Tourism marketing for the state of Hawaii, which has the largest
tourism budget in the nation, will undergo profound changes for the
first time in a century. The state Tourism Authority decided late
last month to split state marketing funds between several
companies, ending the monopoly the Hawaii Visitors and Convention
Bureau had enjoyed since 1903.
While the bureau will retain the roughly $15 million North
America contract, the authority, a cabinet-level board that
oversees tourism spending, awarded much of the rest of the $25
million annual marketing funds to four other companies.
And while the bureau will remain the primary marketer to West
Coast agents and professionals for the key Hawaii travel market,
the agency is embroiled in controversy in the wake of a critical
state audit and is searching for a new president whose vision could
Frank Haas, marketing vice president for the authority, said the
split of the marketing contracts reflects a shift away from
destination-focused strategies, like that used by the bureau, to
more vendors who are familiar with the source markets.
“The successful bidders demonstrated that they could create very
effective marketing plans based on knowledge of those markets,”
Haas said. “The underlying philosophy is, ‘What’s the best way to
market in these major market areas, regardless of the history and
The change in marketing direction comes after a state auditor’s
report in June questioned the bureau’s accounting practices and use
of state funds, including some personal expenditures charged to the
bureau by its chief executive Tony Vericella.
Vericella stepped down last month and is repaying $1,000 in
expenses that officials said were improperly charged.
The audit has also sparked an internal review of the bureau’s
management practices, an audit of the bureau by the tourism
authority that will be overseen by a special master, and,
potentially, an inquiry by next year’s Hawaii legislature.
Tourism authority officials have been quick to say, however,
that the contract decisions were made even before the bureau audit
was released, and that it played no role in the changes.
“Not only were the written presentations delivered, but the oral
presentations were made prior to the time the audit came out,”
authority chief executive Rex Johnson said.
The authority expects to begin its own audit of the bureau in a
couple of weeks, Johnson said. If improprieties are revealed,
penalties could be applied, or the contract terminated.
“With any of our contracts, we’ll have standards of conduct,”
authority vice president Haas said. “In the event of a major
problem, there’s the ability to have penalties or termination.”
Bureau officials appeared philosophical about losing the
contracts. “It isn’t as big a blow as it could have been,” the
bureau’s interim chief executive Les Enderton said. Enderton is
also still executive director of the Oahu Visitors Bureau.
“With everything that’s been coming down in recent months and
weeks, culminated by the audit publicity and Tony Vericella’s
resignation, it’s been a tough time,” Enderton said.
Enderton and other bureau officials said it’s too soon to say
what changes, if any, will be made at the bureau under new
leadership or the new contract arrangements.
“HVCB is going to survive and probably do bigger and better
things, just by concentrating on the market in North America,” said
Tony Guerrero, the bureau’s executive board chairman. “It’s too
early in the game. A lot of things need to be tied up, as far as
Bureau executives said they hope to select a new leader within
90 days. Tourism executives and analysts hailed the new
arrangements as a way to generate fresh ideas and
But many said they also worried whether multiple contractors
could be as effective as a single, dedicated organization, and
whether companies who have other clients to deal with - such as Las
Vegas or Barbados, in some cases - would be able to devote
themselves to Hawaii’s needs.
“Are they going to give us the same kind of support and focus
that we got out of the HVCB?” said Keith Vieira, Starwood Hotels
and Resorts’ senior vice president for Hawaii and Polynesia
Joseph Patoskie, associate professor at Hawaii Pacific
University’s school of travel industry management, said breaking up
the state tourism marketing contract could enhance
But there’s also a risk, he said.
“There’s a tradeoff here,” Patoskie said. “We have a marketing
arm here that has had the experience of Hawaii, and knows the
issues and special aspects of Hawaii.
“Another firm, even though they may on paper look competitive,
when it comes to the actual marketing, may not be as good as
someone who had real familiarity with the islands. I’m really split
as to how this will pan out.”