East Meets West in Hawai’i


The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit that convened in Hawai'i in November was precedent-setting on a number of fronts, not the least of which was that it was the first APEC conference to which meetings journalists were invited. The message was clear: Meetings and conventions matter. The dollars meetings bring in translate into economic growth and jobs for cities and states, and government and business leaders know it.

The summit, a meeting of 20,000 delegates, guests and political and industry leaders of 21 Pacific Rim economies, had numerous take-aways for attendees, perhaps first and foremost that Asia has the fastest growing economy in the world and is a business force to be reckoned with. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it this way in her remarks at the University of Hawai'i: “The 21st century will be America’s Pacific Century.” She and President Obama spoke about the importance of trade with the countries of Asia, and American CEOs and directors from such powerhouses as Microsoft, Proctor & Gamble, Eli Lilly & Co., Caterpillar, Johnson & Johnson and FedEx referenced enormous growth opportunities for American business interests in the region. Asian leaders, including the prime minister of Singapore and president of Indonesia, also spoke about the importance of partnerships with the United States.

Beyond APEC

What does this mean for meeting planners? In a word, opportunity. As trade increases and North American companies open businesses and partnerships in Asia, there will be a growing need to bring employees and executives from east and west together. Meeting planners who have an understanding of the needs of both eastern and western attendees, as well as familiarity with airlift connecting the regions and with appropriate hotel and conference venues on both sides of the Pacific, will have an advantage over those who don’t.  

Happily for North American planners, one place is uniquely positioned, geographically and culturally, to serve as the premier destination for meetings drawing from North America and Asia. Hawai'i, lying directly between the two regions, is ready to serve as the go-to destination for east-meets-west conferences. In November, it proved its exceptional ability to host multicultural meetings. Moreover, transportation, security and organization of the conference and facilities appeared flawless to attendees, regardless of challenges that most likely were happening behind the scenes. The Hawai'i Convention Center, with its 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall, 35,000-square-foot ballroom and nearly 150,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, served as the epicenter of APEC meetings, while the Sheraton Waikiki hosted the concurrent APEC CEO Summit in its 26,000-plus-square-foot Hawai'i Ballroom and adjacent foyer and meeting rooms. Twenty-one delegations held meetings and stayed in hotels in Waikiki and across O'ahu, and while security was ever-present, it was not an impediment except for a few necessary road closures and the resultant bumper-to-bumper traffic that in most cases did not last long.

Beyond the details of Hawai'i’s impressive infrastructure, there’s its culture, a microcosm of the Asia-Pacific region. Hawai'i already understands the needs of eastern attendees; island staff has the knowledge and expertise to serve as critical support for planners, no learning curve necessary.

Hawaiian culture, in fact, played a critical role in the state’s ability to bring a meeting of APEC’s size to the islands—and to pull it off with class and success. At a breakfast meeting at the architecturally striking state capitol building, Smart Meetings and other industry publications met with Lieutenant Governor Brian Schatz and key members of the APEC Host Committee and tourism-based staff to discuss Hawai'i’s role in APEC and its future as a meetings center.

“We want the meetings and convention industry to know that we can accommodate meetings of this kind,” Schatz said in response to what the state hopes to get out of hosting APEC. But it goes beyond ability and infrastructure. “This is a chance for us to show the world who we are—not just in terms of our capabilities but also our heart,” he said. “Hospitality is who we are, it’s what we do. It’s not just a transactional thing; we’re truly proud of our state and we genuinely want to share it. Aloha means something.”

Indeed, the world in general and Washington, DC in particular could learn from our 50th state. The months of work leading up to APEC relied on a foundation of cooperation and respect. The Host Committee was comprised of 40 people from different political, cultural, business and native Hawaiian communities. This group representing diverse perspectives and needs managed to put together the state’s most challenging and important meeting to date in large part because they set aside differences and focused on the common goal.

“It’s our ability to collaborate,” the Lieutenant Governor said, “that makes a difference in being able to do this.”

Are you listening, U.S. Congress?

As for those considering planning a meeting in Hawai'i, it’s precisely that attitude and ability you want in a destination partner. What APEC proved is that Aloha is not just a word—it’s a mindset and a heartset, and in the meetings industry, as in the world, it’s exactly what’s needed.