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Hawaii Tourism Authority searches for new chief amid tourism collapse

                                Chris Tatum
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Chris Tatum

Hawaii Tourism Authority is on the hunt again for a new top 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 said, he’s finally ready to retire and spend more time with family.

“I’m happy with what we’ve accomplished. I’m very proud of the HTA team and our refocused plans to develop a balanced strategy for tourism,” Tatum said. “Now, I’d like to get us through the quarantine and help with the recovery piece and long road back.”

HTA Chairman Rick Fried said the agency will begin an executive search immediately to replace Tatum, who just received a glowing evaluation.

“I can’t imagine that we are going to find someone that can fully replace him,” Fried said. “He was smart, candid, and always put the residents of Hawaii first in any of our decisions. He was unfailingly honest.”

Fried said there are several strong candidates at HTA that he would hope would apply to replace Tatum, who took over HTA leadership at a pivotal time for the agency.

Tatum’s HTA predecessor, George Szigeti, left the agency 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 has 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 and the agency has a good working relationship with the Hawaii Lodging &Tourism Association.

“The industry has lost a great champion in Chris Tatum,” said HLTA President and CEO Mufi Hannemann. “The collaboration that we had with HLTA and HTA under Chris Tatum was unprecedented so these are very big shoes to fill.”

Tourism faces intense challenges amid the visitor industry collapse that followed COVID-19 fears and tourism lockdowns. HTA’s transient accommodations tax funding even 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.

“We’ve gone from 10 million visitors to zero and there’s a lot that needs attention. We may not get back to 10 million visitors in my lifetime, but we can’t get back to business in Hawaii without tourism,” Fried said. “Hopefully, there’ll be someone that wants to take on a challenge.”

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.

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.”

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