Hawaii Travel Up-and-Comers

Keep an eye on this new generation of leaders as they are already making their marks on Hawaii travel By: Marty Wentzel
Isaac Bancaco // © 2011 Sean Hower
Isaac Bancaco // © 2011 Sean Hower

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Read about longtime Hawaii tourism leader Dr. Richard Kelley, who recent won a lifetime award.

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From top left: Chanda Takamura, Kainoa Daines, Joshua Olayer, Keli‘i Wilson, Avi Mannis, Ka‘iu Kimura

Chanda Takamura   Kainoa Daines   Joshua Olayer   Keli‘i Wilson   Avi Mannis       


Ka‘iu Kimura       

Take a look at Hawaii’s tourism leaders over the decades and similarities emerge. All of them have guided the industry with the expected traits of creativity, enthusiasm and perspective but, at the same time, they have demonstrated an innate appreciation for island culture.

Today, those qualities manifest themselves in a new group of go-getters who are turning heads and making a difference in their areas of expertise. You just might call them the new guard of Hawaii tourism.

Chanda Takamura, Sales Director, Aston Waimea Plantation Cottages
As a youth growing up in a west Kauai plantation family, Chanda Takamura used to play with her friends in and around a cluster of sugarcane-workers’ homes. Eventually, those homes were transformed into Aston Waimea Plantation Cottages and, today, Takamura is making a big impact on property as sales director and wedding and events coordinator.

“Though I spend the majority of my time working with couples and their families helping to plan their special day, my absolute favorite thing is ‘talking story’ with our guests, sharing the history of our property and recounting some of my fondest childhood memories here,” said Takamura.

Her professional contributions to Aston Waimea Plantation Cottages have been immense during her four years at the property. Along with transforming a virtually nonexistent weddings/groups market into a multimillion-dollar return for the property, she represents the hotel as a community leader, teaches hula to guests and sits on the Kauai Visitors Bureau’s (KVB) marketing committee. The tourism industry has recognized her efforts by giving her the Hawaii Hotel and Lodging Association’s Malama Award — which honors exceptional service — and Kauai Chamber of Commerce’s Outstanding Aloha Spirit award.

“Chanda symbolizes our aloha spirit better than most,” said KVB executive director Sue Kanoho. “She has an unspoken quality that radiates from within. We have lost many of our original ambassadors of aloha so, when I see someone like Chanda, it makes me feel good to know the culture and aloha spirit will continue on through her eyes, her efforts and her heart.”

Kainoa Daines, Director of Sales, Oahu Visitors Bureau
Kainoa Daines came by his passion for hospitality honestly. In the 1940s and ’50s, his great grandfather chaired the Kamehameha Day parade on Maui. In the ’70s and ’80s his grandmother approached her job as an inter-island tour escort with an unbridled passion for Hawaii.

Daines has embraced his career with that same verve, from directing sales and cultural efforts for the Queen Kapiolani Hotel and Miramar at Waikiki, to ably overseeing the King Kamehameha Celebration Commission. He is making equally impressive strides in his current post with the Oahu Visitors Bureau, where he is responsible for global sales initiatives, travel trade curriculum development and other marketing efforts. The Oahu native can’t imagine pitching a place with more allure, both scenically and culturally.

“I have always promoted the destination of Oahu first and foremost,” said Daines. “I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to influence effective and lasting cultural change.”

Queen Kapiolani Hotel general manager Russell Chun praised Daines’ desire to incorporate Hawaiian values into the hospitality industry.

“Kainoa believes that there is so much more we can do to share the unique qualities of the people and heritage of the islands,” said Chun.

As Hawaii’s visitor industry evolves, Daines wants the use of Hawaiian culture and language to shift from optional to essential.

“Visitors are looking for authentic experiences,” he said. “We don’t need to create new experiences — we need to cherish the ones that exist. It’s a win-win situation for the Hawaiian community, the visitors and the tourism industry.”

Isaac Bancaco, Chef de Cuisine, Grand Wailea Resort  
Isaac Bancaco has lived in many different cities and worked with many great chefs, but for this Maui native, there’s no place like home. That’s why he returned to Maui in 2010 to serve as chef de cuisine at Grand Wailea Resort’s Humuhumunukunukuapuaa (Humu) restaurant.

As Hawaii Regional Cuisine continues to evolve, culinary insiders see Bancaco as poised to lead the next generation of island chefs. Named in 2011 by Hawaii Hospitality magazine as a Top Young Chef to Watch, he has been partnering with wine and spirit makers on a monthly program called Toast!, which takes food- and beverage-pairing to a new level. And Bancaco makes it a priority to visit local farms and incorporate their harvest into his menus. Once a month, he presents Localvore, a week-long, farm-to-table dining initiative.

“Isaac brings his entire Hawaiian essence to the job,” said the Maui Visitors Bureau’s Keli‘i Brown. “He has the talent, intelligence, creativity and personality to make a difference in the hospitality industry.”

Bancaco believes that today’s diners want to know not only what is on their plate but where it comes from.

“For me to talk about getting produce from where I was raised and fish from purveyors with family lineage back to when my grandparents first came to the islands — that really puts some credibility behind my food, service and overall guest experience,” Bancaco said. “As long as people come to Maui for the food, Humu will fit into the future landscape of Hawaii cuisine.”

Joshua Olayer, Social Ambassador, Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa
It’s unusual for a hotel to come up with a new staff position during a renovation and economic slowdown but, for the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa, the timing couldn’t have been better to name Joshua Olayer as its first social ambassador.

“Social media is still relatively new, and most businesses are still wading through it all, trying to figure out how best to use it to their advantage,” said Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa spokesperson Diann Hartman. “We knew it would be a key part of the changing face of customer service, so we created Josh’s position.”

Since then, Olayer has grown the hotel’s number of Facebook fans by 350 percent in one year and Twitter followers by more than 200 percent. In Hawaii social media circles, he has become a “legend in his own time,” Hartman said.

“I was drawn to the position because it was a fresh and innovative idea,” said Olayer, a Kauai native. “I’m proud to say that our presence online has turned into a great community for our guests.”

Through posts, pictures and videos, Olayer aims to inspire clients to visit the hotel for the first time, help them remember fond memories and encourage them to return to the resort in the future.

“Through social media, I hope that I can emanate the aloha spirit, bring awareness to Hawaii and display authentic hospitality,” he said. “I consider myself truly fortunate to be able to share this beautiful island that I love with our visitors.”

Keli‘i Wilson, Director of Hawaiian Cultural Affairs, Hawaii Tourism Authority
Keli‘i Wilson grew up speaking only Hawaiian at home. So it comes as no surprise that now, as the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s (HTA) Hawaiian Cultural Affairs director, she demonstrates a keen understanding of the connections between Hawaii’s distinct identity and its largest industry.

“Keli‘i is a Hawaiian first, and that’s something she does not compromise,” said HTA board member Doug Chang, who is the general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Club and Residences, Kapalua Bay. “That integrity is an important value for future leaders within our industry. She is a good listener and works at inclusive decision-making but, in the end, the decision must be right from a cultural perspective.”

At HTA, Wilson ensures that programs and initiatives — such as the Aloha Festivals, Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, King Kamehameha Celebration and smaller community-based events and projects — honor and perpetuate the local culture in an appropriate fashion. One of her pet projects was the launch at the Honolulu International Airport of the state’s first Hawaiian language greeting, something that will go statewide later this year. She also helped to create a Hawaiian language in-flight video message that welcomes island visitors and residents.

“The Hawaiian language is such a great sound to hear when you first arrive in the islands and when you depart as well,” said Wilson. “Tourism will always evolve, and that applies even to our language. But it doesn’t mean that the past doesn’t matter. We have to make the connection that our visitor industry can be successful if our culture is thriving.”

Avi Mannis, Vice President of Marketing, Hawaiian Airlines
Avi Mannis considers himself lucky to have crossed paths not only with Hawaiian Airlines, but with Hawaii as a destination.

“Hawaiian is one of a few Hawaii-based companies that competes globally with the best in our industry,” he said. “I find myself motivated by the incredible passion that people in Hawaii have for hospitality and by the ways that we as an industry keep elevating the visitor experience.”

Since joining Hawaiian in 2007, Mannis has risen rapidly through its ranks, playing a critical role in the strategy behind the airline’s expansion. Starting out as senior director of transformation, he moved up to vice president of revenue management and schedule planning before assuming his current post. He now oversees Hawaiian’s brand, loyalty and product development activities as well as the advertising, promotions, direct marketing and online experience.

Mark Dunkerley, president of Hawaiian Airlines and a former chairman of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, said Mannis has a “powerful intellect” and brings a great sense of perspective to his job.

“Competing as a destination in a modern world requires a blend of sense of place and cultural understanding with rigorous analytical application,” said Dunkerley. “Avi is one of those rare individuals who possess both of these attributes.”

As Hawaiian reaches out to emerging markets, Mannis wants to grow Hawaii’s tourism sector in a sustainable way.

“It’s about making sure that our brand and product capture the imagination of consumers and reflect what is unique and authentic about our island home,” he said.

Elizabeth Bell, Marketing and Business Development Director, Hawaiian Hotels and Resorts
Elizabeth “Liz” Bell has been involved in Hawaii’s visitor industry for just three years, but she’s already making her mark. First hired as Hawaiian Hotels and Resorts’ business development manager, now, she also handles marketing for its two properties: the Royal Kona Resort on the island of Hawaii (Big Island) and Royal Lahaina Resort on Maui. In addition, Bell contributes her talents to the marketing committee of the Kaanapali Beach Resort Association (KBRA).

“Liz is the perfect demographic of the present and the future, which puts her intimately in touch with who her customer is,” said Shelley Kekuna, executive director of KBRA. “She and her family are avid travelers themselves, so she really walks the walk.”

Bell has deftly handled innovative events such as the Royal Kona’s Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival which, under her guidance, has gained international buzz. She is playing an integral role during the redevelopment of the Royal Lahaina, which is adding new low-rise condominiums. And she has launched an initiative to enliven the two resorts with world-class entertainers such as Third Eye Blind, Toad the Wet Sprocket and the Spin Doctors. Throughout, she demonstrates a sixth sense for what travelers are looking for.

“I see myself as an ambassador of Hawaii,” said Bell. “Whether or not one person can make an impact on Hawaii tourism remains to be seen but, in the meantime, I try to show my respect for the culture and the very important role we have in creating an unmatched experience for our visitors.”

Ka‘iu Kimura, Executive Director, Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii
Born and raised on the island of Hawaii, Ka‘iu Kimura embodies her job as Imiloa Astronomy Center’s executive director. With her reverence for ancient Hawaiian culture and fascination with the island’s cutting-edge astronomy research, she champions Imiloa’s mission to engage and inspire visitors and locals alike.

Located in Hilo, Imiloa showcases Hawaii’s heritage while connecting it to the forward-looking research taking place atop Mauna Kea volcano. The summit plays home to 13 international telescopes, and a new 30-meter telescope will be operational there by 2019.

Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort manager Paul Horner, who has collaborated with Kimura on tourism and economic initiatives, said she represents the next generation of Hawaiian leaders as she integrates her love of culture and science.

“Ka‘iu understands the importance of sharing Imiloa with the world,” Horner said. “She recognizes its potential to accommodate international conferences while developing more creative educational programming to engage the youth of Hawaii.”

Kimura started working at Imiloa in 2001 as a research assistant, developing cultural and scientific stories. Before her current role, she served as the center’s associate director in charge of all visitor experiences, from its planetarium to educational and heritage programs.

Kimura predicts that Hawaii’s tourism industry will continue to combine different types of disciplines with indigenous values and perspectives.

“I believe that this is Hawaii’s unique offering to the rest of the world,” she said. “I feel a deep responsibility to preserve the heritage of Hawaii, while helping it to progress in a culturally sustainable way.”

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