Meeting with Culture


Hawaii is divergent from its fellow 49 states. Before this idyllic archipelago became a state in 1959, Hawaii was a sovereign kingdom ruled independently for centuries—and is the only state that was once a country. “We are the most remote place on the Earth, and we have had years of evolution on our own. There is also a very big melting pot of cultures. No one anywhere can match that—they don’t have the aloha spirit,” says Michael Murray, CMP, CMM, CASE, vice president of sales and marketing, Corporate Meetings and Incentives Division of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.  

Hawaii does not share its sister states’ European roots. “The belief was that Marquesans, Tahitians and a combination of other Pacific Islanders settled this area about 2,000 years ago,” says Kainoa Daines, director of sales and cultural director for Honolulu’s Queen Kapiolani Hotel. “Over time it evolved into the living culture that exists today, and in some ways, has died. We are more closely related to New Zealand, Samoa and other Polynesian countries than The States.”

Not very many people think of Hawaii as a kingdom with a distinct culture and customs, Daines says. When Hawaiian culture comes to mind, visions of coconut bikinis, grass skirts, orchid prints and brightly colored beverages crowned with umbrellas instantly come to our collective consciousness, but the culture is much deeper than these commercialized images. “I encourage people to understand that we are an accomplished people, not just hula dancers and surfers. We have traveled across the ocean by canoes by using the stars, we have made developments in agriculture, clothing and more,” says Clifford Naeole, cultural advisor to Maui’s Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. “The Hawaiian culture has a very tangible side with the luau, the dancing and the flowers. There is also the intangible side, the spirituality, the wellness, the wholeness of the family—these things can be found just as easily as a Mai Tai at a local bar—you just have to tune into them.”

And travelers of all stripes are looking for a deeper connection to destinations. “It is not just about the sun, sand and surf anymore; it is about what else is here. Why do they keep coming back here?” Daines says. “My answer is the culture—it’s the feeling of this place. It is that love, that welcoming—it is the spirit of arrival. It is very intangible. It is woven into the fabric of what we do, and it’s why people come.”

To further the connection with the people and create a meaningful connection with their host, many groups have been requesting give-back opportunities to add onto their programs, says the HVCB’s Murray. Businesses are looking for ways to leave a lasting legacy in Hawaii, get more out of time spent and learn about the local culture in the process. “Hawaii is conducive to having the wow of a destination and the wow of CSR,” Gatehouse says. She integrated multiple CSR projects into her most recent incentive trip on Maui. “Bellmen came up to the people and said, ‘We heard what you did for our community.’ You cross the barriers of being a tourist and not a local,” she says.

Seven out of 10 groups ask for CSR, says Naeole. “Businesses are really oriented to being contributors and leaving a legacy—that is the big trend that I am seeing right now. I welcome companies that do that,” he says.

According to Gatehouse, “I would love to bring programs back to Hawaii. It is somewhere I would definitely recommend as a destination that provides the chance to discover the beauty of the island and the beauty of the people.”

Plan Abroad at Home

The state’s unique history and blending of cultures lends an international feel to meetings and incentives. In a time when companies are cutting back and moving meetings and incentives from international destinations to domestic ones, Hawaii is the best of both worlds. Hawaii has the allure and cultural intrigue of a distant land with the convenience and ease of doing business that only a domestic locale can offer. “For those U.S. companies that want to stay domestic, it fits the bill,” Murray says. “People now want to stay within the U.S. because of the ease of planning. You are not dealing with visas and currency issues, yet have that international flair within the islands.” Daines supports this sentiment and adds, “We have things here that are American: same money, same language and laws. And that is where it ends. Everything else about this place is foreign—in a good way.”

   Boardroom at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Honolulu.

In addition to an other-worldly feel, the state offers a vast and diverse infrastructure of accommodations (71,000 guest rooms), unique venues and activities to suit many groups. “Our incentive market is up 9%, and our corporate meetings are a little down,” Murray says. “We are seeing resurgence in the group market and even in the corporate market. We are seeing an uptick to the islands; we are seeing an uptick to the corporate sector.”

And now is the time to come; there are still good values to be had. Gatehouse adds, “You feel safe, it is exotic and it is currently a good value.” As value is top of mind, planners can take advantage of hot dates and rates featured on Business Aloha, an HVCB’s website.

Another sign of the positive shift in business, as well as boosting Hawaii’s business image, Honolulu will be hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Meeting in November 2011. “President Obama and heads of state from 20 other countries will conduct their business at the Hawaii Convention Center with well over 10,000 high-level international delegates taking part in this crucially important conference,” Murray says. “APEC represents a great piece of new business for Hawaii that will have far-reaching economic benefits throughout our visitor industry. More importantly, we believe that having Hawaii host APEC sends a strong message to the rest of the world that Hawaii is a top-tier destination to host meetings and conventions, especially considering that this will be the first APEC convention held on U.S. soil in 18 years. Hawaii is a beautiful and appealing location to conduct serious business meetings, and we believe APEC will help immensely in conveying that message globally.”

Each of Hawaii’s six major islands presents many options to experience the culture both in and out of the meeting room. Plus, unique venues range from historic palaces to museums, which add both a distinctly Hawaiian feel and an uncommon visitor experience for each event. “I think there’s such a wide variety in the islands. Kauai is the Garden Island, so it’s slow and peaceful. Then there is The Big Island, which is completely different; to me it’s the one that’s the most spiritual. It seems to be imbued most with the Hawaiian culture—and, of course, there are the volcanoes,” Gatehouse says.

Daines agrees and adds, “Every island has its own personality, and attendees need to visit the neighbor isles. If you are going to make the journey across the Pacific Ocean to come here for the meeting, you obviously come here for more than just your meeting.”
Following is a brief guide to Hawaiian meetings and cultural explorations (but we hope that your attendees will blaze their own trail post-meeting).

Cultural Connections 

Experiencing the culture is not just something that attendees have been asking for, it’s something that hotels have been delivering. “Most hotels have now realized that there is a spiritual renaissance. They are offering special programs or leads on who to see and what to do for family ceremonies and rituals,” The Ritz-Carlton’s Naeole says.

Hotels that previously sported a more corporate look have renovated to bring in artistic elements of the Hawaiian culture and reinforce the distinct sense of place. “That is something that is a trend—I have been seeing more cultural décor. It is a great thing to start somewhere, and it is good when the hotels try,” Daines says. He cautions, though, when integrating cultural elements into a hotel or a meeting program, be careful to use them in a correct way to be respectful.

Finding a way to bring the Hawaiian culture into the meeting room is the first step to experiencing it. “I love the idea of having hula at the beginning of an event. It’s a pono (the righteous/proper) way to open an event, to really honor the culture of the place. By adding an element like chanting or hula, you can really absorb the culture in a more appropriate setting,” Daines says. This famous dance was created in Hawaii and is representative of the state’s past. “Hula is where our history is embedded. Our history was an oral history; we had to remember everything. Sometimes to ease the memory, we needed a visual, and that is where the hula comes in,” he adds.

Daines recommends asking your hotel salesperson if they have a cultural advisor on staff or can bring one in. The HVCB, and its island chapters, are also good jumping-off points, as they represent more than 4,000 companies. The Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association is another great resource for authentic cultural experiences, as it’s an association of industry professionals who strive to “honor and perpetuate the Hawaiian culture and community.”

One easy way to get the meeting off on the right foot is beginning with a traditional welcome chant, or oli. This frames the meeting from the get-go and opens attendees to the layers of culture and traditions Hawaii has to offer. Naeole often integrates a welcome chant into group programs, as does Daines. The chants often invoke and honor the ancestors of the land and reconnect those present to the past and the land, which is very important in the culture.

At The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, Naeole offers his groups a huiwai, or spiritual cleansing ceremony. Groups gather at the ocean at 5:30 a.m. “It’s an exercise in self-realization and self-forgiveness. We go into the ocean and we cleanse. The first second the sun comes to the sky, it’s the permission to go live your life. It is like the Hawaiian confessional box,” he says. “I have them dedicate that to one of their ancestors that have passed. I have had up to 200 people at the beach in the morning. People comment, ‘Wow! How come more people aren’t here?’”

He also suggests seeking out some island artisans to bring into an event. Regional arts and crafts are based on nature using elements such as various woods, shells, seeds, feathers and bone. “You can go and speak with them. It’s the hosted getting reconnected with the host,” he says. He also integrates important Hawaiian values such as ties to the earth, family, spirituality and hospitality into the meeting and into the workplace.  

The use of local speakers and entertainment, as well, will cut down on travel costs and increase the connection with the land. The HVCB is currently working on expanding their speaker’s bureau program. “We have big leaders in their various fields,” Murray says. Local speakers, as well as other planner resources, can be found at the aforementioned Add the flair by hiring a local musician or attending live performances.


Oahu is the business center of Hawaii and is the state’s largest city, with more than 900,000 residents of diverse backgrounds. “We have a deep cosmopolitan side of the island. We have museums, the arts, we have everything. You can do architectural tours downtown. It’s endless,” HVCB’s Murray says.      

   The Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

The majority of the state’s meeting venues are found here, with 31,000 guest rooms in Waikiki Beach alone. Options for groups of all sizes and preferences can be found in and around Honolulu’s Waikiki. The Hawaii Convention Center is the island’s meetings hub, with a 200,000-plus-square-foot exhibition hall, 149,768 sq. ft. of total meeting space and 47 meeting rooms, plus two theaters with tiered seating. The SMG-managed center has the warm, open feel of the islands with palm trees in the expansive, glass-encased lobby and a 2.5-acre landscaped rooftop garden.

New to Waikiki, the 462-room Trump International Hotel Waikiki Beach Walk features wood paneling with traditional tapa patterns, koa wood, granite and marble stone finishes to give a sense of place. Debuting next month, the Edition Waikiki is the inaugural hotel of a joint venture between Marriott and Ian Schrager. It has 353 guest rooms and 18,000 sq. ft. of function space in a restaurant by Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, as well as a nightclub.

At the Ko Olina Resort, the Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa is preparing for its August 2011 debut. The 21-acre, oceanfront resort will feature 359 guest rooms and 481 two-room villas, a spa and more than 50,000 sq. ft. of function space. The new property was designed to reflect the local culture (the name Aulani means, among many translations, “the messenger of a chief”) with traditional images and colors woven throughout the resort. It will also offer cultural programs showcasing music, dance and more.  

Local Culture

The first stop on your Oahu cultural exploration is the Bishop Museum, home to countless art and artifacts, the Jhamandas Watumull Planetarium and The Richard T. Mamiya Science Adventure Center. The museum has an impressive collection that includes more than 1.3-million cultural artifacts representing Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island cultures. The museum’s 14-acre campus welcomes groups in 10 event spaces.

Another venue steeped in history is the Iolani Palace, built in 1882, which is where the Queen Liliuokalani was imprisoned during the overthrow of the Hawaiian government. “It’s the only palace on U.S. soil, and it does have a huge cultural reference—we are only state that was a kingdom,” Murray says. “You can take tours of each room—the grounds and the palace itself are very compelling.” The palace can accommodate groups and is available for private events.

For a dose of living culture, plan an off-site event at the Polynesian Cultural Center. The center represents seven Pacific Islands (Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Marquesas, Aotearoa [New Zealand] and Hawaii) and showcases the arts and crafts, performance arts and history of Polynesian nations. The center is known for its International Performance Team and their famous shows, and offers multiple event venues for private functions.

Getting in touch with the local surf culture can also be an enriching experience. As Kimo Chung, surf consultant/surf guru at Kahala-based Keawe Adventures puts it, “For many of us, surfing has become a way of life. When the surf is good, many of us become more humble and relaxed with ourselves and others.” He also adds, “Surfing has become a healthy way to be, in mind, body and spirit. As our ancestors did hundreds of years ago, surfing and paddling are a large part of our living culture as we strive to become pono.” Keawe Adventures offers personal surf and tour adventures, and extreme land and water sports of all types, including spear fishing and canoe rides; they can also customize island tours.


Maui and its sister islands are known as the Magic Isles. The trio of islands features verdant terrain, mountainous scenery and open spaces. The region has 19,000-plus guest rooms in a variety of styles and price points. The Maui Visitors & Convention Bureau will serve as your pied-a-terre for your meeting and cultural agendas.

A great starting point, Lahaina is a former whaling town along Kaanapali Beach, which is known for its flourishing art scene, galleries and historic sites, such as the 60-foot Banyan Tree and the Jodo Mission, a beautiful Buddhist temple.

The Maui Historical Society's Bailey House Museum chronicles the history of Maui with Hawaiian culture and artifacts, as well as paintings and furnishings from 19th-century Maui. The museum also offers educational programs, as well as private event space.

On the island of Molokai, take a ride up 1,700 feet to Kalaupapa National Historical Park, which is known for one of the island’s most breathtaking vistas. It was also home of the historic settlement of Hawaiians suffering from Hansen’s disease (leprosy) from 1866 until 1969.

Also on the island, the Halawa Valley is believed to be an ancient Hawaiian settlement of people from the Marquesas Islands and a spiritual place. Featuring towering waterfalls, the area has picnic facilities and hiking trails. Molokai Museum & Cultural Center was once a working mill (the R.W. Meyer Sugar Mill) and has since been restored and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Big Island 

The Island of Hawaii is known as the island of adventure, filled with exotic open spaces, indigenous wildlife and striking scenery. Nicknamed The Big Island, it is more than twice the size of all of the other islands combined and has many different microclimates and types of scenery throughout.

Soak up some local flavor at the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo. Taking place April 24-30, 2011, the lively annual event is dedicated perpetuation, preservation and promotion of the art of hula and Hawaiian culture.

The recently renovated, 309-room Keauhou Beach Resort has launched a new cultural program that can be customized for groups, such as arts and crafts from the kupuna (elders), hula lessons and chanting. Fresh from a $40-million renovation, the 243-room Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Kaupulehu also offers cultural activities at its Kaupulehu Cultural Center.

A large draw for visitors, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the state’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 333,086-acre park is home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes—Kilauea and Maunaloa—and gives visitors an up-close-and-personal look at the work of Madame Pele (the Hawaiian goddess of fire, lightning, dance, volcanoes and more). She is also known as “she who shapes the land,” and her work can be seen in the swirling colors of lava rock across the state.

Take in the Polynesian past with the Kona Historical Society, which offers groups tours and events at their Kona Coffee Living History Farm and the circa-1870 general store, in addition to offering multiple private event spaces. Also history rich, the cream-colored Huliee Palace in downtown Kailua-Kona was a former bayfront vacation residence for Hawaiian royalty and is now available for private events.

In paniolo (cowboy) country, Parker Ranch is a cool event venue, Murray says. “They cater to meetings and groups with tours and themed events like rustling cattle. It has panoramic ocean views and, meanwhile, you are up against a volcano that is a million years old,” he says.


Known as the Garden Isle, Kauai is recognized for its verdant grounds and laid-back feel. The 552-square-mile island is crowned by Mt. Waialeale, the wettest spot on Earth with more than 450 inches of annual rain. It also provides many opportunities for cultural exploration pre- and post-meeting. The Kauai Visitors Bureau  will help you find meeting venues across the island’s five resort areas.

   King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel, Kailua-Kona.

At the Kauai Museum, two floors of permanent exhibits tell the story of Kauai from the birth of the island up through the Territorial Period. The Kokee Museum Natural History ( provides an overview of the natural and cultural history of Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Parks. Included is an exhibit on Hawaiian weather, as well as one on Hurricane Iniki, which hit Kauai in 1992. The parks in the area also serve up beautiful grounds for geological and natural exploration.

The McBryde Garden is another scenic spot for nature. Part of the network of National Tropical Botanical Gardens, the gardens are billed as the largest collection of native Hawaiian plants; tours are available.

Plan an event around nature at Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens, which are available for all types of events, from musical performances to off-sites. The 240-acre site encompasses a variety of different gardens with diverse flora and fauna.

Hawaii is known for coffee, and the Kauai Coffee Company is the largest coffee plantation in the state. Arrange for tastings and tours explaining the coffee production process. Also an agricultural site, the Grove Farm Museum is a former sugar plantation and homestead built in 1864. Hoopulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill is the state’s only remaining rice mill and is now a historic landmark and agrarian museum. Located in the taro fields of the Hanalei Valley, the area is also a wildlife refuge and offers limited guided tours in the areas that are safe for birds.

For more information on properties, venues and attractions in Hawaii, visit


Cover Photo Credit: Renea C. Stewart