HawaiiWritten by Dennis Hollier On 17 December 2010

Although the actual issue doesn’t come out until March, December is when the editorial team here at Hawaii Business sit down and start to go through nominations for the upcoming “20 for the next 20”, our take on Hawaii’s leaders of the future. Yesterday, we sat down in the conference room to review, advocate for, debate and vote on next year’s selections.

We go through a lot of effort to get nominations, asking essentially everyone we meet who should be on the list. We publicize the nominating process in the magazine, on our website and in waves of e-mails to business executives around the state. Consequently, the nominations themselves are a surprising mishmash. People are nominated many ways: by their bankers, accountants, employees, family and friends. And they all seem to have their own criteria about what makes their candidate belong on the list. It’s our job to vote among them. But this isn’t an entirely democratic selection. We have sometimes our own candidates we’d like to argue for. And we certainly have our own editorial criteria, however amorphous, that help determine who ultimately gets on the list. For example, we like a list with diversity and balance (although we’d be the first to admit that we don’t know exactly what the correct diversity and balance is.) We like to see a mix of men and women. We like to see different ethnic groups represented. We like to see the neighbor islands get their due. We like to see nonprofit people sprinkled through the list. And we like to see a mix of industries and sectors.

But it doesn’t always work out the way we plan. This year, for example, as we started culling the nominations, it became clear that the travel industry was grossly underrepresented in our list. In fact, although we had a surprisingly large number of nominations, only a couple were for people that could be indisputably linked to tourism. This startled us. But it also got me thinking.

Over the last couple months, I’ve had a chance to talk with dozens of people in the travel industry as I worked on a story about how Hawaii markets itself to the world (make sure to read “Marketing Paradise” in our January issue.) As I usually do, though, when we finished talking about the marketing story, I asked what other stories should we be talking about, what other issues faced the industry. One that popped up with surprising frequency was the divide between the business community and the travel industry – the Waikiki/Bishop Street Divide, as I’ve come to think of it. Our “20 for the next 20” nomination process is an obvious case in point.

Looking back over my conversations with the tourism community, I think Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, probably described the divide best:

“The relationship between the business community and the travel industry, while it’s better, has never been as integrated as it should be. When you think about it, we bring in billions of dollars from outside the state. Between us and the military, we bring in probably 60 percent of the dollars from the outside. Yet banks control everything – along with real estate firms, shipping firms – whatever it is, we’re a small part of the business community. And it probably shouldn’t be that way.

“Some of that’s our own fault. Because the nature of the industry does change people in and out, so you don’t have situations like at First Hawaiian Bank, with John Bellinger, then Walter Dods, then Don Horner, so there was 30 years of continuity. At a Marriott, someone changed every three years.

“But a lot of it is also a lack of understanding, and somewhat a lack of respect. If you were to go look at the top 20 boards in town – Matson, First Hawaiian, Bank of Hawaii etc. – how many industry people do you think you’d find? If you said 20 boards, and each board averaged 25 people, we’re talking about 450 people. There’s probably two or three people from the industry. Yet we are responsible for 30 percent to 40 percent of the economy of the state.”

Vieira gave a good, specific example. “Look at the electric company,” he said. “As an industry, we’re probably the largest user of electricity in the state. But there’s not a single industry person on the board. And when you think about it, as an industry, we’re doing so much in the way of energy conservation and going green; wouldn’t you want somebody on your board like that?”

Vieira also addressed some of the standard complaints about the visitor industry. “The business community thinks, ‘You don’t give enough back to the community.’ Well, our customers are outside Hawaii.” In other words, unlike companies whose customers are local, the travel industry sees little marketing value in buying a table at a gala, or putting their banner up at a fundraiser. That’s not to say they don’t give; hotels, for example, give millions in free or discounted facility use to nonprofits. “We still spend half a million dollars on the Sheraton Bowl,” Vieira says. “That doesn’t do anything for us.”

But Vieira acknowledges that, if the travel industry wants to be a more integrated part of the business community, they’re probably going to have to do more themselves to participate in that community. That might mean more charitable giving. But it also means joining more aggressively in the institutions that define the business community, in organizations like the Business Roundtable, Enterprise Hawaii, the Chamber of Commerce etc. And clearly, waiting around to be invited isn’t going to help them bridge the Waikiki/Bishop Street Divide. They’re going to have to be aggressive.

Bishop Street end of the Divide

Which gets us back to our “20 for the next 20” nominations: Did we go out aggressively enough seeking travel industry nominations? Maybe not. But surely it’s the industry’s job to make sure their young leaders have an opportunity at least to be recognized. In any case, we were certainly hoping to see more of them on our list. So, if you’re an executive in the travel industry and you’re reading this (as you should,) next year please walk up the figurative street and drop off your nominations. Ala Moana Boulevard isn’t that long.

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