The CEO of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), Chris Tatum, announced yesterday that he will retire and leave not only his job but also Hawaii. This comes as we undoubtedly face the worst situation and the greatest challenges ahead in Hawaii travel. This vacancy calls for someone creative, with an extensive background in tourism marketing. Tatum will be departing his position in August and moving to Colorado at that time.
Tatum has worked in travel for decades, largely at Marriott. He took the helm at long-troubled HTA about 18 months ago. Yesterday Tatum said, “I’m happy with what we’ve accomplished… I’m very proud of the HTA team and our refocused plans to develop a balanced strategy for tourism.”
HTA funding is largely based on accommodation taxes, which essentially dried up two months ago and have not restarted. Even when Hawaii travel restarts, funding will return at a trickle. We have not heard how the state plans to support Hawaii marketing going forward. The HTA budget for 2020 was $86 million, while the projected 2021 budget is now set at just $55 million.
Troubled past and unknown future at HTA.
What this means is that the critically important agency is again facing an unknown future at a time when leadership is most needed. The agency has had a very difficult past. The prior head, George Szigeti was fired by the HTA board in 2018, and lost his $300k job, without cause. At that time, the state auditor said that HTA suffered from “lax oversight (and) deficient internal controls.”
Hawaii travel stakeholders have privately shared with us their concerns about HTA and the state’s abilities, leadership, and direction in tourism for years. In recent times, the agency has also had an abnormally high turnover rate, with at least a dozen key staff departures. Given that they have only about 20 full-time employees, that is an absurd number of comings and goings, and does not bode well for HTA.
The prior CEO’s abrupt firing came right on the heels of rapid-fire departures of the prior chief operating officer and the chief marketing officer, who both left unexpectedly.
Hawaii’s governor has no background in tourism.
At the helm in Hawaii is Governor David Ige, whose background does not include Hawaii travel. He worked for Hawaiian Telcom for 18 years, and has held other engineering positions. He came to be governor following years in the state senate after first being appointed to and serving in the state assembly. Ige’s legislative career was focused on IT and telecom initiatives.