Hawaii tourism

Hawaii tourism plan focuses on marketing, not management

Over the past two years, amid growing dissatisfaction with excessive tourism, the Hawaii Tourism Authority has attempted to reinvent itself from an entity charged simply with marketing the islands to one also seeking to manage the tourism to create a better experience for residents and visitors.

Today, HTA unveiled a major element of its transformation implementation plan. On Friday, the state agency asked potential bidders to submit proposals for a contract worth up to $35 million.

The RFP asks the contractor to do two main things regarding the US market. One of them – supporting HTA’s branding and marketing efforts – is nothing new. The other – to support a series of “destination management action plans” created by HTA with community input – looks innovative.

But when it comes to measuring performance, the new destination management component gets overlooked.

The overtourism exemplified by the throngs of visitors to Diamond Head inspired the Hawaii Tourism Authority to promise to focus on tourism management instead of just marketing Hawaii. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2020

Destination Management

The vast majority of performance measures set out in the document relate to HTA’s usual tasks: advertising, marketing and public relations.

While a few of the performance metrics focus on things about destination management plans, about 50 focus on things like the number of social media followers, eyeballs for print and TV ads, and the number of papers produced by writers coming to Hawaii on HTA-sponsored junkets, known in industry jargon as FAM trips.

In an interview, Kalani Kaanaana, chief brand officer of HTA, said it was important to note that the agency’s overriding mission, established by law, is to promote tourism in Hawaii.

“If people don’t come, then we’re not doing our job,” he said.

At the same time, Kaanaana said, HTA wants to change the image, cultivated for a century, that Hawaii is just a sunny playground. He wants people to see Hawaii more like the protected Galapagos Islands and less like Las Vegas, he says. And that means overhauling the Hawaii brand.

“Are we sending the right message to the right audience, at the right time and in the right way? ” he said.

Ilihia Gionson, spokesperson for the HTA, acknowledged that the RFP was largely about communications. What is different from the past, he says, is the story being told. He and Kaanaana said marketing, advertising and public relations campaigns will all be informed by destination management plans.

“In short, it’s about visitor education, so the content will be different,” Gionson said. The idea is that different content will lead to different visitors and thus achieve destination management objectives.

A key point, Kaanaana said, is that the bidders “show how they would change the way we promote the Hawaiian Islands in the United States.”

Kailua Beach with cyclist headed towards Lanikai.
Once a sleepy beach town, Kailua became a tourist hotspot before the Covid-19 pandemic sparked an outcry from many locals. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Measuring Outputs Against Outcomes

HTA’s RFP includes some performance measures based on Destination Management Plans.

For example, the successful bidder will be required to report the number of initiatives it undertakes to promote volunteer programs for tourists, local festivals, and made-in-Hawaii products. These are all things that the public has asked for in HTA’s destination management plans.

Likewise, the winning entrepreneur will be judged on how well they improve residents’ sentiment towards tourism, which is the overarching goal of destination management plans.

But the vast majority of metrics are about destination marketing, not management.

Naalehu Anthony, a filmmaker and consultant who has worked with HTA, said the planned changes to reshape the image of Hawaii sent to the world are good first steps.

“A change in outward thinking is a win for me,” he said. “Does it go far enough? Absolutely not.”

A shortcoming of the vast majority of bidding performance metrics, Anthony said, is that they measure outputs, like ad reach, instead of outcomes, like the effect of advertising on behavior. .

“If people don’t come, then we’re not doing our job.” — Kalani Kaanaana of HTA

When it comes to evaluating government programs, the difference between outputs and outcomes is more than insignificant, said Drummond Kahnformer director of auditing services in Portland, Oregon, who now teaches government auditing at the University of Oregon.

Kahn declined to speak specifically about the HTA program, but said outcomes are usually simply activities performed by an agency or contractor and are weak measures of success. Outcomes, on the other hand, measure the effects produced by activities to see if a program is achieving its objectives.

“Ultimately, managers can compare their results to their policy goals to determine if they’ve achieved their goals,” said Kahn, who also worked as an auditor for the US Government Accountability Office.

Certain “key performance indicators” call certain results, such as increased visitor spending, improved perception of Hawaii as a unique destination, and increased Hawaii ratings among tourists for “value and “unique experiences”.

The RFP lists 11 of these results-based measures. “Additionally,” the document states, “the HTA may fund a study to measure incremental travel generated, incremental expenses generated, and taxes generated on expenses as a result of major campaigns.”

Yet around 50 additional performance metrics simply require counting things like the number of press releases issued, trade shows visited, and total Facebook impressions. These have nothing to do with measuring whether the campaign has attracted more respectful tourists, or tourists at all.

There is no clear link between the measures and the elements requested in the destination management plans.

“The 13 Billion Dollar Question”

Edwin Young, a former Honolulu city auditor who also worked for the GAO, said using these metrics to measure the effectiveness of a destination management program reminded him of the performance metrics that he would see the US Army using when auditing the Air Force and Navy.

“It looks like they’re going back to the same gibberish that the Department of Defense would use,” he said.

Young said that doesn’t surprise him, because for years the HTA has been funded by hotel tax revenue placed in a special fund and has essentially not been held accountable by the Legislative Assembly as are d other agencies. It was only this year that HTA had to go to the Legislative Assembly and justify its budget.

Kaanaana defended HTA’s performance metrics by pointing out that all outcome-based metrics are included in the body of the RFP, while the other 50 or so are in attachments.

Regarding the implementation of destination management plans, Kaanaana said that HTA employees are working on them directly and, if necessary, with national and local authorities. When asked if the entrepreneur would be asked to create ads simply telling visitors to stay away from certain crowded tourist hotspots, Kaanaana said the ads wouldn’t be that specific.

“We would just beat people up with a long list of do’s and don’ts and that’s ineffective,” he said. “We thought it best to inspire them.”

Ultimately, he says, it’s about attracting new tourists while mitigating negative side effects.

“That’s sort of the $13 billion question: how to balance visitor arrivals and expenditures, and their impacts,” he said. “We know we have to try to find that balance.”