Tourism officials told visitors and groups to stay home after last month’s wildfire, but they overcorrected. Maui needs visitors and now it’s struggling to get back group business.
“We have to tell groups to come because a second catastrophe is coming, and it’s an economic one. Maui is losing $11 million a day; 70% of the economy there Is tourism,” said John Reyes, senior vice president, chief MCI sales officer, Meet Hawaiʻi Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau.
That’s the message of tourism officials on the island and across the state. They’re working to undo the efforts of those who told visitors to stay home while Maui recovered. Those who shared this message may have been well-intentioned, but their efforts were ultimately detrimental.
Admittedly, Lahaina is not ready for company. It faces a long road to returning from its devastating losses, including 115 residents. However, West Maui – where most meetings happen, will reopen on October 8th, and South Maui was unscathed in the disaster.
Come On Back
“Group and leisure business took a dramatic downtown in September,” Reyes said. “Everyone was focused on safety for the first week or two after the fire, and then that shifted to people staying away out of respect for those impacted and the dead.”
There was no damage to structures, like hotels, in West Hawaii. The issue initially was a loss of electricity, water, and the like. Services were since restored, but properties currently house displaced residents. However, the state is making other arrangements so that hotels can return to business as usual.
Initially, groups didn’t want to be the first ones back. They were worried about the perception of going to a destination where people were suffering. “Everyone asks us about making donations, and we need those, but donate your meeting because it keeps people employed,” said Reyes. “Our conversation with customers now is, please come.”
Strange, Cooperative Bedfellows
Most groups booked in West Maui between August 8th and October 8th relocated. Meanwhile, members of the community helped each other, even where least expected.
When it wasn’t possible for a hotel company to keep a meeting in its family of chains, “brands were moving meetings from brand to brand,” Reyes said. The goal was to help each other and, if not Maui, at least to keep meetings within the state. Most meetings went to Oahu.
One group shifted from the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa in Lahaina to the Sheraton Waikiki in Honolulu. The hotelier community came together, much to the relief of organizers.
“We were very lucky, and it was the collaboration of a number of people that made it happen,” said Alex Doyle, vice president of meetings and events at 21st Century Group.
“Everyone was really trying, it felt like a community effort. I really admired how well the community worked together to keep the business in Hawaii because we did look at leaving.”
“Time was really of the essence here because we weren’t the only ones moving out of Maui, and our choices were limited with our size. We had started talking to the Sheraton on Thursday, the 10th, and by the following Wednesday we were able to make an announcement to the attendees. It took us four months to negotiate the original contract and days to get it renegotiated,” said Doyle.
He maintained the same dates for the event, a roughly 500-person conference of The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Also, the Sheraton essentially honored Hyatt’s contract, including the room rate, meeting specifications, off-site events, and more.
“The key to success was a lot of communication and a lot of collaboration,” Doyle said. “Meet Hawaii did a fabulous job, they went above and beyond to make this happen. We were fortunate, this could have had a much different ending.”