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Train cab drivers, others to be Hawaii ambassadors during APEC summit

By Ray K. Tsuchiyama

LAST UPDATED: 8:34 p.m. HST, Oct 20, 2011

For the last year Hawaii business boosters have optimistically projected a post-APEC Summit 2011 economic Golden Age: Silicon Valley high-tech firms launching software development centers, Chinese investments in Hawaii renewable energy, and Thai joint ventures in ocean farming.

From a high-level view, leaders of the 21 nation members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization, such as Chinese Prime Minister Hu Jintao, are unlikely to return to Hawaii after the mid-November summit to invest in new businesses in Hawaii.

Instead, the APEC CEO Summit, held during the APEC government gathering, will feature the right business profile: hundreds of managers from leading companies such as Microsoft, NEC, Huawei and Samsung — firms that can or should invest in Hawaii.

Unlike prime ministers who ride stretch limousines and conduct highly scripted meetings, these APEC business attendees — often at vice president or managing director levels — ride taxis from airports to hotels, interact with cab drivers or hotel reception desk staff, and have conversations that may have unexpected consequences.

The cab ride via Nimitz Highway to Waikiki is long enough for several possible questions from a Microsoft or NEC manager: Weather? Best sushi? Where to get business data?

The taxi driver's responses will mold the Fortune 100 manager's image of Hawaii's business climate and may influence Hawaii economic development beyond a CNN video of APEC leaders at Waikiki Beach.

So what is the best way for the APEC Hawaii Host Committee to train taxi drivers to help shape the APEC visitors' thinking about Hawaii's business climate?

The answer may lie in a decade-old project in southern California: In 2001, the San Diego International Airport launched an initiative for taxi drivers to transform them into San Diego's "ambassadors."

After inspiring the taxi drivers of their importance in the San Diego economy — the slogan: "The Spirit of San Diego: Expect the Best!" — a training curriculum and exam were developed, focusing on professionalism and quality service.

The drivers were offered incentives, such as gift certificates. As part of the exam requirements, taxi drivers even reviewed San Diego business information brochures that they handed out to business visitors.

Within a year the program certified 1,500 drivers. Later it won a California state award. Today San Diego has a flourishing high-tech sector, anchored by Qualcomm, LG, Kyocera and software success Websense, plus biotech firms like Neurocrine Biosciences and Nventa Biopharmaceuticals.

Cab driver "ambassadors" were not the only catalysts for San Diego's economic transformation. But in a semi-tropical Pacific port city whose economy was highly dependent on tourism and military spending a decade ago, this innovative program influenced business visitors, who spread anecdotes about San Diego's positive business climate, which led to investment and jobs.

As it is already June, time is of the essence for the APEC Hawaii Host Committee to implement a similar successful taxi driver program — and also train other visitor-facing worker groups, such as hotel reception clerks, security guards, even T-shirt vendors at the International Market Place — as Hawaii's front line-inspired ambassadors.

The promotion of quality, efficiency, business and Hawaii's aloha spirit must be everywhere — wherever the APEC corporate visitors go, and continued for years beyond this November.

With new APEC-linked Hawaii investments, APEC 2011 could be remembered as the greatest business climate branding and new jobs creation event in Hawaii's history.

Ray K. Tsuchiyama, raised in Honolulu, has held Japan/Asia-Pacific positions for AOL Time Warner and consulted for Google Inc. He also led the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Japan office and is a Forbes global business blogger.

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