To put the divide in perspective, the northwestern coast averages less than 10 inches of rain a year (or a few droplets more than the Gobi Desert). On the windward southeastern side, the annual average increases by a factor of 30! As a result, the west side offers the perpetually sunny Kohala and Kona coasts; on the east side, lush rainforests and shimmering waterfalls.
Play in the Kohala Coast’s endless sun, amid the pleasures offered up by the area’s refined resorts and dare-to-dream diversions. Nose up to a bottlenose dolphin or snorkel behind a tortoise. Rock out in an ancient petroglyph field. Or relax to the max with an ultimate spa day.
Also along this coast, there’s the lively fishing village of Kailua-Kona, a down-home alternative to the rarified residences and resort properties along Kohala. Once a regal retreat, the charming harbor of Kailua-Kona captivates with cultural sites interspersed among a colorful collection of galleries, eateries and shops.
The yin to the west’s yang is Hilo, the commercial and county center washed clean by rainfall some 278 days a year, delivering a moist 129 inches per year (compared to, say, Seattle with around 35 inches annually). Seemingly untouched by time, this mellow hamlet hooks you in with its festive farmers market, museums, historic buildings and its unquestionably vibrant botanical gardens and parks.
Toss in the lush Hamakua Coast on the island’s north and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to the south, and you have all the diversity of a mini-continent.
Big beginning t
When Polynesian voyagers sailed toward the Big Island in their double-hulled canoes centuries ago, no doubt they were swept away by the natural treasures that lay before them. Snowcapped mountains, bays brimming with fish, and beaches strewn with multicolor sand were merely a part of the picture.
The youngest in the Hawaiian chain, at 800,000 years, the Big Island emerged from the ocean when five massive volcanoes erupted and created a wide range of terrain, climate and scenery. The Big Island’s ecological diversity covers 11 of the earth’s 13 climate zones. All that’s missing are the Arctic and Saharan, fortunately.
Today, cultures coalesce as effortlessly as that terrain, fashioning an island tapestry as rich as its history. At the core, the aloha spirit translates into warm, island-style hospitality.
“On the Big Island, we don’t view this as a service industry,” notes George Applegate, executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau (bigisland.org). “We’re hosts. We welcome visitors to our home, serving them with pride and dignity.” On a mission to make the island an even
better place to live, the trickle effect makes it a better place to visit and do business as well.
Meeting in the
The two different worlds gracefully intertwine amid this 4,028-square-mile spot that’s unlike any other island in the Hawaiian chain. And meeting planners have taken notice in a big way.
According to the State of Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT), 2005’s net domestic MCI arrivals for the Big Island were up a walloping 40.2 percent over 2004. That’s no huge surprise to Michael Murray, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau’s (hvcb.org) vice president of sales and marketing for corporate meetings and incentives.
While the island is expand-
ing its traditional MCI business, emerging segments are sparking new growth. “What many people don’t realize is that the Big Island
is growing in the areas of astronomy, space science and biotech,” reports Murray.
Chian Hsu, marketing director at Naniloa Volcanoes Resort and Volcano House, can attest to that. “We regularly host incentives, including large corporate groups like Toyota, Honda and Hewlett Packard,” Hsu reports. “And now we’re seeing groups associated with the University of Hawaii at Hilo and Mauna Kea Observatories as well.”
Just over 1,600 east side rooms are avail-
able, ranging from hotels and condos in Hilo to bed and breakfasts stretching from Honokaa
On the flip side of the coin, the west side is up in convention and incentive business while attracting budding biotech interests as well—especially with the 322-acre Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA)
Just over 9,700 rooms sprawl from Kohala in the north to Keauhou in the south, with the bulk along the Kohala Coast about in the middle.
Tech growth aside, Murray credits the boost to Hawaii’s attendance-spiking ability and the fact that attendees vacation while they handle business at hand. “When planners book Hawaii, it serves a dual purpose,” Murray says. “Attendees add pre- or post-function stays and bring their families along. So they go home rejuvenated, revitalized and reenergized.”
The visitors bureau’s George Applegate agrees. “When you’re coming for a meeting, you really want that pre- or post-conference stay,” he points out.
Staying in Kona? Applegate recommends that you drive to Hilo for a few nights, then explore the town, the rugged Hamakua Coast to the north and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to the south. “Hilo has become a place where visitors say ‘I’m really in Hawaii!’” he adds.
Naniloa's Hsu even sees extended stays between her two properties. “People often book two nights in Hilo and then move for a night at Volcano House.”
Big Island visitors find unsurpassed opportunities for a flurry of memorable R&R experiences. Seventeen scenic courses beckon golfers to drive, chip and putt the day away. A slew of world-class spas lures with exclusive treatments. From a post-meeting traipse through a lava tube to a kayaking trek along the Keauhou Coast, this “Island of Adventure” seamlessly brings all aspects together.
Meetings made easy t
Whether convening in Hilo or along the Kona-Kohala Coast, Hawaii’s Big Island delivers an exciting, exotic setting for group gatherings. Worlds away from the everyday, it’s surprisingly accessible, with daily direct flights from the U.S. mainland into both Hilo and Kona airports.
“The direct flights have made a huge difference in helping us market Big Island incentives and meetings,” reports Tony Swenson, vice president of sales for Salt Lake City-based Morris Meetings & Incentives.
Swenson says he appreciates the flexibility in accommodations, citing Mauna Kea Resort’s two Prince properties. “We’ll use Mauna Kea for more elite board of directors meetings and Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel for larger incentive groups,” he explains. “It’s a major draw that attendees can use the entire resort and all its facilities, with countersigning privileges at both properties.”
Island-wide, planners enjoy access to an extensive network of support services highlighted by state-of-the-art business equipment. An exceptional blend of indoor and outdoor function space ensures that meeting needs are met, yet with a trademark aloha spirit to be found only here.
The aloha spirit t
“It’s the aloha spirit that sets us apart,” contends HVCB’s Murray. “Just the mere fact that tourism is Hawaii’s top industry, and that we’ve been marketing Hawaii over a century, indicates we take it very seriously.”
Murray explains that the Big Island mirrors the other Hawaiian Islands and the state. “It’s our commitment to professionalism and hospitality that sets us apart from other destinations,” he remarks. “To stay competitive, the bottom line is this aloha spirit that’s found nowhere else.”
As testimony to the power of aloha, the National Association of Chemical Distributors has held ten regional events and board of directors meetings at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows over the last 15 years.
“Mauna Lani has a wonderful staff on site,” comments planner Betsy Witteman. “Year after year, they remember our names. And since they have such low employee turnover, we tend to deal with the same people each time.” She adds that her attendees welcome that aloha attitude that’s unique here, differentiating it from other locales.
Revell Newton, director of sales and marketing at the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, also vouches for the impact of aloha. Only several years post-renovation and reopening, his property is already seeing return bookings.
“Our staff is all about the extra effort,” Newton says. “We really help groups mold, fold and shape their Big Island experience any way they like. And they appreciate the ability to really use the property as a color palette to create their own perfect picture.”
John Rich with Westgate Travel, a Cleveland, Ohio–based incentive marketing company, utilizes multiple Kohala Coast resorts for his groups. “All of the properties we work with are wonderful,” says Rich. “We always find that staffs bend over backward to do what we want. They’re flexible and help us create great themes.”
Rich has four groups slated for the Hapuna in the first quarter of 2007 alone. “Hapuna is a no-brainer because the staff is so easy to work with,” he remarks. “Our clients feel we’ve under-promised. We feel Hapuna over-delivers.”
Sheraton's Newton finds property size is also critical to planners. With 545 rooms, his hotel sees smaller groups blending in and larger ones taking over. “A good size group really feels they own our resort and the 36 holes of golf, plus activities coming out of Keauhou Bay. They can take over the property.”
At Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, layout outweigh size. “The way our bungalows are arranged, we don’t have a traditional hotel feeling,” explains Norma Textor-Wong, director of sales. “You don’t run into other people, so attendees gather for their events, then disappear. It’s as if they have their own holiday during free time.”
Textor-Wong notes the value of meeting in such a historically rich destination, which is omnipresent nearly everywhere on the Big Island. “It adds to the program,” she says. “Meeting here is really like stepping back into old Hawaii.”
The visitor bureau’s Applegate recognizes that all the Hawaiian Islands are very special. “They all have their own calling card. But this island is Hawaii. It’s the place where it all began. It’s the real deal.”
Unique venues t
On the Big Island, you can host functions in standout settings that run from sprawling cattle ranches to an oceanfront palace, so be adventurous. Let your imagination soar!
Known for its lush natural gardens, the Big Island literally blooms with floral conservatories for vivid outdoor events. Among them is Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden (htbg.com), a museum of living plants situated in the Hamakua Coast’s 40-acre Onomea Valley.
Grand garden and oceanfront areas accommodate up to 70 for receptions and dinners within this natural greenhouse brimming with hundreds of exotic plants. Also check out Nani Mau Gardens (nanimau.com).
Nearby, Hawaiian Vanilla Company (hawaiianvanilla.com) tailors agricultural and culinary events. Attendees can savor exclusive Chef’s Table dinners or get a hands-on experience at activity stations combining cultivation classes, farm visits and vanilla production workshops. From brunch at the mill to workday opportunities at the greenhouse, customized events take on a heady flavor of their own.
Just up the hill from the Kohala Coast is one of the oldest and largest cattle ranches in the United States. Sprawling across 175,000 acres of the Kohala Mountains, Parker Ranch (parkerranch.com) wrangles newly initiated cowhands and cowgirls at two main function sites. Decor-
ated with fine art and antiques, the ranch’s 7,000-square-foot historic home, Puuopelu, accommodates up to 120 for cocktails. An exterior area of manicured gardens can handle up to 400. The ranch’s rodeo arena grandstand seats up to 1,200 for larger hoe-downs.
The 8,500-acre Kahua Ranch (kahua
ranch.com) also serves up a hearty helping of rustic appeal at its Evening at Kahua Ranch Sunset Dinner. “Visitors to Hawaii are amazed that we have ranches here, let alone how long we’ve had them,” explains Sue Foot, co-owner. “Our goal is to educate people about the paniolo (cowboy) life in a fun and down-home way.”
After catching a Kona Coast sunset from the Kahua Ranch’s 3,200-foot elevation, it’s chow time. All food served is raised or produced on the ranch or by farmers in surrounding Big Island communities. Rounding out the evening are games, entertainment, storytelling around the campfire and stargazing.
Also focusing on this farm and ranch belt, Hawaii Forest & Trails’ (HF&T; hawaii-forest.com) yummy new agricultural excursion goes behind the scenes of Hawaii Regional Cuisine with Waimea area farm tours. As a tasteful tie-in, participants return to award-winning Merriman's Restaurant (merrimanshawaii.com) in Waimea for a special four-course dinner prepared with products and produce from the farms visited.
“One of the beautiful lessons the islands teach us is about our intrinsic connection with the land,” says Rob Pacheco, HF&T president. “We want folks to understand that the land is where it all begins. Food is something that ties us all together. It’s because of this connection—land, food, people—that the Merriman’s Farm Tour is a logical fit.”
Down the hill at Hilton Waikoloa Village (hiltonwaikoloavillage.com), Dolphin Quest's Dolphin Celebration Show treats up to 200 with the splash-and-dash antics of these amazing mammals. Up to 15 VIP guests can get into a shallow- water dolphin encounter, meeting the finned wonders up close and personal. Other interactive programs allow up to 48 participants to mingle with marine mammal experts and come face to face with the playful stars.
On Kona's coastal Alii Drive, the Hulihee Palace (huliheepalace.org) presents a historically significant site accommodating up to 300. Once the vacation residence of Hawaiian royalty, the palace is today a museum that showcases beautiful furnishings and artifacts of that era.
As an ocean-going option, Fair Wind (fair-wind.com) invites groups to embark on an afternoon snorkeling cruise with a sunset barbecue aboard the 60-foot Fair Wind II and 55-foot Hula Kai power catamarans. Up to 105 guests can enjoy hours of frolicking in fish-rich Kealakekua Bay before indulging in hearty grille fare lit by a vibrant Kona Coast sunset.
The lure of a luau is unlike any other dining and entertainment option in the islands. Naturally, the Big Island is home to an assortment of these cultural, culinary extravaganzas. Presented by award-winning Tihati Productions, Royal Kona Resort's Drums of Polynesia (konaluau.com) pounds and pulsates as it lauds lava legends and Polynesian legacies on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Also check out Gathering of the Kings (fairmont.com/orchid/), Kona Village Resort's Luau (konavillage.com), Island Breeze Luau (islandbreezeluau.com) and Royal Luau (marriotthawaii.com).
Situated at the edge of Kilauea Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Volcano House (volcanohousehotel.com) is a charming and historic country inn affiliated with Naniloa Volcanoes Resort in Hilo. In what many consider to be the state’s most unique meetings setting, the Ka Ohelo Room at Volcano House boasts picture-window views of the magnificent Kilauea Caldera and Halemaumau Crater. The Ka Ohelo culinary experience offers everything from local-style pupus (hors d’oeuvres) to extravagant prime rib dinners for up to 250.
Hilo’s newest venue, Imiloa Astronomy Center (imiloahawaii.org) allows visitors to explore the connections between Hawaiian cultural traditions and the science of astronomy. Located on a nine-acre campus above the University of Hawaii-Hilo, the facility offers classroom space, a special events hall, planetarium and cafe for private functions.
For larger gatherings, the Conference Center at UH-Hilo (conference.uhh.hawaii.edu) provides meeting facilities for up to 600 and reception capabilities for 1,000 attendees. Known as the hub of Pacific Rim Conferencing, the center also serves as a laboratory for testing and implementing programs geared to the academic, professional, high-tech and human resource communities.
No matter how you size it up, Hawaii’s Big Island presents alluring choices. And the thing that’s fusing together the eastside, westside, business, pleasure and everything between? The aloha spirit, Big Island-style.