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HTA chief announces retirement amid crisis for Hawaii tourism industry

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                                Chris Tatum


    Chris Tatum

Hawaii Tourism Authority is on the hunt again for a new leader.

HTA president and CEO Chris Tatum has given the agency notice that he will retire on Aug. 31 after 40 years in the hospitality industry.

Tatum took over the top HTA job in December 2018 after “retiring” from a 37 -year career with Marriott International. Now, he says, he’s finally ready to retire and spend more time with family.

“I let the board chair know on Monday and I told my staff today,” Tatum said. “I’m happy with what we’ve accomplished. I’m very proud of the HTA team and our refocused plans to develop a balance strategy for tourism. Now, I’d like to get us through the quarantine and help with the recovery piece and long road back.”

There’s no word yet on HTA’s plan to replace Tatum, who took over leadership at HTA after a time of great turmoil. His predecessor HTA president and CEO George Szigeti left HTA in October 2018, after the board voted to oust him without cause. At that time, HTA already was grappling with the abrupt resignations of former Chief Operating Officer Randy Baldemor, who left in March 2018, and former Chief Marketing Officer Leslie Dance, who left in May 2018.

Tourism was still firing on all cylinders back then, but some state Legislators were displeased with the agency’s destination management and with a February 2018 finding by the state auditor that the agency suffered from “lax oversight (and) deficient internal controls.”

HTA is in a very different place now. It’s made strides to convert from a primarily marketing agency to a primarily destination management agency and to address the audit. Also, all key leadership positions are filled.

Still, the visitor industry has collapsed amid COVID-19 fears and tourism lockdown and HTA’s transient accommodations tax funding stopped in April, a month that saw arrivals plummet 99.5%.

HTA’s fiscal year 2020 budget was $86 million, but the agency has reduced its fiscal year 2021 budget to $55.2 million. HTA plans to reduce its branding budget from more than $51 million in fiscal year 2020 to about $28 million, a 44.5 % drop.

Tatum said he plans to spend the next three months working with the HTA board on the transition and supporting the state’s tourism recovery efforts. After that, he and his wife of 28-years Peg Tatum plan to relocate to Colorado.

“I don’t want to look back and say I had a chance to spend more time with family but I kept working,” Tatum said. “The visitor industry is 24/7, there was a lot of time spent away from family. We made 16 moves. In addition to Hawaii, my career took me to the U.S. mainland, Asia, Australia.”

Tatum, who moved to Hawaii in 1965 and is a Radford High School graduate, said the move will be bittersweet.

“This is my home. My parents are buried here. My children grew up here and all my friends are here,” Tatum said. “But I don’t have family in the islands anymore they are all on the mainland. I’m looking forward to traveling with Peg and spending quality time with my daughter Sam, and son Alex.”

Tatum said he took the HTA job as a way of giving back to the Hawaii community and feels that he’s accomplished what he set out to do. HTA has made the switch from a primarily marketing agency to a destination management agency striving for more balanced tourism with an emphasis on protecting Hawaii’s culture and natural resources for generations to come, he said.

Tatum said he wanted to give back to Hawaii because his roots run deep here. Tatum’s dad Lon Tatum was a member of the U.S. Air Force in Hawaii and his mom Bette Tatum was a teacher, who became Executive Director of the National Federation of Small Business for the State of Hawaii.

Tatum said he believes HTA is well-positioned to continue helping Hawaii tourism evolve into a more sustainable industry.

He said the North Shore of Kauai’s tourism management plan for Ha‘ena State Park is a good example of how tourism and government officials can work with the community to find balance.

Implementation of the Ha‘ena State Park Master Plan was timed to coincide with last year’s reopening of Kuhio Highway after a 14-month flood-related closure. The plan limited park vision to 900 people a day down from the estimated 3,000 people who were coming daily before flooding closed the main artery in April 2018.

Tatum said HTA’s newly trimmed budget still allocates money for county collaborations, which will be increasingly important as Hawaii tourism begins to recover.

“It’s going to take patience and compromise, but the deal that HTA recently put forward about developing collaboration with the counties gives us a chance to do it right,” Tatum said. “We want to facilitate a process that is driven by the communities.”

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