Maui is Hawaiian for 'Meetings'

The Valley Isle continues to make a strong case for meetings.

When Walter Ejnes, the president of Palm Coast, FL-based Continuing Education Company, was thinking about bringing a medical meeting of 250 physicians and healthcare professionals to Maui last October, he admits he that he was hesitant.

“We were initially very reluctant to bring [the Primary Care Fall CME Conference] to Maui,” Ejnes says. “The feedback that we were receiving from the medical community in our surveys was that their travel was being restricted to the mainland U.S. 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.”

So, what changed his mind? A “very determined salesperson” at the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa. And the end result? “The results this year were beyond our expectations, as we surpassed all of our goals,” Ejnes notes. “As a result of our conference’s success in Maui, we’ve just recently committed to six more conferences on the island to be held between 2014 and 2016.”

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.” Ejnes adds, “Basically, the cost of a Maui meeting can be surprisingly no different from one hosted on the mainland.”

Sherry Duong, director of meetings, conventions, incentives, and international sales for the Maui Visitors & Convention Bureau, echoes Ejnes’ sentiments. “Don’t be afraid that it is in Maui. It’s the best place for meetings to get the most out of your attendees, and a high attendance,” Duong notes. “Once groups have their meetings on Maui or any of our other Hawaiian islands, they can see that the environment lets people relax and take in everything that needs to be discussed at the meeting, making it a very productive program. Simply put, it’s an unforgettable experience.”

The unique experience of meeting in a culturally distinctive destination like Maui is also a key selling point, says Alex Ahluwalia, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. 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.

Ahluwalia adds that he has begun to see more demand from meeting groups based in the Northeastern U.S., and that many financial, pharmaceutical, and insurance meeting groups are “all more open to leaving the continental U.S. and going to offshore locations like Maui,” he says. “Not only are they coming back, but they are more open to spending on more unique and authentic experiences.”

Evolving Experiences

For the past 20 consecutive years, the Valley Isle of Maui has been voted the No. 1 island in the world by readers of Condé Nast Traveler, thanks to its winning combination of natural beauty and Hawaiian hospitality. And year after year, Maui’s properties — both new and existing — have continued to evolve to ensure that guest experiences continue to be unforgettable.

Last September, the newest addition to the island — the Andaz Maui at Wailea — opened with 290 guest rooms and more than 15,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space. The hotel, Hyatt’s 10th Andaz-branded property and the collection’s first resort, encompasses 15 acres of oceanfront real estate, once occupied by the former Renaissance Wailea Beach Resort Maui.

Also in Wailea, the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa recently welcomed a brand-new restaurant from Top Chef finalist and Hawaii native Sheldon Simeon that showcases local Hawaiian cuisine.

Further north, in Kaanapali, the 759-room Westin Maui Resort & Spa is in the final stages of a complete renovation of all of its 553 Ocean Tower guest rooms and suites. The new rooms are contemporary in their design, with subtle nods to local Hawaiian art. Following a property stay in December, my favorite room features included the lanai (balcony) overlooking the beach, as well as the brand’s famous Heavenly shower and bed.

The group-friendly Westin Maui, which has expansive meeting and event space (45,000 square feet in total), is also working closely with groups to offer special banquet menus and tour activities. One of the banquet menus that I had an opportunity to taste was fully focused on farm-to-table fare, highlighting local ingredients such as Surfing Goat Dairy’s award-winning goat cheese, and sweet strawberries from Kula Country Farms. Prior to that, our group also had a chance to experience an interactive botanical/ cultural tour around the property, which included an educational — and tasty — lesson in how to harvest a fresh coconut.

The Westin Maui’s sister property, the 508room Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, celebrated its 50th anniversary last fall, and like The Westin Maui, is equally focused on working with groups. It boasts 12,000 square feet of indoor meeting space and 18,000 square feet of outdoor function space. One of its newest event/meeting venues is the Moana Private Dining Room, where small groups of up to 28 people can dine atop the resort’s famous Black Rock. The room also opens out onto its own ocean-facing lawn, which can be set up for outdoor receptions and functions. Not far from the Moana Private Dining Room, Club level guests can also relax in the new Na Hoku Club Lounge, which will offer continental breakfast, evening appetizers, and beverages.

The Sheraton Maui also has a pre-packaged offer called Creative Ways to Connect that lets groups use its main Ocean Lawn for a day of meetings, receptions, and/or team-building. Activities include an outdoor barbecue, snorkeling excursions, group hula lessons, a beach party, a field day, or a corporate social responsibility event like a beach cleanup.

North of Kaanapali, in Kapalua, The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, recently completed a renovation of its exterior façade and a major landscaping project. “It looks brand new when you arrive,” says Ahluwalia. “We’re really focusing on attracting more groups, refreshing our resort, and working on technology, too,” he adds.

Seeing Is Believing

The best way for a planner to know if Maui is the right fit for their meeting, is knowing whom to reach out to, and experiencing it in person. Duong notes that planners are encouraged to contact the Maui Visitors & Convention Bureau, and the Meet Hawaii team, to assist them with obtaining rates and availability with partner hotels.

Ejnes adds: “I’d advise planners to spend some time in Maui to visit the many options that the island has to offer. A fam tour that I participated in a few years ago brought me to Maui. Spending a few days there made it clear to me that Maui would be the ideal location for one of our conferences. It was the first trip that opened my eyes to what a great location it is, and I don’t regret ever making it.”