Oahu: Variety Is This Island's Spice

Groups may know Honolulu best, but there's plenty else to see and do on Oahu

PINNACLE AWARDS GO TO:
• Hawaii VCB
• The Kahala Hotel & Resort 
• The Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa
• The Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Collection Resort 
• Sheraton Waikiki Resort 
• Turtle Bay Resort  

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Seven million tourists visited Hawaii last year, approaching levels last seen in 2007 and indicating its rebound from the recession. While the state’s meetings, conventions, and incentives business grew a modest 2 percent, Michael Murray, vice president of sales and marketing for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, expects the pace to pick up for 2011 and for the island of Oahu to lead the way. 

Oahu, the most populous island, and where half of the state’s hotel inventory is located, “is the heart of Hawaii,” says Murray. Oahu has about 30,000 hotel rooms, and most are in state capital Honolulu, which has benefitted greatly from an airlift rebound, with an estimated 600,000 additional seats (including seasonal ones) from around the world activated in 2010. Domestically, more than 90 percent of the seats lost from the closures of ATA and Aloha airlines have been made up by other carriers.

With Oahu commanding the largest chunk of Hawaii’s hotel product, and a concentration of it nestled in the Waikiki area of Honolulu, it is not lacking in property options. 

One choice in the heart of Waikiki is the 1,636-room Sheraton Waikiki, which in late January capped off the final phase of its $188-million renovation with the $1-million Leahi Club Lounge, perched 30 floors above iconic Waikiki Beach. The 126-seat lounge, with a 12-person boardroom and availability for buyouts, gives planners a private space with what the Sheraton calls “sophisticated, contemporary Hawaiian elegance.”  
         
The Sheraton’s fully refreshed guest-rooms, public spaces, and meetings facilities like the 26,000-sf Hawaii Ballroom—the recipient of a $5-million retooling—radiate the same contemporary Hawaiian theme. Outside, the property’s Helumoa Playground, an $8-million pool and waterslide facility mixed into indigenous Oahu foliage, can be a group luau or event space. At the $6-million infinity-edge pool, which creates a mirage effect of blending seamlessly with the Pacific, participants in private functions get unobstructed ocean views. 

For planners looking to whisk groups away from the bustle, just southeast of Waikiki sits the 338-room, “hideaway” Kahala Hotel & Resort, which offers spectacular views of Oahu’s famous Diamond Head and Koko Head volcanic craters. It also has five restaurants, a spa, a private lagoon with its own resident bottlenose dolphins, and an 800-foot-long, crescent-shaped beach. “It’s a very high-end property in a residential resort area,” says Murray.  

When meeting-goers or incentive participants are not in its 5,200-sf Maile Ballroom or on its 8,000-sf Koko Head Lawn attending group functions, they can hop on the resort’s complimentary shuttle to the Ala Moana Shopping Center, the Kahala Mall, and the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center in Waikiki. Or they can take part in complimentary cultural classes on hula dancing, lei making, and ukulele playing.   

Many Oahu groups inevitably visit Pearl Harbor, west of Honolulu, to learn about one of the most infamous days in American history. After spending an afternoon viewing the exhibits at the USS ArizonaMemorial, which floats above the sunken hull of the tragic battleship just off the shore, and seeing the retired USS Missouri with a guide on the “Mighty Mo Tour” or “Battle Stations Tour,” history buffs can enjoy a private nighttime event on the Missouri or at the brand-new $58-million Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. 

The battleship’s flight deck, or fantail, can handle different seating specifications for formal dinners (150 people) and tented buffets (300) amid views of the Pearl Harbor and Waianae mountain range. The vessel’s 10-person captain’s cabin, meanwhile, caters to the most exclusive group dinners.

“Off-sites proliferate on Oahu,” Murray notes, adding the 3,500-animal Waikiki Aquarium, the Honolulu Zoo, and Iolani Palace, which was the residence of Hawaii’s monarchy and is now a National Historic Landmark, as 
recommended group options. The Palace’s barracks, with its limestone structure with lit crenulated parapets and towers, delivers a memorable setting for dinner. More than 80 guests can sit comfortably in the open-air courtyard. 

But Oahu isn’t just about the southeastern shore; there are other popular pockets on the island, such as the North Shore, as well as Kapolei on the western coast, which is becoming a resort area. In Kapolei, Disney is set to launch Aulani, a 359-room beachfront resort with a 14,500-sf meetings facility, in the Ko Olina resort in late August.  

Groups flock to the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) on the North Shore. With recreated villages of Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti, and Easter Island, presentations on grass-skirt and lei making, and the option to participate in fire-starting, coconut husking, and island games like spear throwing, attendees can get the full flavor of Hawaii and her South Pacific brethren. The villages double as group venues, and there are two theaters, restaurants, and dining venues for buyouts.    

Confabs can also situate on the North Shore at the 400-plus-room Turtle Bay Resort. The Benchmark Hospitality property has two championship golf courses, a spa with locally inspired treatments, three specialty restaurants, and two 9,000-sf ballrooms.       
  
Turtle Bay has traditional beach activities, as well as not-so-traditional diversions such as guided Segway trail rides. And the resort is the only one on Oahu that provides memorable hour-long helicopter tours directly from the property.