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Meetings, Conventions Will Take Longer To Recover As State Sees Signs Of Tourism Returning

Casey Harlow / HPR
Hallways in the Hawaii Convention Center are usually bustling with activity. But during the pandemic, the building has been quieter than usual.

Visitors are slowly returning to the islands as restrictions begin to ease, and more people receive a vaccine. While leisure travel is making a comeback, conferences and meetings will take longer to recover.

Before the pandemic, Hawai?i's tourism industry generated $17.8 billion a year for the state's economy. Of that, nearly a billion dollars came from the meetings, conventions and incentives markets - also known as MCI.

"Meetings, really the way we define it in Hawai?i, is less than 250 attendees - traditionally mostly corporate," said John Reyes, chief salesman of MCI markets for the Hawai?i Tourism Authority.

He says conventions are any events with more than 250 attendees, and are usually tied to an association or other industry organizations.

Incentives are relatively new to the state. This market is generally companies rewarding employees with a trip for exceeding selling or marketing goals.

"Normally it's a six-plus day event where the company hosts those people that have done well within their produce lines, and bring them to places like Hawai?i," said Reyes. "Many times it's in the sales or marketing area where people will qualify for themselves and their family to come on a reward trip. And Hawai?i, within our marketplace, is very popular for incentive business."

The benefits of MCI visitors

Like leisure travel, these activities in tourism markets stopped due to the pandemic.

Although, MCI markets account for 5% of overall tourism revenue, these markets are significant for the industries that rely on visitors. American Hotel and Lodging Association president Chip Rogers was in Hawai?i in early May to promote the association's safety protocols to protect staff and visitors. He stressed the importance of meetings and conventions for the hotel industry.

"The reality is that this industry must have business travelers, must have meetings and conferences if we are going to survive," he said.

MCI markets are also important for HTA's vision for the future of tourism in the state. There has been a concerted focus in recent years to create and implement a more sustainable tourism model in the state. Local lawmakers and residents have been critical of how the authority manages the industry - due to a string of  record-breaking years in visitor arrivals and revenues.

HTA's previous president and CEO Chris Tatum entered the role in 2018 with a plan to change the authority's course -- which was then focused on attracting wealthier visitors, and maximizing visitor spending.

Tatum reversed that plan, saying the authority should focus on attracting visitors that were responsible and respectful of the state's culture and natural resources. He also emphasized supporting efforts to preserve and educate visitors about Native Hawaiian culture and protect native ecosystems. 

The authority's current president and CEO John de Fries has so far stuck with that vision.

Reyes says visitors from the MCI markets are a great example of the kind of visitor HTA wants going forward.

"There's been a lot of discussion in Hawai?i in attracting the 'right type' of visitors - professional, organized, etc. So they're very responsible visitors," he said. 

"Although it only represents 5% of the marketplace, I think as we move to the future, in Hawaii and tourism, it offers us an opportunity to expand more of those types of visitors."

A slower recovery

As the state starts to see signs of leisure travel returning, events will take longer to recover - mainly because meetings and conventions take years to plan.

Reyes says 2020 was slated to be the best year for the Hawai?i Convention Center.

"We literally had to cancel 14 groups. But we were fortunate to rebook a number of them into future years."

Reyes says there are more encouraging signs. As more people get vaccinated, and safety protocols are improved, he believes businesses and visitors will become more confident in traveling.

"We're starting to see a restart or reset of meetings, conventions and incentives really coming in Q4 of 2021. And really all of 2022 for our industry looks strong."

Reyes believes there could be an opportunity for a few local events and conventions to be held at the Convention Center later this year.

But he doesn't expect a full recovery of the MCI markets to happen for at least five years. 

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