Maui Meeting Trends

SheratonMauiBeach recently interviewed three different individuals — two Maui-based general managers and a meeting planner who recently hosted a meeting a Maui — to ask them about their experiences and to highlight the biggest trends they are seeing when it comes to meetings in the Valley Isle of Hawaii. Here’s what they had to say.

More Meetings From the Mainland
At The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, General Manager Alex Ahluwalia says he’s seeing “more demand from the Northeast U.S. than he has in the past six to seven years.” “We have more guests and customers who are planning programs — financial, pharmaceutical, or insurance — and they’re all much more open to leaving the continental U.S. and going to offshore locations like Maui,” he explains. 

Walter Ejnes, president of Palm Coast, FL-based Continuing Education Company, Inc., brought a group of 250 medical professionals to the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa (pictured above) last October for a continuing medical education (CME) conference focused on primary care but was “initially very reluctant to bring our conference to Maui.” He explains, “The feedback that we were receiving from the medical community in our surveys was that their CME travel was being restricted to the mainland U.S., and conferences in Hawaii were out of the question for many.  And I still think this is the case for many. Going back a few years we also noticed that many of the medical associations and organizations that had successful meetings in Maui were seeing a decline in attendance or were pulling out of Hawaii altogether. This all led to our hesitation to bring a conference there.” 

Despite his concerns, a “determined salesperson at the Sheraton Maui” convinced Ejnes to hold his first conference in Maui three years ago, and he’s planning to return six more time between 2014 and 2016. 

It’s Not As Expensive As You Think
Fears of low attendance numbers due to travel distance, high F&B and A/V costs, and issues of public perception are not new to Maui, or Hawaii, in general but, as Ejnes points out, those hesitations are often misguided. “Yes, there are certain perceived factors to consider when planning a meeting in Hawaii,” he says. “However, if planners are clear on their needs from the beginning, and find a venue that is willing to listen to them and meet those needs, they will see that those factors can be overcome.” He adds, “Basically, the cost of a Maui meeting can be surprisingly no different from one hosted on the mainland.”

“We even have some customers coming back to us for the first time since the financial crisis,” Ahluwalia notes. “And not only that, but they are also more open to spending more on authentic and unique experiences … this whole stigma of being an offshore luxury resort has vanished. I don’t hear that — period. The idea of seeking value has not gone away. They all want value, but they are open to a richer program in terms of experience, and they are open to different activities that are unique and one of a kind for their attendees. I see the helath of the group market being very strong over the next few years.”

Maui Is Magical
As John C. Tolbert, the cluster general manager of the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa (Maui) and the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa (Hawaii Island), notes, Maui holds an allure — and a title — that few destinations possess. “Maui is such a great destination for meetings,” he says. “Just look, readers of Condé Nast Traveler have recognized it as the ‘Best Island in the World’ for 20 consecutive years.”  

He says that the Wailea Beach Marriott’s naturally beautiful location makes it an especially easy destination to meet in: “The resort is hugged by two golden-sand beaches, and guests marvel at majestic views of the deep blue Pacific and neighboring Hawaiian islands when they’re here.”

The Ritz-Carlton’s Ahluwalia, similarly, feels that the real magic of meeting in Maui is a combination of the island’s natural beauty, as well as its rich cultural history. “Maui is a very special and relevant destination,” he says. “In order to be collaborative and innovative, you want to leave your day-to-day whirlwind behind and be able to think differently, and Maui lets you do just that. It’s everything you envision Hawaii to be.”

When Ahluwalia asked a long-time client, a global firm with roots in Japan and business in the U.S., why they decided to return to Maui year after year for the past 14 years, their response surprised him. “They’ve actually integrated the culture of Hawaii into their own business,” Ahluwalia explains. “Every year, they use that culture and history as an inspiration for them to expand partnerships within their own business.” For example, the journey that the ancient Polynesians took from the Marquesas islands — with little to no technology or navigation — demonstrates the power of working together. “They use that story to build relationships with their own customers,” he says. 

The Luau Is Still a Lure
Drawing from Hawaii’s rich Polynesian culture and history, the luau remains a major part of the overall Hawaii experience for many visitors, meeting groups included. The Wailea Beach Marriot’s Tolbert says that many groups will buy into, or do a complete buy out of the property’s Te Au Moana Ocean Front Luau dinner. Other uniquely Hawaiian experiences, like outrigger canoeing and Humpback whale watching are also popular with groups, he notes. 

The Ritz-Carlton’s Ahluwalia says that many groups also take part in The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua’s exclusive partnership with the Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program, which offers naturalist-led excursions through Maui’s rainforests, oceans, and beaches.

Technology Is Top of Mind
At the Wailea Beach Marriott, Tolbert says, “I’ve noticed the increasing technology needs of meeting attendees who are using multiple devices and requiring higher bandwidth capability. More planners are using online site selection services such as Cvent and Starcite, too.” 

The demand for incredibly fast and secure Wi-Fi is also top of mind for Ahluwalia and his staff at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. “We’re making very large improvements on technology at our resort right now,” he adds.

More Celebrity Chef Restaurants 
The most recent addition to Maui’s dining scene is Migrant Restaurant from Top Chef finalist and Hawaii native Sheldon Simeon, which is located inside the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. There, Simeon serves up Asian- and Hawaiian-influenced tapas that highlight local Hawaii dishes like his signature Hangar Steak (pictured here).

In 2012, Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, welcomed Alan Wong’s Amasia, a restaurant that features Asian, Peruvian, and Spanish flavors. The Andaz Maui at Wailea, which just opened last summer, is also home to Morimoto Maui from Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.

Maui Is Serious About Meetings
Tolbert, Ahluwalia, and Ejnes all agree that Maui is not only a beautiful destination, but one that’s serious about hosting meetings, too. 

“Everyone here at Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa appreciates the importance and value of group business and demonstrates genuine commitment and dedication while delivering Marriott’s high standard of traditional service with aloha hospitality,” says Tolbert.

Ahluwalia adds, “Meetings and incentives are two of the largest focus points for our resort and our brand. Our commitment is really to execute exceptional events that are memorable for all of our guests.”

Speaking about his most recent Maui meeting experience, Ejnes says, “From the start, the Sheraton Maui and the sales staff at Starwood took a keen interest in our organization and business model. They understood our hesitation and concern about hosting a conference in Maui.  It was clear to us that they wanted more than to just provide a venue for our conference.  They wanted to see the conference succeed and as a result approached our relationship as a partnership that ensured that the meeting would be a successful one. That partnership was evident from the time we signed a contract to the time the conference concluded.”