Tourism Executives Campaign To Bring Needed Visitors To Maui - Kaanapali Resort
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Tourism Executives Campaign To Bring Needed Visitors To Maui

With West Maui’s famous resorts set to re-open to travelers Oct. 8, local residents are telling their own stories to convince visitors to come back.

Kelly Schulz still remembers the letter she received from a disaster victim outraged that tourists were coming to a community still suffering from a disaster.

It was after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, and Schulz, who led the city’s tourism marketing effort after the hurricane, recalls tour companies were bussing visitors into the Lower Ninth Ward, a mostly Black neighborhood that suffered the brunt of the floods after Katrina.

Schulz, who is senior vice president for communications and public relations at New Orleans & Co., the region’s destination management organization, said she quelled the letter writer’s anger by explaining that Schulz’s family also had lost everything when the storm flooded her hometown of Chalmette.

Schulz shared her experiences this week with Hawaii hospitality executives facing a similar challenge: How to market West Maui as a tourist destination when residents, including many industry workers, are still suffering trauma and grief.

The question is so pressing that nearly 70 tourism executives and others tuned in on Monday for Schulz’s webinar, which was titled “Restoring Tourism After Disaster,” sponsored by the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International.

West Maui resorts have been closed to tourists since wildfires razed most of Lahaina on Aug. 8. That will change on Oct. 8, when the region is expected to begin reopening under a phased approach Maui Mayor Richard Bissen announced on Wednesday.

“Our priorities have focused on the well-being of our people and that will continue to be critically important,” Mayor Bissen said in a statement.

Tourism executives are hoping for a desperately needed boost to the island-wide tourism economy. Maui has suffered a decline of an estimated $13 million a day in revenue from tourists since the fires.

But it’s not just about money. Industry leaders say they recognize Maui is still grieving. And they’re tailoring messages to let visitors know that, while West Maui might be open for business, it’s not a free for all. Tour buses won’t be shuttling visitors to gawk at Lahaina, for instance, said Kalani Kaanaana, chief brand officer for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

“For us, we recognize the incredible loss. It’s devastating. And we don’t have words to describe that loss,” Kaanaana said.

But he also said Maui’s long-term health depends on visitors returning.

“How do you prevent the secondary disaster, which is the economic one later?” he said.

West Maui Makes Up Half Of The Island’s Visitor Capacity

Tourism is vital to Maui’s economy. In a recent report titled “After the Maui Wildfires: The road ahead,” the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization quantified the economic significance of the fires and the closing of West Maui to tourists.

West Maui’s resorts, including Kaanapali and Kapalua, “supply more than 10,000 rooms in hotels, timeshares and vacation rentals, about half of the island’s total visitor accommodation capacity,” UHERO reported.

Immediately after the fires, visitors island-wide dropped by about 75%, impacting businesses across Maui.

Large resorts are hardly the only businesses affected, Kaanaana said. Small businesses, vendors, farms supplying produce – an ecosystem of small businesses – also have suffered, he said.

“It’s not just corporations,” he said.

Hawaiian Airlines has produced a series of short films in which airline employees from Maui visit their favorite small businesses and encourage visitors to do the same.

Tourism executives are turning to Maui residents to explain this.

“It really was a challenge for us,” said Alex Da Silva, a spokesman for Hawaiian Airlines, the state’s largest private employer and dominant air carrier.

To tell the story, Hawaiian Airlines enlisted three of its 500 employees who live on Maui: Kiakona Ordonez, a flight attendant; Gerraine Nakama, a guest service agent; and Sheila Sone, captain of an Airbus A321neo aircraft. The ensuing series of Travel Pono films show the airline workers interviewing small business owners.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority is mounting a similar campaign. It’s key to have the “people of West Maui who are sharing their manao,” or insights, Kaanaana said.

HTA is building on a previous campaign, Malama Hawaii, with its Malama Maui campaign, including social media messages from Maui residents such as Tali Silifaiva and Kumu Hula Luana Kawaa. The HTA’s board of directors approved spending $2.6 million on the campaign.

One of the goals, Kaanaana said, is to thank visitors for supporting Maui while also asking that they be sensitive to the residents. The idea, he said, came from West Maui residents who asked HTA, “Is there anything you can do to educate them?”

Beyond the content of the messages, there’s the question of how to pay for tourism marketing at a time when ordinary residents need things like housing.

New Orleans convinced federal officials that marketing tourism was essential for the city’s economic recovery, Schulz said, and landed grants from HUD.

Hawaii tourism officials are trying to do the same.

“We’re going to turn over every stone,” said Mufi Hannemann, a former Honolulu mayor who serves as president and chief executive of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association.

Hannemann also serves on the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, which advises the U.S. Secretary of Commerce on tourism policies. He said he is working with U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz “to see what might be available.”

That’s good news to Jerry Gibson, chief executive of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance, which represents 30,000 hotel rooms statewide. The $2.6 million approved by the HTA board is “a drop in the bucket of what we’re going to need,” he said. West Maui is almost open, he said, and reservations are hardly pouring in.

“We are seeing numbers deteriorate on a daily basis,” he said. “This is not a game. This is our economic livelihood.”

Backlash Is Inevitable

With so much need, backlash is inevitable, Schulz said. One of the great signs of New Orleans’ comeback was the New Orleans Saints winning Super Bowl XLIV after the 2009 football season, less than five years after Katrina. Coverage of the game and ebullient celebrations afterward provided “the greatest public relations gift of all time,” Schulz said.

Still, she said, there was a time after the storm when people were angry that the state was leading a $250 million renovation of the Louisiana Superdome, which had been badly damaged by Katrina, at a time when storm victims needed housing. It was hard to explain how important the facility was for the region’s economy, she said.

“We tried to reinforce to people: ‘This is not just about visitors. We live here. We work here,’” Schulz told the Hawaii tourism executives. But, she said, “There are going to be people who hate your guts no matter what, and you’re not going to change that.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.


Originally posted here