Few businesses have been on more of a roller coaster during the Covid-19 pandemic than Hawaii’s hotels.
After a banner year in 2019, a mandatory quarantine for travelers to Hawaii, imposed in March, cut off visitors to the state for months. In response, hotels closed and laid off workers: by the pandemic’s economic low point in September 2020, more than 20,000 hotel jobs had been lost, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Now, as travelers from the U.S. mainland drive a nascent recovery, industry executives are uniting in an effort to make sure the momentum continues. Born during the darkest days of the pandemic, the new Hawaii Hotel Alliance aims to be a proactive and zealous advocate for the industry.
Jerry Gibson, a long-time Hawaii hotel executive chosen to be the group’s first chairman, said hoteliers felt the industry could do a better job of getting out in front of issues. The group’s mission and tone, Gibson said in an interview, are simple: “We want to be maniacal about the business of hotels.”
The move follows a dramatic step by the Legislature to cut funding to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the industry’s state-level marketing entity. Lawmakers overrode a veto by Gov. David Ige – and opposition from industry groups like the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association – to pass a bill stripping the HTA of an ongoing source of funding from the state’s hotel tax. Instead, the authority will have to submit yearly budget requests like other state agencies.
“We need to start getting ahead of things rather than being behind the curve and trying to fix things,” Gibson said.
Before the pandemic Hawaii was hosting about 250,000 visitors on any given day, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s visitor census. After disappearing for much of 2020, tourists are coming back in large numbers.
The new group stressed in a statement attributed to Gibson that it’s the only tourism trade association made up entirely of hoteliers.
“HHA is also the only association that is actively managed by hotel and lodging industry professionals, and by that, we mean men and women who worked their way up the ranks in the hotel industry, people who understand the industry from the inside-out, and who can communicate with authenticity when dealing with policy makers,” the statement said.
The founding board consists of Jeff Wagoner, chief executive of Outrigger Hotels and Resorts; Debi Bishop, managing director of the Hilton Hawaiian Village and Hilton Waikoloa Village; Kelly Sanders, vice president of Highgate; Ben Rafter, chief executive of Springboard Hospitality; Elliot Mills, vice president of Disneyland Resort Hotels, and Tom Calame, Marriott’s regional general manager.
But is there really a need for such a group, with other local and national associations already playing a big role in the public debate and at times jockeying for prominence with the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, which is run by former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann?
“I don’t think it hurts to have another one,” said Bishop, who oversees Hawaii’s largest property as managing director of the 2,860-room Hilton Hawaiian Village. “I think the more that are involved the better.”
Before the pandemic, visitors were bringing about $1.5 billion a month into the state and spending it on hotel rooms, vacation rentals, restaurant meals, surf rentals and the like. After plummeting in 2019, the spending is coming back.
Hannemann said it was fine to have an organization that focuses more narrowly on the interests of hotels, while his looks at the tourism industry more broadly. But he said the industry is already well represented.
“Is this organization going to make us more effective?” he said. “I don’t think so. We’re effective already.”
For now, there are two issues the hotel alliance wants to get out in front of, and Gibson says they’re interrelated. One issue is the backlash the industry has faced from residents who say the 10 million tourists Hawaii hosted in 2019 – numbers the state could soon again see – is simply too many.
The other issue is the proliferation of illegal short-term vacation rentals, which allowed millions of additional visitors to come to Hawaii during years when there were virtually no new hotel rooms.
Gibson says it’s not just a matter of perception that Oahu, where county land-use laws prohibit short-term rentals outside of resort zones, is being overrun by tourists.
“It’s not just perception, it’s reality,” he said. “You could be living next to someone who runs a short-term vacation rental. People hate it.”
But, Gibson said, the alliance is getting traction with mayors of Oahu and the neighbor islands.
“It can be fixed,” he said. “We just need the gumption to fix it.”
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