In 1976 Chris Tatum was the Radford High School Rams catcher who caught for more than five hours and then ended a historic 19-inning playoff game with the only run to complete a 1-0 victory over Pearl City High School.
Flash forward to 2018. Tatum, a top executive with Marriott hotels, is taking over the reins of the Hawaii Tourism Authority at a pivotal moment.
While the year started out on another high for number of visitors, the state’s No. 1 industry has had its share of challenges.
This year saw massive flooding on Kauai and parts of Oahu, the prolonged eruption of the Kilauea volcano, a busy hurricane season and fear surrounding additional cases of rat lungworm disease, which affects the brain and spinal cord.
The tourism agency also saw a negative state audit, a legislative trim to its budget and the loss of its top three executives.
Created by the Legislature in 1998, the tourism authority believes it’s found a power hitter in Tatum.
Tatum, who retired Friday as area general manager at Marriott Resorts Hawaii, has ties to Hawaii’s hotel industry that go back to his high school years in the 1970s when he worked at the Royal Hawaiian hotel. Tatum joined Marriott right out of college and quickly got a job as an assistant housekeeping manager at the Maui Marriott.
It was his mother, the late Bette Tatum, a long-time lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, who put the idea of working for HTA in his head. An affable and well-liked business advocate, Bette Tatum had great interest in local politics and many friends at the state capital.
“There’s no question that my interest in HTA relates back to my mom. She thought HTA needed to be more engaged with legislators giving more feedback and talking to them. Since I was in the industry, she always thought I should have the HTA job,” Tatum said. “I had been planning to consult after I retired from Marriott so when the HTA job came open, I applied.”
Tatum said his wife Peg, who supported him through 10 career-related moves in their 26-year marriage, gave her blessing since taking the HTA job would give him the opportunity to “take his industry experience and do something cool for my hometown.”
To succeed, he’ll have to address mounting pressure from residents and state lawmakers for the agency to shift its focus from putting heads on beds to destination management.
Tatum hopes to enhance visitor experiences. He wants to bring entertainment like hula dancing and music back to the airports. He’d also like to work more closely with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and hopes to brainstorm about starting an ambassador program to educate the public at Hawaii’s natural attractions.
Such discussions are a whole new tact for HTA, which was heavily criticized last year for the role it played in bringing Hawaii close to the 10 million visitor benchmark without a plan to addresses the toll that seven years of growth in tourism arrivals has taken on residents and resources throughout the state.
HTA also will tackle a range of topics, including improving the quality of the airport, the spread of illegal vacation rentals, promoting culture, protecting natural resources, and addressing social issues like crime and homelessness that impact the tourism experience, he said.
“You’re not going to see monthly releases in the future bragging about how many people that we brought here. We need to have a long-term sustainable tourism strategy,” said Tatum, who moved to Hawaii in 1965 when the U.S. Air Force transferred his father Lon Tatum here. “I want people to love tourism as much as I love tourism.”
Tatum said HTA should support state legislative efforts to ensure vacation rentals are providing their fair share of taxes. Tatum also thinks it’s a good idea to work with county lawmakers to address the enforcement gaps that have allowed illegal vacation rentals to spread.
“We have neighborhoods like where I grew up that are for us to live in and resort areas that have been created to take care of our guests,” Tatum said. “We went from 8 million visitors to almost 10 million with very little additional hotel inventory. It’s not very scientific to figure out what’s happening. The folks in Kailua wouldn’t let us build a 300-room hotel, why allow illegal vacation rentals to exist?”
Tatum also supports the creation of an airport authority — a concept that he said seems to work in other destinations like San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“Something has to improve,” Tatum said. “We need a process to do it and it seems like the authority makes sense and the airlines support it. “
Tatum said he plans to pay attention to under-represented tourism segments like the group market, which brings higher-spending visitors.
The perceived lack of destination management caused the state Legislature to cut HTA’s budget by $13 million last session. It also was a driving force in the HTA Board’s ouster of former HTA President and CEO George Szigeti whose October departure came some months after the abrupt resignations of former Chief Operating Officer Randy Baldemor and former Chief Marketing Officer Leslie Dance.
Tatum is expected to attend the HTA board meeting today along with other new HTA executive members Keith Regan, chief administrative officer, and Karen Hughes, vice president of marketing and product development.
Tatum has agreed to a three-year contract that will pay him a $270,000 annual base salary that comes with a five-percent raise and $20,000 in annual incentive pay. Hughes has a three-year contract with an annual base salary of $200,000 and a one time $30,000 incentive increment that must be partially returned if she does not remain in the job for two years unless she is terminated without cause. The base salary for Regan’s three-year contract is $160,000 annually.
There are other HTA vacancies left to fill; however, Tatum has instituted a temporary hiring freeze to learn agency’s needs and its challenges.
The tasks to come might seem overwhelming for some. But Tatum’s never been one to shy away from a long shot — whether it’s getting the only point in a 19- inning baseball game or finding a way to advance from hotel housekeeper to one of Hawaii’s top hotel executives.