Waikiki Aquarium offers a prime location for group functions. // © 2015 Rachel Roberson
Feature image (above): MCI participants can get closer to one another while ziplining over Oahu’s scenic North Shore. // © 2015 CLIMB Works
When the American Psychological Association (APA) held its annual convention on Oahu, an outdoor luau at Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort helped participants feel right at home in the Aloha State.
“Being on an island in a tropical setting really changed the atmosphere of the meeting,” said Candy Won, spokesperson for APA. “Everyone was in good spirits and relaxed.”
Oahu stands ready with plenty of similar, destination-specific activities that allow meetings, conventions and incentive (MCI) groups to add pleasure to business. Subscribing to the theory that the most memorable trips often involve shared experiences in distinctive locales, island companies, attractions and hotels are designing programs that bring attendees closer to Oahu — and to one another.
Increasing numbers of MCIs are asking to inject authentic culture into their itineraries, according to Marie Watanabe, director of sales for Oahu Visitors Bureau.
“Groups are incorporating Hawaiian traditions and talent into their programs in order to add a sense of place,” Watanabe said. “For example, a 'kahu' (Hawaiian minister) can do a 'pule' (blessing) to start the meeting with the right tone. 'Keiki' (children) can greet each delegate with a lei. Musicians and dancers can entertain at evening functions. Local artisans can share crafts during breaks, and regional food and beverages can be incorporated into group meals.”
Since MCI travelers usually bond as they eat and drink, Oahu seasons such occasions with a tropical twist. Case in point: Honolulu-based Hawaii Convention Center, which now offers Hanohano Rooftop Barbeque Under the Stars. In a spacious fourth-floor garden, the private dinner party provides dramatic, open-air views of the city skyline. Attendees are welcomed with mai tais and fresh flower leis. Grilling stations serve favorite island dishes that use regional ingredients, while local musicians and hula dancers entertain the crowd.
A unique Oahu gathering place is Waikiki Aquarium, where groups can mingle over cocktails and cuisine on a seaside lawn. During on-site soirees, attendees get exclusive access to galleries full of native fish, living corals, graceful jellyfish, reef sharks and Hawaiian monk seals.
For another diversion during non-business hours, Sheraton Waikiki presents Project Runway Gone Culinary, which gives groups a hands-on introduction to Oahu cuisine. Participants join forces with the hotel’s food and beverage team to shop for ingredients and then return to concoct creative dishes that are later submitted to a panel of judges. The activity supports area farmers and businesses while enabling guests to work with some of the best chefs in the state.
The catering and event planners at Gourmet Events Hawaii (GEH) can dream up a variety of group theme parties at historic sites. For instance, a gathering on the Battleship Missouri Memorial at Pearl Harbor can transport attendees to post-war 1940s Hawaii, with retro menus, costumed waitstaff and dancing to Big Band tunes. GEH can also create a dinner party reminiscent of the reign of David Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last king. Held at Iolani Palace, built for Kalakaua in 1882, the affair regales guests with food, drink, decor and entertainment that recall the late 19th century.
Meanwhile, Pacific Historic Parks (PHP) offers groups a Pearl Harbor package that includes a narrated tour of the USS Arizona Memorial and gift vouchers for the retail store and other souvenirs. PHP also leads clients up Diamond Head and takes group photos at the summit, then presents official certificates that document their climb of Oahu’s iconic natural landmark.
For MCIs looking to get even more active, Climb Works at Keana Farms helps them forge bonds while adventuring on Oahu’s North Shore. With ziplines, sky bridges and rappelling, the three-hour guided tour provides panoramas of the region’s ocean, mountains and farms.
Trending high among MCI travelers is the desire to give back to the host destination, according to Watanabe. Groups can do so courtesy of Events With Aloha, a program available to guests of Starwood Hotels & Resorts properties in Hawaii. Clients work with local community and nonprofit organizations on volunteer efforts such as preserving Hawaii’s oceans and watersheds; caring for hydroponic vegetable gardens and "loi" (taro patches); repairing fish-pond walls; maintaining heritage trail markers and landscaping; restoring habitats for native birds; and eradicating invasive species.
“Groups truly enjoy connecting with local people and organizations,” Watanabe said. “They like knowing that their program on Oahu has made a positive impact on its people, land and future generations.”