Hawaii’s Optics Problem: A Travel Hotspot Struggles With Meetings Business

With state and federal conference spending facing public scrutiny, the Aloha State has struggled to sell itself as a cost-effective option for meetings. “It is patently unfair,” its governor says.

It may be the birthplace of President Barack Obama, but that doesn’t mean Hawaii is going to get a break when it comes to the crackdown on federal spending on meetings.

Associations that serve members working in federal and state governments are struggling to sell Hawaii on its merits as a center of business rather than a leisure destination. And last week, one conference took a step back. More details:

It is patently unfair. There are 50 states in this country.

The problem: Hawaii, with its beautiful weather and beaches, has had challenges in securing conference business in recent years. That’s due largely to its far-off Pacific locale that’s seen as a lavish setting—a perception problem in an era when public employees are repeatedly being called out for excessive spending on travel. That concern recently led the National Governors Association (NGA) to decide against holding its 2015 conference in the state. Instead, the group chose a more-landlocked venue: West Virginia. Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie had pushed hard for his state to get the event. “It is patently unfair,” he told Stateline, a news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “There are 50 states in this country.”

An example of the backlash: Hawaii’s sunny optics hurt attendance at at least one recent conference. In May, hundreds of public pension employees stayed away from the National Conference of Public Employee Retirement Systems’ annual meeting in Honolulu. The event drew around 1,000 attendees when it was held in New York City last year, but the 2013 conference drew only 650—and some of those who did attend faced media criticism for being there. Some public pension workers from Ohio and Los Angeles admitted to skipping the event because of perception issues. And Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr threatened to fire city employees who attended (one attendee from the Motor City, Cedric Cook, lost his job last month). In an opening statement at the conference, Abercrombie told attendees that the conference was anything but a junket, according to the Associated Press. “Unfunded liabilities are crippling state and local governments across the country,” he said. “This is serious business, and Hawaii is a place where serious business is being done, will be done, and has been done. I can assure you that.”

Not everyone has cold feet: Some associations are standing their ground. The National Guard Association of the United States booked its 2013 conference in Honolulu in 2008 and chose to stay. The conference, which begins Friday, has largely avoided backlash by having attendees pay their own way. “This way makes you more independent rather than having attendees try to cover it as a government expense,” retired Maj. Gen. Gus L. Hargett Jr., NGAUS president, told Associations Now in a June story.

Abercrombie, in his interview with Stateline, underlined the importance of conferences visiting diverse locations that go beyond the obvious choices—something the NGA itself did when it held its 2013 conference in Milwaukee.

It would help if Hawaii was on that list, the state’s governor noted.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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