Meetings on the Big Island

Meetings on the Big Island

Hawaii Island hotels host group events with a special sense of place By: Marty Wentzel
Parties can take place next to the ocean at Mauna Kea Resort. // © 2013 Prince Resorts Hawaii
Parties can take place next to the ocean at Mauna Kea Resort. // © 2013 Prince Resorts Hawaii

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Big Island Visitors Bureau

When a group chooses Hawaii Island for a meeting, convention or incentive trip (MCI), its participants can find themselves in all sorts of fascinating situations beyond their hotel’s ballroom or boardroom.

If they are staying at Fairmont Orchid Hawaii, for example, they might be whisked away to Waipio Valley for a hands-on lesson in planting and harvesting taro, the staple crop of the Hawaiian culture. Their conference at Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay could begin with a mesmerizing Hawaiian oli (chant), while Four Seasons Resort Hualalai might raise their environmental awareness as they plant island koa tree seedlings.

Those are just a few of the many diversions awaiting MCI travelers to Hawaii Island, where inventive adventures channel the destination’s culture and landscape.

Planners have a plethora of Hawaii Island meeting space from which to choose. The largest selection lines the western shores from Keauhou and Kailua-Kona to the Kohala Coast, a region that offers a total of 5,000 rooms and 500,000 square feet of gathering space. On the east side of the island, oceanside hotels located in and around Hilo provide 650 rooms and 100,000 square feet for functions.

But when it’s time for MCI attendees to relax and bond, hotels on Hawaii Island — aptly nicknamed the Big Island — can dream up group pastimes as original as the island itself. A case in point is Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay, fresh from a $20 million renewal and featuring the only convention center on the Kona Coast. Situated in an area of great historical significance, the hotel specializes in activities where groups learn about local legends and lore, expertly guided by cultural director Lily Dudoit.

Royal Kona Resort boasts 10,000 square feet of meeting space, including a postcard-perfect coconut grove accommodating up to 500 guests. Programs for groups might include an immersion in island arts and crafts or a culinary presentation about preparing and cooking with locally grown products, complete with tastes of the results.

The newly renovated Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, set in the heart of the historic fishing village of Kailua-Kona, treats group members to a private luau next to a sacred heaiu (outdoor temple). Additionally, it can set up team-building games and sports taking guests from lawn to beach to bay.

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai lays claim to such exceptional spaces as the open-air lava rock Hoku Amphitheater, a dramatic backdrop for meeting and mingling. The hotel’s chefs introduce guests to the farm-to-table philosophy, showcasing the bounty of Hawaii’s land and seas as they create tasty menus that change to reflect the seasons.

Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort and Spa, with 24 meeting rooms and 28,000 square feet of event space, also goes the extra mile for groups. For a 900-person incentive group, it fashioned a weeklong beach party presided over by a floating stage built just off shore in the distinctive setting of Anaehoomalu Bay.

Hilton Waikoloa Village wows groups with its 235,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space, including the Waikoloa Bowl holding up to 5,500 people. Its creative staff comes up with an array of you-are-there themes, from a celebration of Kona coffee to a paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) round-up.

Besides the taro-planting outing, Fairmont Orchid Hawaii groups can watch their CEO arrive to a party island-style, riding in an outrigger canoe. The resort’s recently renovated 136-seat amphitheater is a state-of-the-art facility featuring a nine-by-16-foot-wide screen, HD projector, Blu-Ray DVD player, Bose sound system and wireless Internet access.

The impressive group venues at Mauna Kea Resort — home of Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel and Mauna Kea Beach Hotel — range from courtyards, restaurants and pavilions to poolside patios and beachfront lawns. The resort’s two executive chefs often take guests to upcountry Waimea to meet farmers and pick various types of produce that are eventually incorporated into special group menus that evening.

The Big Island Visitors Bureau (BIVB) gets into the act as well, hosting its own MCI events imbued with a sense of place. BIVB senior director of sales Debbie Hogan recalls a particularly extraordinary excursion to paniolo country arranged for meeting planners and suppliers, who enjoyed lessons in saddle-making, leather-branding, guided tours of a historic ranch, live hula and an island feast.

While the MCI market represents a small portion — 5 percent in 2012 — of the overall Hawaii Island visitor count, it’s making a big impact on the total fabric of the destination’s tourism industry, according to Hogan.

“All of our partners, from hotel, activity and ground transportation personnel to the airport staff, understand the importance of our group travelers,” said Hogan. “Booking group business allows the opportunity for more stability so that the entire island benefits.”

BIVB recognizes the need to strike a balance between the MCI and leisure markets, Hogan noted.

“Group business, which can book up to five years out on our island, lets hotels layer the leisure business, which typically books six months prior to arrival,” Hogan said. "Groups can find especially good deals in the fall," she added, "but Hawaii Island stands ready with untold options for memorable meetings at any time of the year."