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Hawaii Tourism Authority hires leader John De Fries amid budget cuts, tourism collapse

                                John De Fries
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John De Fries

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has hired its first Native Hawaiian president and CEO.

Tourism industry veteran John De Fries is slated to start Wednesday. According to the terms of his contract, he’ll be compensated at almost the same rate as his predecessor, Chris Tatum, who left the agency Aug. 31 to “spend more time with family.”

De Fries’ three-year contract, which ends Sept. 15, 2023, matches Tatum’s base annual salary of $270,000 in the first year, with an automatic 5% increase for each succeeding year of the contract. Like Tatum, De Fries won’t be entitled to join the state’s pension and retirement systems. However, he’ll get the same vacation, holiday and leave benefits as other state employees who are classified as “excluded exempt.”

He’ll also have access to a protocol fund, currently set at $15,000 a year, that’s separate from his base pay and is meant to cover out-of-pocket expenses “which are reasonably and necessarily incurred in the performance of his duties.”

De Fries’ contract does not include an annual $20,000 incentive payment that Tatum received to compensate him for his exit from private to public service.

The HTA Board agreed to the terms of Tatum’s contract and De Fries’ contract in vastly different economic times for the state and for the agency. When Tatum joined HTA in December 2018, the visitor industry’s biggest problem was dealing with the run-up in arrivals, which hit a record 10.4 million visitors in 2019. That high growth period resulted in negative resident sentiment and a strain on infrastructure, culture and natural resources.

Under Tatum, the agency made strides to convert from a primarily marketing agency to a primarily destination management agency.

Now, tourism faces intense challenges amid the visitor industry collapse that followed COVID-19 fears and tourism lockdowns.

The state stopped HTA’s transient accommodations tax funding in April without any indication of when it will return. In July, 22,562 visitors traveled to Hawaii by air, compared to 995,210 visitors during the year-ago month — a 97.7% drop.

HTA’s fiscal year 2020 budget was $86.7 million, but the agency has reduced its fiscal year 2021 budget to $48.6 million. It plans to reduce its branding budget to about $28.5 million from $51.5 million in the 2020 fiscal year.

De Fries, who was born and raised in Waikiki, lives in Kona. He has worked in tourism since the 1970s. His background includes tour company operations, hotel sales and marketing, television sports marketing, resort operations, hotel-resort construction and development of master-planned residential communities with resort-class amenities.

“Hawaii’s pathway to economic recovery and enhanced community well-being will require unprecedented levels of focus, collaboration, cooperation, coordination and unified executive leadership throughout all sectors,” De Fries said in a statement Wednesday.

He said Hawaii faces myriad challenges, including the “reopening of our tourism industry at a time when immense and growing anxiety can be felt in our local communities.”

“The radiance of hope, however, is found in the resilience and creativity of Hawaii’s leaders in both the public and private sectors — the aunties, uncles, parents, kupuna, youth, coaches, teachers, ministers, health care workers and essential workers who are diligently searching for solutions for their communities,” he said.

De Fries is currently president and principal adviser of Native Sun Business Group Inc., a business consulting and project management firm with a focus on Hawaii’s hospitality and real estate development industries.

He’s also been executive director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association and led the Department of Research and Development for Hawaii County. His career includes stints as president and CEO of Hokuli‘a, a luxury residential community on Hawaii island.

De Fries serves on numerous boards, including Kualoa Ranch, Bishop Museum and the Keahole Center for Sustainability.

HTA Chairman Rick Fried said De Fries was selected from a field of 324 candidates.

“All of us at HTA are looking forward to having John take the helm of Hawaii’s visitor industry. I was pleased to see that he has already become involved with working on ways that we can safely reopen tourism while keeping COVID-19 under control,” Fried said in a statement.

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