaii. Because to get some, you have to give, and we live in a very competitive world. Other areas are spending much more than we do in marketing and we can’t take it for granted because we have this wonderful reputation.

Is that easy to do, to become complacent and say, ‘This will sell itself’?

Oh yes. Because when you’re successful with a certain ad campaign, when you’re successful with a certain strategy that you put in place to lure people in the past, sometimes you think, “You know what, I don’t need to change.” But the world we live in is much more different than it was 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago. Social media and the use of technology now is commonplace so therefore you have to be on top of your game.

The Transient Accommodations Tax is big deal here. Some want to raise the amount of the tax the counties get back from the state. What do you say to that?

As a former county mayor of Honolulu I was always concerned about our lack of reimbursement from the state for things that we do to help the state, whether it’s a presidential visit and the time we have to allocate from our police force and other first responders … so we need to get reimbursed, because when those things result in overtime, for example, and the like, it falls back on the county and the counties only have one source of revenue and that’s the property tax and we don’t always want to think, well, we got to raise your property taxes.

I’ve always been for making sure that after we preserve as much as we can for marketing that the counties and the convention center gets its fair share, that we not reduce. That was the original purpose how the hotel tax was sold to the visitor industry. But also the terms it was implemented. We’ve sort of strayed from that to balance the (state) budget.

Will you continue to take to the state level?

That’s our role. Our role is education and advocacy, we’ll always try to caution lawmakers or the state administration to be careful once again not to diminish what should be going to the counties and marketing and also the convention center.

(On the other hand) we need to be very cautious of efforts to raise the hotel room tax and that also has to be done very carefully because we live in a very competitive market where people could always say, “I’d love to go to Hawaii,” but if they get the feeling it’s too expensive to come here, they’ll go elsewhere.

Stay on lodging — is there a point we have to cap it? Do we have to really look hard at the number of hotels?

I think we always have to look at our carrying capacity and that we’re not just opening our doors and saying, “Bring in all the tourists from wherever.”

One of the reasons we’ve been successful is that our local community, the local citizenry, has been very supportive of tourism. That’s why you have a situation where all our beaches, and all our parks, all our recreational uses are primarily for visitors and local folks are the second team. That’s kind of the situation. We need to have a balance.

I’ve never been one to say that Hawaii should have 15 to 20 million tourists. That’s way too much in my opinion. Right now we’re hovering at 8, 9 million mark and I think that we need to be very careful that we can support, that the infrastructure can support that and that our natural resources aren’t in jeopardy as a result.

I’ve always taken the mode that we should look to revitalize and remodel and basically upgrade our existing inventory before we talk about building new inventory.

What you’re doing on Kauai with the Coco Palms is an example. There is a structure that has been there and has a great history with the filming of “Blue Hawaii“ and Elvis Presley and that it’s been in never-never land for so long that it really makes sense for someone and some entity and government to work together to get it off the ground. … I’m very pleased to see the progress with that.

Would you come over for the blessing and ribbon cutting when they open Coco Palms?

Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I’ve always been a supporter, certainly I’ve been involved with issues on Kauai. My history of Kauai goes all the way back to when I was a former state director for the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism in the early ’90s and I helped Kauai at that time with revitalization after Hurricane Iniki, so I’m very familiar.

Do you think there is a harmonious relationship between tourists and the local population?

I think generally speaking it is, but keep in mind, from the lodging perspective, we do a lot of events in the community that get a lot of support because we give back and a big example of that is our charity walk that we do every year. Lots of people are involved, whatever we raise goes back to many nonprofit groups and the involvement in the industry, not just hotel employees, but community groups.

One of the things I made very clear to the lodging sector is you can’t take for granted that people understand what we mean. We are the largest employer of tourism … we need to show we are giving back without being asked. … We encourage it all the time.

How big of a component is lodging and tourism on Kauai’s economy?

It’s the most important private sector component that you have on Kauai. Especially with agriculture evolving into more a diversified ag. Outside of Barking Sands, it’s the visitors.

If you take away the visitor industry or if we should weaken it in any way shape or form, Kauai would be in a situation where it would be very difficult to do other things because tourism would lose a lot of its strength, you’d have a diminished economy, and that goes for the rest of the state.

Timeshares, Airbnbs (people who rent out rooms via online), it’s been a issue here with the permitting process. What role should they have in the lodging industry?

We’re not opposed at all to Airbnbs, they’re growing by leaps and bounds and good for them. On the same token, we want everyone to play by the same rules. If we’re paying taxes, we want Airbnbs to pay taxes. If we have to implement and enforce public health and safety regulations, we want them to do the same. If we need to be a good neighbor in the community by working with them by making sure we making, not just our hotel property is nice place, but our community a nice place, we expect them to do the same.

Do you know what your issues are going to be next legislative year?

Airbnbs are probably going to grow in some importance. And we’re always looking at how the TAT is going to be billed in terms of either increase it or do something like how the formula is.

What’s one good thing that Kauai does to promote tourism, and one thing it can improve?

I’d use the Coco Palms as an example, how everyone came together to make that happen. I think that can be an example for the rest of state.

Secondly, Kauai has always been regarded as the island of great beauty and one in which folks who come there are in for a great experience, especially if you’re talking about a honeymoon or a family vacation, all the environmental type of tourism that you offer there — the scenic wonders of Kauai. All that I think needs to continue to be brought out.

But you have some wonderful niche events that I think could use a little bit more of a push. The Taste of Hawaii is a marvelous event, your Koloa Plantation Days is another marvelous activity where you harken back to the senior plantation days. Those are just two days that I bring up but also Kauai how it promotes Hawaiian culture. That has become a lot more interesting and appealing for visitors to Hawaii. More and more they want to learn about our culture.

I think there’s a lot going for Kauai.

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