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Opportunity comes ashore

By Allison Schaefers

LAST UPDATED: 3:31 a.m. HST, Nov 9, 2011

Two years ago Hawaii's visitor industry lost a staggering $97.6 million in revenues when business groups began canceling isle trips out of concern for how politicians and the public would view them during a time of economic collapse and bailouts.

After President Barack Obama and Congress spoke out against frivolous business travel, companies were leery that bad press from a trip to Hawaii would last longer than the sunburn. Lawmakers told companies that received government loans not to mimic AIG, which took an $85 billion bailout and then spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on events like an overseas hunting party and a golf outing.

The ensuing drop in business travel to places like Hawaii, which saw its meetings, convention and incentive segment fall nearly 16 percent between 2008 and 2010, came to be known as the "AIG affect."

If this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit is a success, tourism and business leaders hope to get an "APEC affect," where images of world leaders amid the islands' scenic splendor will solidify Hawaii as a place for business as well as leisure.

"A lot will be gained by demonstrating that Hawaii is more than a place to vacation," said Randy Tanaka, chief operating officer for the APEC 2011 Hawaii Host Committee. "'Hawaii is a great place to meet your Asian counterparts' will be part of the message."

Besides potentially boosting business tourism, the event also offers Hawaii businesses in industries like renewable energy, health and life science, astronomy and earth and ocean sciences the chance to build relationships with Asia-Pacific partners and consumers, APEC supporters say.

APEC, with Obama hosting 20 other heads of state, also offers Hawaii's visitor industry a chance to diversify into the intergovernmental meetings market, which has been small. Last year only 122,133 of Hawaii's more than 7 million visitors came on government business, and this year only 85,758 have come for that purpose so far, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data.

Charles Morrison, East-West Center president and APEC host committee member, said that while Hawaii has been considered as a host site for intergovernmental meetings in the past, until APEC it has never really been considered for a head-of-state-level meeting, Morrison said.

"Hawaii is almost an ideal place for these sorts of meetings. If we do it well and like it, it's something that is a logical business for us and pretty value-added," he said.

Results will depend on the state's ability to follow up after the event, Morrison said.

But for Peter Ho, chairman of the APEC 2011 Hawaii Host Committee, "APEC already has changed things."

"You look at the experience that the U.S. delegation and the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. State Department and the White House have had here," Ho said. "They have been extremely impressed with the professionalism and quality of Hawaii Tourism Authority, hoteliers, our facilities, the Hawai'i Convention Center and the community, even. They are pleasantly surprised with the amount of outreach throughout our community. It's not something that they've experienced throughout the international community."

The opportunity to interact with decision-makers from APEC delegations has already resulted in increased business for the Hyatt Waikiki Beach Resort & Spa, which is hosting South Korea, and the Sheraton Waikiki, which is hosting China. Hyatt recently hosted a business meeting for South Korean chief executives, and Sheraton recently picked up a Chinese meeting for next week.

"Because we've booked China and the president is staying here, it's considered approved by the Chinese government," said Kelly Sanders, Sheraton Waikiki general manager.

APEC also brought renewed luster to September's Asia-Pacific Clean Energy Summit & Expo and helped HTA bring the China-U.S. Travel Summit to Hawaii County last month, Ho said.

The allureof APEC has helped the convention center strengthen its international outreach program, assisting U.S. associations in promoting meetings to thousands of participants globally, and tapping into growing interest from Korea, China and other areas in the Pacific Rim, Tanaka said.

"The center is doing a good job of using APEC to enhance their credibility," said Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz. "They are bidding on a number of large conventions, and I think they'll be successful."

APEC could have a similar impact on the state's burgeoning clean energy industry, he said.

"2012 is likely to be a year where we see projects on the ground," Schatz said. "We've got new projects in the pipeline and in the financing and approval stage. Our goal is to move from talk to action. APEC can assist us."

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