John De Fries becomes the first Native Hawaiian to serve as president and CEO of the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority amid the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When tourism veteran John De Fries decided to apply to become the president and CEO of the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority, friends tried to talk to him about it.
He was 69, had lived in Kona for the last 30 years, and at this stage of his life wasn’t really looking for any new job opportunities that would take him away from Kona.
More important, Hawaiʻi tourism was months deep in a storm of uncertainty, the shutdown of the industry and resulting economic collapse the result of the global pandemic.
“Some really good friends tried to talk me out of it,” De Fries said. “They asked me ʻDon’t you get the nightly news in Kona, John? Everybody’s fingerpointing and everybody’s blaming each other. And you’re going to step in the middle of it?’”
“The more they talked about it, the more it strengthened my resolve to do it. No one who is a leader during a crisis like this could be sitting back. I remember meeting with navigators from the voyaging society recently. One of them said they don’t become navigators because they sail on sunny days. They train to sail into the storm.”
Born and raised in Waikīkī, De Fries has experience in pretty much everything one can do in the business of tourism, beginning his work in the industry in the 1970s.
He began his new role with HTA in September, coming from Native Sun Business Group, Inc., a consulting and project management firm focusing on the hospitality and real estate development industries where he served as president and principal advisor.
De Fries is more than just Hawaiian by blood. He sees the world through a Hawaiian worldview with humility at his core. He feels things in his naʻau as much as he thinks them in his brain.
He said the job application process highlighted a lesson in koho ʻia that Pua Kanahele had once taught him.
“In life, sometimes you think you’re making a choice, but then underneath, at a deeper level, the choice has been made. It’s because there are times when the kuleana chooses you – and that is koho ʻia.
De Fries said as the process moved along, he felt that sensation of koho ʻia.
“I could feel myself moving out of my intellect and into my naʻau, and I could see that this pandemic and economic collapse was actually calling me into leadership. You’ve still got to figure out how to prevail in the end, but for me it came from a place very deep inside of myself.
“I knew that was going to be a prerequisite because you’re stepping into this storm and all this chaos and uncertainty. You’ve got to be clear about things or you’ll just get disoriented by the storm. At some point, I realized I’ve been trained to do this; I’m 69 years old and all of a sudden those 69 years all started to make sense.”
John Aeto, board chairman of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, said he believes De Fries can get the job done.
“As Hawaiʻi reimagines tourism, we trust his leadership to help us emerge from economic devastation stronger than ever before,” he said. “I consider JD one of the smartest people I know. He lives in a place that balances business, community and culture.
“He will be a great leader in this new paradigm of COVID tourism, and I have no doubt he will recreate our hospitality industry into a form where everyone contributes and is rewarded.”
The significance of a Native Hawaiian leading the HTA is clear to De Fries.
“Native Hawaiian leaders are surfacing in every aspect of life in our community right now. There’s an emergence because what Hawaiians can bring is our ancestral knowledge, which is centuries old – so our pool of data and information is infinite.
“I understand how daunting this challenge is, but I’m not living in fear. I can feel the ancestral support. I can feel my immediate family members who have passed, it’s like I can feel them every moment of every day and that bestows a calming effect.
“Make no mistake, I understand how deeply in trouble we are right now as a state and a people. Unlike other crises I’ve experienced – 9-11, the Gulf War, hurricanes – with those things we hit the floor and then we got up and climbed back. This one, six months later, we’re still in freefall and haven’t hit the floor yet.”
De Fries said part of the attraction of the job was that the global crisis allows for local opportunity.
“With the industry turned off, it’s created an incredible void. That void will get filled with something. It can get filled with innovation, with new products and new experiences. I think the travel market is becoming more discriminating, and in search of more authentic experiences with the community and with Hawaiian culture in particular,” he said.
“The current challenge requires a combination of business acumen, industry knowledge, and cultural depth and understanding. The best way forward is really an integration of all those aspects.”
While emphasizing that he reports to a 12-member board and ultimately the governor, De Fries wants people to know he is a nontraditional thinker, less focused on the right answers, and more focused on getting the right questions.
“On my organizational chart, I see two boxes above the government. One is my ancestors and one is the descendants of our ʻohana, and I feel accountable to them. I can’t ignore the board or the governor, nor do I intend to.
“But I have to acknowledge that I was raised to be cognizant of the fact that those intangible boxes are in fact filled with aloha, support and guidance. Seeing ancestors and descendants in the same context provides the coordinates that I need to navigate through this.
“I am a nontraditional business person who thinks differently, and it’s my cultural and ʻohana orientation that causes me to do that.”
The morning after he was named CEO, De Fries picked up the paper and noticed that the headline said “First Native Hawaiian.”
“I’m clear about my ancestors and my upbringing, but I don’t get up thinking I’m Native Hawaiian. It’s just part of our being. I know who I am. I realize how important it is to others in the Hawaiian community.
“I was told, by a prominent Hawaiian leader, that our children need to see me succeed. That locked it in for me, that I better stay alert to this because the kids are watching. They need to know that this kind of stuff – they can do. I realized that this is so important in building the lāhui the right way.”
As he takes the helm of the tourism industry and steers into the turbulent water, De Fries has a message for the Hawaiian people: stay positive.
“People say we’ve never been through this before. The reality is that as Native Hawaiians we have been through this before. There was a time after Cook’s arrival and the subsequent contact with the Western world when pandemics were a big part of our ancestors’ experience,” he said.
“My message of hope is that our kūpuna survived, and we are examples of that survival. As a result, we will ultimately prevail because we have demonstrated the ability to survive these kinds of challenges. I’m extremely optimistic and confident that we will do the same here.”