KAILUA-KONA — The mission for a handful of lucky Central Pacific Bank employees, should they choose to accept it, is to take a free flight to Hawaii Island and spend $100 of company money to help boost tourism in a county that’s seen a harsh downturn in its primary industry over the last three months.
Hawaii County estimates it’s out around $22 million just in lost hotel bookings in the wake of the Kilauea volcano eruption that’s ravaged Puna since early May, and the cost to tourism hardly stops there.
Dean Kawamura, corporate communications manager for Central Pacific Bank, which operates on all four major Hawaiian Islands, said the Kona and Hilo branches have been reporting significant turn downs in business every couple of weeks.
“They’re seeing it firsthand, how it’s been affecting their business customers,” Kawamura said of the Hawaii Island locations. “So the marketing group here got together, brainstormed and came up with the idea.”
The idea converges at the three-way intersection of charity, employee appreciation and marketing — the creation of a random weekly drawing for 16 weeks that will select two employees, slap a $100 bill in their hands and send them off on a Big Island getaway.
After that, the winners’ itineraries are up to them. They are also given a few weeks to decide when they want to travel.
“We just give them a list of our business customers and we encourage them to visit them and spend $100,” Kawamura said.
Ross Birch, president of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, said his organization wasn’t involved in the CPB promotion. However, he added the bank’s move is part of a trend involving several local companies, many based in Honolulu, that’s helped to support Hawaii County through the natural disaster/financial crisis of Kilauea, primarily by pushing business travel to the Big Island.
The help couldn’t be coming at a better time.
Through the end of April, the year-to-date visitor spend across the island was up 12.7 percent from 2017, Birch said. He projected the actual tourism dollars generated on the island through May and June came in $42-$43 million below what Hawaii County would have pulled had it maintained the trajectory it was on through April.
That doesn’t actually paint the entire picture either, because neither the Hawaii Tourism Authority nor the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism actually track interisland travel and spend as a portion of tourism dollars.
Thus, the loss of that travel doesn’t show up on the state’s tourism spreadsheets. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Despite being an undefined area, the vog that has plagued Kona and the earth-shaking eruptions reshaping Puna have kept visitors from neighboring islands out of West Hawaii hotels for weekend visits and away from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the state’s largest tourist attraction.
“It’s an intangible that’s not recorded in the numbers,” Birch said of travel from other islands, “but it’s extremely tangible for the businesses, the hotels and the restaurants. And a lot of times, the local travelers will even play golf, and that’s quite essential to maintaining the wheels of tourism turning.”
The vog has dissipated to a meaningful degree in West Hawaii over the last week, though there’s no guarantee how long that trend might persist. And Birch said talks to create a replica of the experience at the national park are “still in discussion and still a priority,” noting he was in a meeting Wednesday afternoon centered around how to achieve that goal.
Regardless of current Big Island conditions, or how they may change for better or worse in the coming weeks and months, Kawamura said CPB’s win-a-trip initiative has been exceedingly popular among company ranks thus far.
Employees from any branch are eligible to win a trip and there’ve been hundreds of entries in the promotion’s opening week. The bank drew the first two winners Monday.
The fluctuating price of airfare makes the CPB’s ultimate investment in Big Island tourism through its initiative a moving target, but the bank also announced in a release that it had donated $20,000 to relief efforts in Puna via the Salvation Army.
“Our CPB ohana believes it’s our responsibility to help our neighbors in any way we can in their time of need,” Catherine Ngo, CPB’s President and CEO, wrote in a press release. “We hope that more companies will consider supporting the Hawaii Island business community with ‘local tourism’ or by other means.”
CPB operates 35 banks across Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii Island and is the primary subsidiary of Central Pacific Financial Corp., a holding company based in Hawaii with around $5.7 billion in assets.