Big Island Big Ideas
Local leaders chart six ways to revitalize the economy
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5. Fix Tourism with New Blood
Ten of the Big Island’s largest employers are hotels on the South Kohala coast, so getting heads in beds is one of Kenoi’s top priorities. In August, the state’s four mayors joined the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau on a marketing blitz to the West Coast. Kenoi is also working with the state and the Hawaii Tourism Authority to secure more direct flights from the West Coast to the Big Island.
Summer occupancy rates at the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa have fluctuated between a low of 30 percent and the high 40s. “It’s been a challenging year,” says Christi Lewis, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, “but we’re already starting to see small signs that things are improving, so we’re optimistic.” Vivian Landrum, the president and CEO of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, says many hotels have been relying on group bookings or big events to boost revenue.
Lower numbers have cut airline fares and hotel rates. George Applegate, executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau, says, “It’s an ideal time to reach out to the first-time Hawaii traveler who has perceived that Hawaii is too expensive when, in fact, it’s more affordable than ever.” The bureau is launching promotions, contests, sales trips and education campaigns and increasing efforts to attract more conventions, meetings and incentives business.
To be profitable today, companies need to be flexible and adapt to their clients’ needs, says Chris Colvin, sales manager for Nature Adventures & Outfitters, which offers guided tours of Big Island forests and trails. “For example, if customers have problems getting to your site, fix it,” he says. “You really have to offer added value if you want to get a piece of the shrinking pie.”
Lewis says social media and Internet marketing also help reach a broader audience. That’s why Mendy Dant, vice president of Fair Wind Big Island Ocean Adventures, says it’ll take “new blood” – people who know technology and advanced marketing – to move the visitor industry forward. “We need visionaries,” she says. “We need to get rid of the old boys and get fresh blood in.”
Dant also suggests that every island have a Department of Land and Natural Resources chief to effectively address island-specific issues, such as rules for tourism businesses. She says many of the big decisions made in Honolulu aren’t the solutions for the Neighbor Islands.
On the Hilo side, aging hotels provide another challenge. “It’s a shame because the East side has so much to offer,” says Mary Begier, executive director of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce. She says several properties are upgrading facilities, which should help attract more visitors.
6. Aim for the Stars
A $1 billion opportunity can come just once in a lifetime. In July, the board of directors of the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory selected Mauna Kea over Chile as the site for the world’s biggest and most advanced telescope. Many leaders anticipate TMT will create jobs, attract big money and draw world-class talent.
“TMT will mean endless opportunities for our residents,” says Ha, who helped lead the TMT campaign. “The best minds would come to study and do research here and our local kids would have access to high-paying science and technology jobs. Good things are bound to happen when we rub elbows with smart people.”
Ha also sees TMT as a way to help elevate low-income families into the middle class. “This will really raise the standard of living, especially for some people in East Hawaii.”
Kenoi supports TMT for similar reasons. “My dream is that when an outsider asks someone from the Big Island where they’re from, they won’t automatically assume we all work construction or work at one of the hotels,” Kenoi says. “While there’s nothing wrong with those jobs, the TMT will give hope that even small-town kids from the Big Island can do big things and get good-paying jobs in industries other than construction or tourism.”
Ha says the real victory wasn’t about winning over the TMT board. “History has taught us that the process of getting things done is just as important – if not more important – than the actual end result,” he says. That process included nearly two years of heated debate that pitted friends, neighbors and relatives against one another. “The good thing was that everyone who had an opinion at least agreed on two things: We were all pro-Big Island, whether or not we were for or against the telescope, and we were all concerned about the education and future of our keiki.”
The side benefit of doing things pono and fostering open, respectful conversation, Ha says, is that process can now guide other islandwide issues. “And we have big plans, so I’m sure we’re going to be activating this model for years to come.”
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