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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 2, 2006

Leadership corner

Interviewed by Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Staff Writer


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Age: 45

Title: Regional Vice President of Sales and Marketing

Organization: Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Hawai'i and French Polynesia

Born: China Lake, Calif.

High school: Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Arizona.

College: Attended Scottsdale Community College while in high school; attended Arizona State University.

Breakthrough job: Director of sales and marketing at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in 1990. "My dream was always to work at the 'Pink Palace.' It's the hotel that made Waikiki famous and where the romance with Waikiki began. When I was offered the position … I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It was the greatest opportunity to be at one of the world's most famous hotels, right on the oceanfront of Waikiki. My claim to fame there was the 'Only at the Royal' campaign."

Little known fact: Williams played drums in a rock band in the ninth-and 10th-grade in California. The band, Crossfire, played covers including those of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Eagles, and Blue Oyster Cult.

First job in the visitor industry: PBX operator at the Sunburst Hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz. in high school.

Mentor: "I have had some excellent mentors in my career. I've been very lucky. But I have to say that (former regional vice president of sales and marketing) Karen Hughes, whose job I am going into (starting yesterday), has had the biggest influence on me. She really prepared me for this job and she really is the one who helped me move from being a manager to a leader. When you're a manager you're very tactical, you're very involved in everything. Being a leader, you're more strategic, you give the right direction and then you leave it to your team to carry it through."

Major challenge: "The biggest challenge I have in my career is always thinking about what's next. How can we be better? What more can we do? When you or your company is successful, you always have to be thinking of that next step. … The biggest challenge is always coming up with the next new idea, the best idea. It's really a competitive world out there."

Hobbies: Snow-skiing and golf.

Book recently read: The Da Vinci Code.

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Q: It must be a really good time to be in Hawai'i's visitor industry, which has seen a record number of tourists this year.

A: 2005 has been an excellent year, no doubt. Any year that we go into that has a good backlog of group business are always our best years. And we've been very fortunate that we've had several citywide conventions this year. That obviously helps the demand for not only this island, but also our Neighbor Islands.

Q: What's your outlook for 2006?

A: While the group business on the books isn't as great as it was for 2005, (2006) is shaping up to be another great year. Our advance bookings from a leisure perspective are a little bit ahead of where we were same time last year. And of course Hawai'i is still a very, very popular destination. But I believe we need to be careful of the allure and popularity of up and coming destinations.

Croatia is gaining in popularity, which is very interesting. Of course Italy is very popular. It's not a given that this demand is going to continue for Hawai'i, so we need to make sure that we keep that in mind in our marketing and our sales efforts.

Q: Can the visitor industry sustain the success it's had this year?

A: I think we can, as long as we stay focused on finding new customers. As you know the (Hawai'i Tourism Authority) mission is to find first-time visitors, go after the visitors that will stay longer and spend more. And I think as long as we stay focused on that mission we can sustain. Whether or not the demand will remain as great as it has in '05 I think has yet to be seen. But all indications are that we have a good shot at that.

Q: What is Starwood doing to attract these higher-spending, longer-staying visitors?

A: As you know the West Coast is the biggest market for Hawai'i as a destination, and those visitors tend to be repeat. We continue to focus on the West Coast market, of course, because that is the core of our business as well as business from Japan. But to go after new first-time visitors, that really is a Midwest, East Coast focus, as well as Europe, Canada, and Australia has just grown by leaps and bounds. So we spend a lot of time nurturing and building those particular markets. But Japan and the West Coast will always be the core of our business.

Q: Any other markets where you see potential?

A: Korea and China, obviously, just by the sheer numbers. Those are definitely emerging for us. Korea and China are not necessarily markets that we've focused a lot on in the past. But needless to say it's a great opportunity for us in the future.

Another area of great opportunity is the convention and the group market out of Asia. That is somewhat of an untapped area that we see as an opportunity for tremendous growth. Honolulu especially is a great halfway meeting point where East meets West, and I think we've not even scraped the surface in that area and that will be great potential for us.

Q: What's the ratio between business and leisure travelers for Starwood?

A: Leisure is 75 percent of our business. That being said, that 25 percent group is really important. We need that and we want to grow it. And of course we're counting on the Convention Center to succeed in order to help us grow that business.

Q: Has it been difficult to get business travelers to come here?

A: Not really. I think it used to be a big challenge and certainly there are those that still consider Hawai'i to be a boondoggle. But once we're able to get to the decision-makers and show them all that Hawai'i has to offer, that it is a great place to do business, that it is a great place for East meets West type meetings ... we can usually overcome the boondoggle (perception).

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com.