Friday, March 8, 2013


TOUGH SELL: A couple is trying out a new restaurant.

"The food here is terrible" she says. "Yeah," he says, "and such small portions."

That really old joke seems to sum up the tourism industry's schizophrenic and tone-deaf response to the continuing string of drowning deaths on Kaua`i- now up to nine this year alone- as summed up in today's "let's do more of the same" solution detailed detailed in today's local newspaper by Dr. Monty Downs, emergency room physician and President of the Kaua`i Lifeguard Association.

Dr. Downs has been tireless in his decades-long quest to stop ocean deaths; no one has done more to get the message out that the ocean can be a dangerous place. The problem is that the message is being delivered by those who have a basic conflict-of-interest in wanting to make sure the Disneyland image of Kaua`i as a "safe paradise" remains first and foremost in their advertising.

That assures that any message designed to warn people of the dangers the ocean presents is presented in as innocuous a way possible... a way that assures full airplanes and hotel rooms and does little or nothing to alert tourists to the fact that they can easily die when they go in the water- or ever get too close when waves are breaking on land.

And so unfortunately, rather than rethink the content of the message Dr. Downs has seemingly been sipping on the Kaua`i Visitors Bureau (KVB) Kool Aid and has agreed that the solution is to continue to keep serving the bad food and just increase the portion sizes.

He starts by asking the right questions, saying:

With our heartrending start to 2013, this is a question that I am frequently asked. The visitor industry is all about attracting and welcoming people to visit our legendary destination.

Does it do a good enough job of keeping our invited guests safe while they’re here?

Does it inform them of risks they take when they visit our beaches here?

But the answer he gives is not the same one we hear in the market, on the street and in social media: it's time to change the "don't scare the tourists away" message rather than double down on more of the same.

Cajoling visitors has not worked- it's time to get their attention and then scare the crap out of them.

The bulk of the article goes on to lists all the tourism-related businesses and all they are doing to make sure that the "oh yeah and by the way- please be careful in the ocean" message is sent in way that goes in one ear and out the other.

It ends by saying:

These are examples of what the visitor industry is doing. Can the industry do more? The answer is yes. But having answered this question with a yes, I (as a hospital employee and therefore a beneficiary of our visitors) immediately have to ask the question: Can I do more? Can KLA do more?

The answer again is yes....

We are doing a lot, we really are. We have to try and believe in ourselves even in our difficult, tragic — and for me, humiliating — times. Yes, we can do more. As they say in sports training: It isn’t always how hard you work, it’s how smart you work. KLA will try and help us all figure out how to do both.

The problem is that rather than looking at this like the public heath issue that it is we give lip service to the public heath aspect and then treat it like a question of marketing, turning it into a KVB-style advertising "blitz" using the same smiley-face content, whether that's been effective or not.

We don't need a new way to deliver the current message, we need to actually change the message and scare the b'jeezus out of people whose lack of respect and indeed lack of fear of the ocean is what leads to their deaths. Yet it seems that everyone is afraid to take on the industry's apparent attitude that it doesn't matter if tourists die in the ocean as long as it doesn't create bad publicity.

The message we're getting is "we're doing all we can and we're going to do more to make sure we send a non-threatening, non-scarey message."

Somewhere there's a disconnect here because wherever we go all we hear is people saying that the tourism industry is responsible and needs to change the content of their warnings, not just put up more and bigger TV screens at the airport baggage claim showing beautiful ocean scenes and a whispered voice-over saying "please try to be careful."

The old "if in doubt, don’t go out" adage is obviously not working. Is it to the point where we need ads with pictures of the bloated corpses of drowning victims with something like "The ocean is a killer- this could be you" written across them?

Is it possible to go too far in the other direction? Probably. But the answer to sending out an ineffective message is not to simply make sure that message is repeated more often in more places.


KimoRosen said...

Andy, send this to TGI, more people need to read this!

Schar Freeman said...

Yes the messages of the past are not working. "If in doubt don't go out" these folks do not know "doubt"! I am one who believes this same way as you have expressed Andy. We need to scare them into believing in the power of the ocean. Education, when there is danger involved at times results with a scare tactic to prevent loss of life or injury..ask any mother or father what they did the first time their toddler ran out to or into the street. My money is on , they gave them a smack on the bottom with harsh words like "NO, you do NOT go into the street!"

Schar Freeman said...

FYI some thoughts I had on my blog.

John Tyler said...

Dear Andy,

I am off island until June, and upset over the drownings too. The Rescue Tube Project really helped, but more so my next effort is to train the most community people in how to use them as is possible. You are right too about a tourism angle to a large degree as well. We need to take care of people who come here as our visitors.

You can likely come to a Water Safety Meeting, held every other month at the County Health Dept in Lihue. Dr. Downs can guide you on it, or Pat Durkin, Kilauea, as the chair.

John Tyler

Unknown said...

Whether it's one drowning of a dozen, it's too many. I wonder if there's a more daring atmosphere these days by people attracted to "extreme" sports and dangerous or risky activities--just check out Youtube, so that warnings, while effective for most people, could actually be an attractant for thrill and adventure seekers. Just a thought. And, by the way, big KUDOS to Dr. Downs. You're WAY off base thinking he drank the Koolaid.

Blahblahblah said...

After the ocean, the next most dangerous place is the emergency room if Dr. Downs is seeing you. He's scary bad.

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