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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Focus is on Marriott, Waikiki

Full interview with Chris Tatum

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa general manager Chris Tatum has been in the hotel business since high school. He got a job at Marriott right out of college.

Photos by JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Age: 48

Title: General manager

Organization: Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa

Born: Chicago

High School: Radford High School

College: Michigan State University

Breakthrough job: General manager, Brisbane Marriott Hotel, Australia

Little-known fact: Rides a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy

Mentor: Ed Hubennette, vice president Marriott International

Major challenge: Driving business to Hawai'i and our resort with the growing strength of other destinations

Hobbies: My kids' activities

Books recently read: "Land and Power in Hawaii: The Democratic Years," by George Cooper and Gavan Daws

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Q. How would you characterize the current state of tourism?

A. The last couple of years have been phenomenal. We've had a lot of demand and fortunately this has allowed the properties to put together some money to reinvest in our properties. What they've done to upgrade Waikiki, we've got some great products now. The market this year has flattened out a little bit. There are a number of reasons: concerns about the economy, the elections. But it's all relative. We came off three very strong years and it's still not a bad year. Double-digit growth probably is not there, but on the other hand the future 2009, 2010 we're very optimistic about. Our booking pace for the year is pretty close to last year. The business from Japan is down a little bit and there are a number of factors. There is a lot more competition in the market internationally China, Korea, parts of Asia. However, Hawai'i is still the destination people want to come to. The U.S. business is still holding. It's not growing as much as the last couple of years, but it's still the place for people to come. Our hope is we'll get through this year. Fortunately we're renovating half of our hotel right now, so we have less inventory this year anyway so we couldn't ask for better timing.

Q. What can you do when business slows down like it is now?

A. Part of it is supply and demand, which is a fact of life in the business world. Hawai'i has a certain attraction that the other destinations do not. We are getting a lot of competition and we constantly have to look and see what they're doing and make sure what our product and what we're offering are above what they're offering. There's also a price-value. We've got to make sure what we're charging is a reasonable price to what they will come to Hawai'i for.

Q. What are some of your biggest challenges?

A. I've got 1,310 rooms and just a little over 700 associates (employees). We've got a great team here. The average length of service here is well over 20 years. The biggest challenge is, as the market weakens a bit, to continue to get that business, not only from other destinations, but also the great competitors that we have in this market. We have some of the nicest properties and we've got all of the major brands and everyone seems to be reinvesting into their properties, so it's keeping up and making sure that we have the product that will compete in this market. Fortunately we have the Marriott brand, which is very strong.

Q. You're the incoming chairman of the O'ahu Visitors Bureau. What is the role of that agency?

A. Each of the islands has its own chapter that works in coordination with the Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau. The goal of those chapters is the focus of their islands: the attractions on those islands. For us on O'ahu, we want to make sure that when people think of O'ahu that it's not just Waikiki and that O'ahu is more than that. It's the North Shore, it's the Windward side, it's Pearl Harbor. The attractions on O'ahu are phenomenal. Part of the O'ahu Visitors Bureau's role is to make sure that we communicate that to the market, that you can have a great experience in Waikiki, be on the world-famous beach, be next to Diamond Head, but you can also get away during the day and experience some of the most beautiful beaches, great waves on the North Shore, all of the things that O'ahu has. That's exactly what the other chapters do. Our promotions are coordinated with the HVCB. We don't want to duplicate efforts.

Q. How long have you been in the hotel business?

A. I was in the hotel business starting in high school. I worked at The Royal Hawaiian when I was in high school for about a year, and after getting out of high school, I went to school at Michigan State and joined Marriott out of school.

Q. Was it your plan to go into the hotel business?

A. Growing up in Hawai'i you take a look and see what the opportunities are, and it seemed the hotel business matched what my goals were and my personality being able to deal with people, being out and about, being able to work in different locations throughout the world. It seemed like the exciting thing. I met with the general manager of the Kahala Hilton and I got his feedback about what it's like to be in the hotel business and he gave me some great ideas and got me excited about it. That's what got me going about making it a career.

Q. You got a job at Marriott right out of college?

A. I interviewed with Marriott, they offered me a job, and I went on a three-month training program in California. The timing was just right because the Maui Marriott was opening so they brought me back to Hawai'i to be an assistant housekeeping manager to open the Maui Marriott.

Q. You were a chief sponsor of the Ala Wai Challenge. What is that?

A. The Waikiki Community Center is right behind our hotel and the Ala Wai Challenge is a competition between many of the businesses in the community. It's a fun activity. We spend a Sunday in January competing and this year we actually had all of the hotels put teams in and we had a "hotel cup." All the proceeds go to the Waikiki Community Center, which does a phenomenal job here supporting the senior citizens and the children of people who live and work in Waikiki. Marriott is really focused on giving back to the community and we've done that in a number of ways besides the Ala Wai Challenge being involved in the charity walk, the food bank and Marriott Links to Literacy, which is supportive of the Library Foundation. You can't work in the community and not support the community.

Q. You've been in the hotel industry for your entire adult life. What's in your future?

A. I've been with Marriott for just over 26 years. This is my 14th hotel, and I've been blessed to be able to return to O'ahu where I grew up, where my mother and father live. To be able to come back here to raise my children is just a phenomenal opportunity. My goal right now is to make the Waikiki Beach Marriott the most successful Marriott in our system. My focus is this hotel. It has 1,310 rooms and is one of the biggest hotels that we have in our company, so I'm very content on moving this hotel forward at this point in my life and my career.

Q. Is it difficult to get local people to go to Waikiki?

A. Parking is an issue down in Waikiki. No one wants to be running around trying to find a spot when you want to come down and relax and enjoy the experience. But I see more and more local folks coming into Waikiki. It's becoming everything from the block parties to the Pro Bowl. We're getting a lot of folks coming down here to experience that. If you haven't been to Waikiki in a long time, you really should because it's really a special place. As much as you've got a lot of folks from out of town here, they are so impressed by the people of Hawai'i that if you haven't been to Waikiki, you're missing out and you should come down.

Reach Curtis Lum at culum@honoluluadvertiser.com.