A Look at Oahu and Hawaii Island

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If last year's tourism numbers were any indication, it's safe to say that Hawaii is back in a big way. According to Hawaii's CVB, a record of nearly 8 million total visitors, an increase of 9.6 percent from 2011, came to Hawaii in 2012, exceeding the previous high of 7.6 million visitors in 2006. After suffering major losses in visitor arrivals following the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing AIG Effect that followed, the Hawaiian Isles seemed too out of reach - too far away, too expensive, and not business-minded enough, many assumed - to be considered for meetings and incentives.

"We set a record for tourism in 2012, and a big part of that was the meetings market," says Michael Murray, vice president of Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau's meetings, conventions, and incentives division. Murray estimates that meetings, conventions, and incentives comprise 8 percent of total visitors. Having Hawaii host the 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference, he says, also helped transform long-held assumptions about Hawaii's ability to serve as a serious place for business and meetings.

"We're looking at a very positive 2013 at the moment from the groups and meetings side of the business," says Rodger MacDonald, director of sales and marketing for Hilton Waikoloa Village. "Hawaii took a bit of a hit in the downturn over the last few years but we're really rebounding. Last year was a fairly good year and 2013 is appearing to be even more robust; we anticipate exceeding 18 to 20 percent growth. The marketplace seems to be finding its way back to the islands."

"Hawaii has really gained a lot of momentum with the North American associations market, especially for those that are working globally and have a mission to grow their membership, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region," explains Murray. Randy Tanaka, interim executive director of sales and marketing for the Hawaii Convention Center, agrees with Murray, saying, "Hawaii is in a unique position, and the objectives for organizations hosting meetings in Hawaii often need to include an Asia-Pacific agenda."

Brad Logsdon, director of sales and marketing for Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort, says he's seen "a growth in the number of medical conventions from the mainland with huge membership from Asia-Pacific." Logsdon adds: "They're starting to see a benefit to having meetings in a central location that's a half-way point between Asia-Pacific and the rest of the continents." In February, his hotel played host to a group from the American Heart Association.

Hawaii's unique blend of cultures, many from the Pacific Rim is yet another "compelling reason for groups to come to Hawaii," according to Murray. He says, "We're the 50th state, but there's still an international feel about the islands."

Incorporating a uniquely Hawaiian sense of place is essential for many of today's meeting and incentive groups to the islands. "What the groups want are experiential kinds of meetings," says Lois Geddes, regional director of sales and marketing for the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay (formerly known as the Sheraton Keauhou Bay). "Not only are they meeting and learning from a meetings standpoint, but they want to experience the spot that they're in. So we really build themes around what they want to do, like manta ray dives, zipline tours, or Kona coffee plantation visits," says Geddes. At the Sheraton Kona, a cultural director has also developed a variety of cultural programs for groups.

Here's a closer look at two of Hawaii's most popular destinations - Oahu and Hawaii Island (formerly known as the Big Island) - and the newest developments transforming the sophisticated meetings market on both of these alluring isles.

The Gathering Place Evolves

Oahu, also known fondly as "the gathering place," retains that title by continuing to evolve in order to meet the demands of today's travelers and meeting attendees. Waikiki, in particular, has seen a rather dramatic transformation in the past few years, says Jim Palank, director of sales and marketing for The Royal Hawaiian, A Luxury Collection Resort. "The infrastructure has changed so much over the last four years. There are upscale restaurants and beautiful upscale shopping that you never had before," he says. "When I talk to meeting planners who haven't been to Oahu lately, I tell them they'll be surprised by what they see. It's changed so much, and there are so many more activity options for people to do, all within walking distance of their hotels."

One of the newest additions to the general Waikiki area was the arrival of The Modern Honolulu, which initially opened as Marriott's very first Edition hotel in Fall 2010. (It was purchased from Marriott International in 2011 by the same investment firm that owns Hawaii-based Aqua Hotels and Resorts.) The boutique-style hotel, which has 350 rooms, has more than 13,000 square feet of meeting and function space, as well as Morimoto Waikiki, a restaurant from Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. The hotel, says Kelly Kitashima, director of group sales, is unique in that it isn't for everybody.

"We know that we have a niche market - we're a very cutting-edge and stylish hotel. Our hotel is for groups that appreciate a design concept of personalized space." She says the hotel does well with smaller groups because they feel like they're the only group on property. "Even if you're a group of 150, you feel like you're exclusive. You're not one out of five or 10 other groups."

In addition to newer properties, many of Oahu's favorite accommodations and attractions have also seen major refreshments. In February, Waikiki's Hilton Hawaiian Village completed the first phase of a $25.5-million renovation of its Ali'i Tower, which comprises 325 guest rooms. All rooms now have new finishes and furnishings, brand-new bathrooms, and upgraded common areas. The final phase of the project, which includes upgrades to the second-floor Ocean View Terrace, is scheduled for completion in May. Last fall, the Hilton Hawaiian Village also completed a $7.6-million makeover of its 27,054-square-foot Coral Ballroom.

In October 2012, Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach completed an $18-million renovation that included a newly remodeled oceanfront pool and expanded pool-deck area, as well as upgrades to its 524 guest rooms and suites. All oceanfront rooms and suites now feature brand-new glass lanai railings, and improved soundproofing was added between all guest rooms.

Last December, the Bishop Museum reopened its J. Watumull Planetarium following a three-and-a-half month, $1.5-million renovation that added new technological features designed to make the planetarium look and feel more realistic in its representation of the night skies and galaxy. The 70-seat planetarium is available to meetings groups that need a theater-style setting. Other available venue spaces at the Bishop Museum include multiple gardens, courtyards, and a conference center.

The Big Island Continues to Grow

Hawaii Island, the youngest and largest of the Hawaiian isles, continues to increase its offerings for meetings groups as well, and it stands out for its dramatic landscapes and variety of experiences. "There's a real beauty to the Big Island," says Hilton Waikoloa Village's McDonald. "They call it 'the Big Island' for a reason, and it has such a diverse geography - from white-sand beaches to active volcanoes. It takes you quite a bit of time to explore, which makes it the perfect retreat for any business traveler."

On the Kona (west) side of the island, where the climate is drier than in Hilo on the eastern coast, the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay just recently completed its $20-million renewal in September 2012. "Everything has been redone," says Sheraton Kona's Geddes. The resort's meeting spaces, including its nearly 10,000-square-foot ballroom, was also completely renovated with new carpeting, chandeliers, drapery, and walls. One of the resort's best outdoor venues, says Geddes, is the Pa'akai Point, a platform perched above lava cliffs, overlooking the ocean on three sides. With the renovation, it now has palm trees and a manicured grass lawn, and is able to accommodate up to 250 attendees for views of the sunset, dolphins, and resident manta rays.

In Hilo, the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel is set to begin a $4.1-million renovation beginning in the second quarter of 2013, following a $1.2-million refreshment that included upgrades to the hotel's conference center facilities, restaurant and lounge. The new renovations will include upgrades to guest rooms, the elevator system, and a solar energy system.

Back on the Kona side of Hawaii Island, the 62-acre Hilton Waikoloa Village resort continues to invest in its infrastructure and offerings for meetings groups. Over the past 10 years, the Hilton Waikoloa Village has spent more than $150 million various refreshments and renovations for the property, including HD TVs, Wi-Fi, and high-speed Internet in all rooms and suites.

Health and Tech in Paradise

A growing trend that Kitashima sees among groups that visit The Modern Honolulu is a desire to "incorporate health and wellness" by utilizing the on-site spa, requesting healthful foods like yogurt parfait bars, or even adding treadmills to meeting rooms and spaces. At Waikiki's The Kahala Hotel & Resort, not far from The Modern Honolulu, General Manager Roseanne Grippo echoes Kitashima's observations: "Business travelers are much more health- and wellness-conscious than in years gone by. The ability to do healthy teambuilding challenges is also great."

On the other side of Oahu, properties like the North Shore's Turtle Bay Resort are also seeing a growing demand for meetings that emphasize wellness. "A lot of our groups like to do 'workcations' here," explains Frank Lonardo, director of sales for Turtle Bay Resort. "It's the freedom to take your work on the road while still enjoying teambuilding and other activities that give you a vacation experience. It means more flexible schedules for meetings, a relaxed and positive atmosphere, and it promotes adventure and wellness. You work in the morning and then you can enjoy all the activities that we have."

Being able to stay connected via smartphone or tablet, whether for work or pleasure, is also of utmost importance to meeting attendees, says Geddes. "The meeting attendees that I see at the Sheraton Kona aren't toting laptops around anymore," she says. "It's all about the tablet and smartphone experience, and they expect to be connected at all times - whether they're in a meeting room or by the pool."