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APEC – a lost public relations opportunity for the State of Hawaii?

Honolulu hotels and resorts were sold out during the recent APEC conference. Room rates were up, but of course expected.

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Honolulu hotels and resorts were sold out during the recent APEC conference. Room rates were up, but of course expected.

A few weeks ago, the United States and the State of Hawaii were honored to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings commonly known as APEC. The Hawaii meetings took place in November 2011 at the Hawai‘i Convention Center. These meetings were expected to draw more than 10,000 people to Honolulu. It was also believed that these high-powered experts and political leaders would not only place Hawaii in the forefront of much of the world’s media but would also serve as a long-term welcome boost for the state’s tourism industry.

While it is still too early to determine if Honolulu received a net gain of 10,000 additional visitors, it is not too early to conclude that Hawaii received much less world publicity than it had hoped for. It is always dangerous to read into non-events. The truth is that no one ever really knows why some events create a “big bang” around the world and other events receive merely a passing mention. Nevertheless, there are certain sociological patters that, if understood, help to explain why Hawaii did not gain the expected coverage for which it had hoped. Below are a few of these principles. It is the writer’s desire not to cast blame but to provide useful information for other locales.

Do not get caught up in localism. Most people are convinced that the eyes of the world are upon them and their locale. Andy Warhol may have said it best when he argued that we all seek our 15 minutes of fame, but in reality, most of us never get it. The same is true of locales. The further away a locale is from the epicenter of news, the less likely it is to get worldwide coverage.

People are interested in the trivial. The APEC conference was real news. It was complex and complicated. These are much harder for people to understand than a human relations story. Unfortunately, the trial or scandal of the day often is the news story to take precedence. The more complex a story is, the harder it is for the public to grasp.

Visual images are important. Despite the beautiful setting for the President’s news conference, the fact that President Obama chose to wear a suit, white shirt, and tie, rather than an aloha shirt, meant that Hawaii looked like any place else and lost a major promotional opportunity. It is also interesting that the President spent more time talking about Penn State’s football situation than about Hawaii.

Often a conference’s publicity depends on what else is going on in the world. The amount of publicity given often depends on other parallel events that are occurring in the world at the same time. If there is a major tragedy or crisis, that crisis will knock out much of the conference’s coverage. Conferences do better during slow news days. On the whole, from the perspective of the media, bad news trumps good news, and the personal (along with visuals) takes precedence over the world of ideas and abstractions.


Do public relations stories. Many people either do not care or do not understand the importance of economics on their daily lives, but they do understand personal interest stories. These types of stories create a sense of excitement. Do a piece on what the principle attendees (and/or their spouses) are wearing, doing, or passing their free time with. Bottom line, while hard news is more important than light news, light news gets a greater share of the media’s coverage.

Do not expect the conference to generate publicity for the locale. Conferences are interested in generating news about the conference and not about your locale. “Locale promotion” is the job of the local tourism industry, not the job of the conference.

Create parallel pieces about the locale’s attractions by organizing media fam tours. Invite the media to the conference locale a few days prior to the event and then make sure that they write about what they saw and where they went. Remember visitors are interested in local tourism, while diplomats are at the locale not to sightsee but to work.

Create photo opportunities. For example, in the case of Hawaii, the state might have invited everyone to an international luau and provided everyone with flower leis and aloha shirts.

The bottom line is that conferences do not sell locales, but do give locales the chance to sell themselves. It is not up to the conference to put your locale on the map, it is up to the locale!

Peter Tarlow is the President of Tourism & More in College Station, Texas. email is [email protected] .

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