The Hawaiian olelo noeau “I ka was ma mua, ka wa ma hope” speaks to the idea that the future and the past are intimately connected. This Hawaiian proverb embraces an understanding that in order to move forward it is necessary to know where one comes from.

An appropriate place to begin may be in taking a closer look at the genealogy and evolution of the prevailing “service industry” business model. A standard mantra in business is “the Customer is always right.”

A quick survey of any room would demonstrate that most people with work experience have heard this preached on more than one occasion, have read it in an employee manual, or have been reminded sharply by customers who not only believe it to be true, but expect to be treated accordingly, whether their behavior warrants it or not.

The survey would likely reveal that while most have heard the mantra, they also don’t believe it to be true. Instead, there seems to be a universal understanding and agreement that the customer is NOT always right, but regardless, the person behind the counter is expected to accommodate the customer even at the risk of suffering personal embarrassments and indignities.

Where does this attitude of entitlement come from? Consider the root word “custom” in the word “customer.” In earlier times, it was “customary” to respect and honor the “customs” of the place one was visiting as well the customs of those hosting. Over time, the customer has become accustomed to customized experiences that favor the needs and customs of the visitor over those of the place and host.

Moving away from visitor centricity

The treatment of these issues is not intended to demonize tourism or diminish the value of exceptional customer service.

There is no question that quality service and customer care reaps benefits and rewards in customer satisfaction and loyalty, which translates to a strong financial bottom line. Instead, it is an attempt to shed light on two things. The first is that it is hard to expect an unhappy host to deliver a happy experience, and second, that the prevailing customer-centric focus may be an unsustainable one. In the case of tourism, simply replace “customer” with “visitor.”

In a society where consumer choices appear to be unlimited and there are an equal number of providers ready to accommodate those choices, the modern consumer has placed greater expectations on the marketplace. In response, the industry adopts practices, policies, and procedures to deal with finicky customers.

This is particularly true for chain and brand operators who cater to preferred customers. These Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) insure the delivery and management of services while providing predictable quality experiences.

It also means that at great expense, a person can travel long distances to arrive at a destination that looks and behaves exactly like the one he just left. Too often the SOP results in the place and its host population being transformed and altered for the guest’s benefit. Hosts become servants, and unique places become no place because they look like every other place. My good friend and fellow industry advocate Peter Apo of the Peter Apo Company refers to this phenomenon as “placelessness.”

Staged vs. genuine

In an effort to better manage the experience, authenticity actually gets managed out of it, to be replaced by formulaic templates and time-sensitive programming. Staged authenticity replaces genuine experiences in pursuit of a healthy bottom line. Cultural experiences eventually become calculated and contrived.

Consider the idea of an “authentic commercial luau!” Packaged and canned, the experience that began as a gathering of friends and family celebrating one another and the milestone moments of their lives has been turned into a well-choreographed dinner show for strangers who have no connection to one another, the place, or those who feed and entertain them.

Even the act of lei giving has begun to lose meaning. Some companies actually refer to the practice as the “ring toss.”

In the absence of a genuine “host,” professional greeters can be hired to deliver lei flown in on a commercial carrier very much like the one the lei’s recipient arrived on just a few days earlier.

Could anyone have imagined fifty years ago that lei intended to express love, affection, and friendship would one day be produced by strangers in a foreign land, so they could be delivered by strangers to other strangers who flew in to visit no one?! Strange as it sounds, it has become our reality.

Scratching the surface

As harsh as these examples may be, they only scratch the surface of what the commercialized mass tourism experience has become. They are offered in the interest of raising awareness about the kinds of business practices that may be creating unwanted effects.

At a gathering of industry stakeholders and marketing partners, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (HVCB) reported that its research findings of West Coast travelers revealed that “they feel that Hawaii is a been-there, done-that destination.”

At this same meeting, it was reported that while the China and Korea markets showed future promise, Japanese travelers didn’t think there was enough diversity in the cultural experience in Hawaii, and were choosing to go elsewhere. Unfortunately, those remarks were neither surprising nor unexpected.

Under new leadership and armed with a new strategic plan, the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s vice president of brand management announced that the agency would renew its focus and commitment to support and promote Hawaiian culture, acknowledging that “Because we’re a mature market, we need to take advantage of some of the experiential things we have available to us, especially with culture.”

Despite the rhetoric, Hawaiian culture has continued to be treated as a “value added” — like condiments rather than the entrée. The time has come to elevate culture to a more prominent place on the menu of offerings, and in doing so strengthen the product, its identity, and the Hawaiian “sense of place” that makes our island home the unique place that it is.