State measures impact of Asia Development Bank's meeting
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The Convention Center is still standing, finance ministers are smiling broadly, police spent less than budgeted and not a drop of tear gas was used.
As the 34th annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank drew to a close here Friday, state officials hailed it as a successful first step toward making Hawai'i a center of important international business that was worth every penny of the more than $6 million spent.
But it was clear that the numbers from protesters to delegates fell short of what was expected, and skeptics questioned whether the meeting would really deliver the media exposure, credibility as a business destination, and local business deals that the state and tourism officials who lobbied for it said it would.
In the weeks leading up to the event, the first high-level government meeting to be held at the Hawai'i Convention Center since it opened in 1998, authorities prepared for more than 3,000 participants and at least as many protesters to descend on the city. Conventions officials anticipated $11 million in direct spending would be generated by the attendees.
In the end, fewer than 300 journalists registered for the event, about half the anticipated number. About 250 Hawai'i business people rubbed elbows with Asian contacts during a specially created business forum, roughly one-third the number originally expected. The meeting itself pulled in 2,000 participants, about 1,000 fewer than projected, and the ADB's pre-meeting seminar program suffered the worst attendance in many years, according to a daily publication put out by Institutional Investor during the event.
Even protesters showed up at less than full-strength, with about 500 turning out, compared to an expected 3,000 to 5,000.
But the ADB had gathered primarily so diplomats from the bank's 59 member countries could comment on its policies and progress toward the central goal of reducing poverty in Asia. The gathering was to be the first real vote on whether President Tadao Chino's program was on track, and when most threw it their support, Chino called the meeting "a great success."
Local tourism officials and Mainland experts said they believe the event succeeded in moving Hawai'i toward the spotlight in the international meetings arena, and Gov. Ben Cayetano said the benefits "more than justify" state and city security costs that are expected to tally $4.5 million.
The ADB conference is an investment, Cayetano said, like last year's meeting of the Pacific Basin Economic Council, which totaled $1.4 million in local public-private investment and attracted more than 540 delegates.
"The consecutive successes of the ADB and PBEC will not only attract other international or world-class conferences, but it will also help convince the rest of the world that Hawai'i has more to offer than just sand, surf and sunshine," he said. "That image has been one of the major stumbling blocks to attracting diversified investment to Hawai'i."
But critics said the state opened its pocketbook too wide, and that success could have been bought for less.
"We could have spent a lot less money and still have the desired effect," said Sen. Sam Slom, R-8th (Hawai'i Kai, 'üina Haina). He added, however, that the conference put Hawai'i in a positive light as a place that can handle big conferences and demonstrations.
The meeting's payoff for Hawai'i businesses may be slow in coming. More than 700 businesses registered in advance for the Hawaii Business Forum, designed to help foster local contacts with potential clients in Asia, but only 250 ultimately attended the event, which carried a $125 registration fee. While few contracts were signed, several of the participants said the meeting produced some leads and connections.
Getting a slice of the ADB's annual $2.45 billion pie in business contracts is a process, said Ernest Shih, vice president marketing and international, for Brewer Environmental Services. With its 44 employees and office off Nimitz Highway, Brewer does most of its business in Hawai'i and Japan. Shih said he is hoping to expand into other markets and sees the ADB as a way to do it.
"It is not an instant thing," Shih said.
Still, many business participants saw the conference as a bargain because it allowed them to market their product or service to several Asian countries without leaving Hawai'i.
Though protesters were fewer than expected, many said the event gave face time to important causes. Allowing critics to have a voice reinforces other groups longing to be heard, said Ira Rohter, an associate professor of political science at the University of Hawai'i, such as Native Hawaiians, who have some of the same desires of protecting land as natives of other countries who are critical of ADB projects.
ADB critics and others who watched the drama surrounding the conference unfold say their biggest complaint was that the media focused on the protesters' potential for violence rather than their message.
Protesters didn't get enough of a chance to explain why they were protesting, said Dori Redford, 33, of Kahalu'u, who said her message was that the ADB "is a wolf in sheep's clothing," a for-profit bank feeding off the poor.
Redford, who had a black "X" painted over her mouth, wore a floral crown and carried an "ADB spells genocide" sign during Wednesday's protest, said the barriers keeping protesters away from conference delegates felt like a violation of her free-speech rights.
But Joshua Cooper, one of the organizers of the protest, said it was an accomplishment just to get their message to the ADB president, who met critics in the street to hear their complaints.
In the broader sense, it also opened people's eyes to the problems, Cooper said.
"Families are talking about the impact," he said. "Nobody used to know what ADB was, so this is good."
Media outlets around the world ran reports from the conference during the week. A scan of the online versions of CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, and others yielded stories about the meeting between China's finance minister and U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, about discussions on poverty, and even about Hawai'i's bid to become known as a meeting place, not just a resort.
Mainland convention experts said they are confident the meeting will get the ball rolling on international meetings in Honolulu as it has in other places.
"I've seen this before," said Bruce MacMillan, vice president of business development for Meeting Professionals International, which will bring its annual event to Hawai'i in January. Mac-
Millan once lived in Vancouver, and said when that city played host to the ADB meeting in the early '90s, it set the stage for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting that came five years later.
"The migration and investment of capital from Asia into Vancouver was huge," MacMillan said. "The ADB brought so many investors to show it was good place to invest. It was a great way to profile a destination that wasn't on the radar."
Local tourism officials urged patience in judging the value of the meeting.
"As you lose the bid less often, or get turned down less, or get questioned less about 'Well can you really have a serious meeting there,' then you know you're making more and more inroads on your perception changing ambitions," said Tony Vericella, head of the Hawai'i Visitors & Conventions Bureau, which is responsible for marketing the meetings and conventions side of Hawai'i as well as its leisure trade.
"People should not measure success in days, weeks and months," he said. "This is part of an on-going activity. It's not you do one meeting and now you're set in terms of the world's impression of you."
Advertiser staff writers Glenn Scott and David Butts contributed to this report.