At 56, Mufi Hannemann’s professional life has taken him in a huge circle, from the visitor industry, through politics and back to tourism again. Of course, being president of the Hawaii Hotel & Lodging Association, a long-established trade organization, is a far loftier post than the former Honolulu mayor’s entry point.
"My first job was as a parking lot boy at the Waikikian Hotel," he said with a laugh. "I miss those banana muffins at the Tahitian Lanai. Park the cars, run in the back and get a banana muffin."
After a bruising campaign to be the Democratic nominee as governor — in which he was flayed over a controversial flyer contrasting the candidates — Hannemann said he’s landed in a job in which he feels at home and equipped to serve capably. He’s already spent some time planning for Waikiki’s looming international premiere as host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting that will bring heads of state to town and into Honolulu’s hotels in November.
He’s bullish on tourism as Hawaii’s "core competence" that economic diversification will never replace. And he believes visitor-industry jobs must begin to incorporate more skills and shed their reputation as "career of last resort."
Capitalizing on the Asia market by easing visa regulations for potential visitors will be key, he said.
"The Asian visitor is very comfortable in Hawaii," he said. "And it’s a great diplomatic tool for America, through travel and tourism. When they come here, no matter how they feel about us, what they’ve read about us, Hawaii can give them a very good experience."
Hannemann insisted that he’s more than ready to move on. Despite looking ashen when he made his concession speech in September, this week he said his emotional recovery period was brief.
"I didn’t pout, didn’t say, ‘Oh, woe is me,’" he added. "I respect the democratic process."
QUESTION: Are people asking you what you think your campaign mistakes were? Or do they hedge the question?
ANSWER: Well, actually, because I’ve gone through this before, people are always very gracious.
Obviously, internally, you always have "could’ve, would’ve, should’ve" moments, and certainly I’ve had my share of that.
But I think from the standpoint of two things — Did I leave that last job in a good place? And did I leave for the right reasons? — I maintain I did both very well. We left that in a great place. I wish I could have inherited what my successor has: City Hall with infrastructure in a great place, consent decree for wastewater solved, rail on its way. Financially, we’re in great shape. This is no $100 million deficit. Once (Mayor) Peter (Carlisle) understands how budgets go, with carry-overs and reserves, the deficit’s like $20-$30 million; that’s very easy to manage. And we’re still one of the safest big cities in America. And in terms of what I do now, this is a great situation to be in. I get to help bolster the No. 1 industry in the state.
So, yes, I would have loved to have been governor; I didn’t make it. But by the same token, I think I’m in a strong position to continue to influence things that I care about — like the economy, tourism. So, you know, you can replay that election a hundred times …
Q: And you don’t want to theorize about why?
A: I think for me the biggest thing was, I was so focused on doing a good job with the city that I left very late. So we never got our feet under us when I jumped into the race in July, and in many ways, it was a major disadvantage, because I stayed so long, until the very end. So it suffered, it hurt my campaign because we were never really together as much as we would have been had I just focused on it.
Look at 2004 when I ran for mayor. I wasn’t in another job. I was just full-on: mayor. In retrospect, Neil (Abercrombie) did the right thing in coming home in March and just focusing totally on that job; I couldn’t do that until late July. So it hurt. It hurt because some of the things that occurred wouldn’t have occurred had we had more time to plan it out, or we would have been able to have a stronger grassroots organization.
Q: Do you think too much has been made of the ("Compare and Decide") flyer as the tactical error?
A: Yeah, I think so. I think too much has been made about the flyer. I mean, there are other reasons. Neil had wonderful relationships with members of the press, that never really questioned things that I think should have been questioned. The (David) Shapiros, the (Richard) Borrecas of the world, the (Dan) Boylans of the world had longstanding relationships with Neil. And they were very generous, I felt. And then he had longstanding relationships with members of the party, and I always knew I’d have a difficult time getting past that. … So he was able to solidify all that. It created a very tough situation for us when we jumped into the race, where we had to put out our program of what I would do and at the same time say, "Hey, can you guys question my opponent also, and not just look at me so much?"
I think the fact of the matter, being the mayor of the city, I mean, you’re dealing with issues that are near and dear to people’s hearts. When you’re a congressperson, your issues a lot of times are in Washington, and that didn’t give people the, "How do you feel about rail? How do you feel about the sewers? How do you feel about your roads? Have your potholes been filled?" So I was a constant target. …
I have no regrets. I mean, Neil won the election; I endorsed him. I wish him well, and I plan on working with him to help tourism, the No. 1 economy. So, as I said, there are always "could’ve, would’ve, should’ve" moments, but these things happen and you just have to accept it and move forward, move on.
Q: What about 2012? Are you thinking about running for the Senate?
A: You know, at this point, there’s no opening. Sen. Akaka has indicated that he plans to run again. So to me, as long as he’s there, I will not run against Sen. Akaka, period. So I think that question is moot, until there is an opening; then we’ll look at it then. But at this point in time, I’ll just focus on doing this job, and doing it well.
Q: About your new job, and the coming APEC conference: How would you characterize your role?
A: Well, the lodging sector, which I represent, is a major component of a successful APEC. So we are very focused on it; we recognize the opportunity. But we don’t see it as just a four-day event here. We’re hoping there can be pre-APEC opportunities and post-APEC opportunities. … So we’re going to do all we can to make sure that our lodging is going to be first class, and that they will have a great experience there, so that they’re going to want to stay at the various lodging facilities again, which is always part of your mindset whenever you decide to go to a city or visit or whatever: How were the facilities?
Q: There have been a lot of upgrades in recent years. Do you think, then, that the facilities are ready to greet the APEC visitors?
A: We’re ramping up, we’re getting ready for that, because we recognize that 20-plus heads of state are going to need to stay at these different venues here. But what we are also mindful of is that there can be, as I said, other opportunities for our neighbor islands to be a part, whether it’s pre- or post-APEC, we’d like to see that happen. In other words, I really see this as a game changer for Hawaii.
For so long we’ve been seen as a sun-sand-sea-and-surf destination. If we can now make it part of someone’s mindset that Hawaii is not just a great place to vacation but you can do business, you can learn, you can bask in the other aspects that we offer — the gateway to the Asia-Pacific region or, if you’re coming from Asia-Pacific, the gateway to the United States — I think we would accomplish our goal.
Q: So you really think this can broaden Hawaii’s lure?
A: I think it’s incumbent on our business and community leaders, and the academic folks at the East-West Center, to make sure that coming here, it’s not just a place to have a meeting and lay on the beach, that there are many more things that we can offer, that we should be offering, that go beyond just tourism.
Q: For example?
A: Oh, for example, what we’re doing with the biotech industry here, what we’re doing with astronomy high atop Mauna Kea, what we’re doing on the environmental front, what the East-West Center has to offer, what our Pacific Command has to offer here, the training that can be done here, the educational aspects. All that is something we can put on the table.
Q: Hawaii tourism has managed pretty well through this recession. What should be the next step in coming out of it?
A: I would say we’re still at a very cautious recovery period. Now, why do I say that? Even though the numbers are improving, occupancy rate is improving, the room rates are starting to increase, the lift capacity’s coming back … I think what we have to keep in mind is two things. One, from a lodging standpoint, to have survived this period … we had to discount our rooms tremendously. And a lot of those contracts are still going to be in place, as we go forward here. …
Secondly, we can’t do enough marketing. And government has to continue to be a major player in that area. I’m talking presently about the TAT (transient accommodations tax). There is always talk about are the TAT monies being utilized well? Can it be used for other purposes? To me, I’ve always been a stickler for that, as mayor of Honolulu, I’ve always said if you dedicate a fund for a specific purpose it has to go to that purpose. … So right now that we’re on this upwards (track), we’ve got to make sure that it’s about as strong a recovery as possible.
Q: So it’s time for hotels to raise room rates?
A: Yes, because they’ve been taking it in the shins, if you will, because they had to discount. They’re not in the big-profit area that some may automatically think. … What I’m suggesting is that there’s got to be, more than ever, all of us working together and recognizing that we’ve got a unique model that works, with the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the tourism marketing funds that are dedicated for marketing. So now is not the time to say we don’t have to market as much because tourism is coming back. …
And then, on the other front, we’ve got to work with our country, from the federal standpoint, to get the visa-waiver programs going in Asia. China is a big, big market. The reason why Japan was so successful with Hawaii tourism was the visa-waiver program came into effect there. Similar programs have to be instituted, especially for that Chinese market. Our country needs to do international marketing of tourism, as a nation.
Q: What is the next level (for HHLA)?
A: Well, the next level is, I think, to make sure people understand what the lodging segment does for our visitor industry.
Sometimes there’s a notion that the ownerships are not from Hawaii, foreign owners, more profits are being taken out of the state. And HHLA as an organization has been a wonderful conduit for the hoteliers in giving back to the community.
Our Charity Walk held every May contributes $1 million to nonprofit groups. We give out $1,000 scholarships to high school graduating seniors every year.
So those things we need to bring to the forefront, so that people understand that we are very much part of the community.
Q: Going back to politics: Are you worried at all about the notion that Honolulu mayors hit a kind of ceiling and can’t progress to higher office?
A: Only one really tried (Frank Fasi); two flirted with it: Neil Blaisdell and Jeremy Harris.
No, it is the toughest job, the mayor, of all the executive jobs because it’s the job that’s closest to the people: trash pickup, bus rides, police protection, fire protection.
But, you know, I think it was a wonderful opportunity to make a difference. And I think, going forward, whenever that is, I think I have a wonderful record to stand by. And I think over a period of time people will appreciate it more than during the course of a campaign. … I don’t think it’s something that is going to hold me back.