by J.D. Brown and Margaret Backenheimer | November 01, 2015

While the hotels and resorts of Hawaii provide all the resources conducive to hosting a successful meeting, associations sometimes find their greatest sources of inspiration at the off-site, exotic outdoor and cultural venues that set the 50th state apart.

Meeting planners looking to add a few venues or activities off the beaten path to their agenda will find a number of valuable resources at their disposal. Local tourism and hospitality professionals can help create an itinerary that combines unconventional event locations with the newest and most-improved meeting properties for a gathering that no attendee will forget.

Oahu: Heart of Hawaii

Honolulu, Hawaii’s largest city, hosts more meetings than all of the islands’ other locations combined. A parade of major hotels and resorts is concentrated at Waikiki Beach and from there it’s not far to the 1.1 million-square-foot Hawaii Convention Center as well as a dense cluster of shops and restaurants. The convention center offers 47 meeting rooms, a 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall, two theaters and a 2.5-acre, outdoor rooftop garden that is used for group barbeques under the stars, complete with grilling stations, Hawaiian performers, mai tai welcome cocktails and fresh flower leis.

The Hawaii Convention Center hosted 320,680 attendees at 182 events last year, about 30 percent above projections, and it expects to sweep into 2016 with even better numbers. The Lions Clubs International Convention, Hawaii’s largest meeting event in 2015, drew 20,000 delegates to the convention center in June and elicited raves from Joseph Preston, the group’s president. He commented on the state’s “inspiring beauty and atmosphere,” the multicultural destination that is Honolulu and the opportunities the neighboring islands offered delegates for exploration pre- and post-convention. One of the Lions’ off-site venues was the Honolulu Zoo, where attendees enjoyed a luau.

The International Astronomical Union also recently convened at the convention center, bringing 2,500 astronomers from 75 nations to its General Assembly in August. Thierry Montmerle, the group’s general secretary, noted that Hawaii is “a place that is truly special in the astronomical community as one of the foremost sites for astronomical research in the world.” But he was also delighted to use the meeting as a way to introduce astronomers to the beauty and culture of the islands. In addition to its gatherings at the convention center and hotels, attendees enjoyed planetarium shows, public talks and two stargazing parties at Ala Moana Beach Park.

Many resorts and hotels with meeting space in the Waikiki area have renovated and expanded their facilities, and several offer outdoor and off-site options. Associations that meet at any of the Starwood hotels and resorts in Hawaii—and there are four in Oahu—can take advantage of its “Events With Aloha” program, which pairs visiting groups with local community organizations for volunteer projects.

In addition, groups at the Sheraton/Waikiki can team up with the hotel’s food-and-beverage staff to go shopping off-site for ingredients, later creating their own dishes to be judged in the “Project Runway Gone Culinary” program developed by General Manager Kelly Sanders. At another of Starwood’s Waikiki properties, the Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa, meeting-goers can take advantage of the “Be Well Meeting Program,” which starts at sunrise with a “Ho’ala” ceremony and, at midday, includes a wellness break with healthy snacks and revitalizing treatments at Waikiki’s only oceanfront spa.

Plenty is new at other Waikiki hotels, too. The Hawaii Prince Hotel Waikiki has initiated a program called “Prince Catered Collections” to give groups the flexibility of hosting seamless events on and off the property that employ the same dedicated team of meeting specialists. The Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort & Spa recently completed a year-long $100 million renovation of its guest rooms and the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort has completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of its Diamond Head Tower and a $7 million update of its Tapa Conference Center, which features a redesigned, 16,536-square-foot ballroom. The Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa has finished its own extensive upgrades, including its Kona Moku Ballroom, which can now seat up to 800 guests. The resort also introduced a meeting services app offering real-time connectivity between association planners and Marriott’s on-site events team. Outrigger is in the planning stages on a major rebuild of the oceanfront Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort and is hoping to begin construction on the project in 2017. And Hilton Worldwide is transforming the former Ohana/Waikiki West into the 623-room Hilton Garden Inn/Waikiki Beach, set to open in June 2016.

Complementing all the meeting facilities at Waikiki’s hotels and resorts, the greater Honolulu area offers plenty of off-site venues. Honolulu Ridge atop Mount Tantalus commands striking views of the city skyline, south shore and Diamond Head (the landmark ridge overlooking Honolulu, which is also a state monument), a perfect spot for group picnics or cocktail receptions. In downtown Honolulu, events of up to 8,000 can be held at the historic Iolani Palace, America’s only official state residence of royalty. The Queen Emma Summer Palace in Honolulu can also host off-site sessions and parties of up to 120.

At Pearl Harbor, the battleship USS Missouri stages a variety of events for groups. Spaces on the “Mighty Mo” range from the captain’s cabin to the main deck, which spans the length of three football fields. Nearby, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park offers catering, audiovisual facilities and special entertainment options such as World War II–era singing groups and Polynesian dancers. Meeting planners can also secure permits allowing their members exclusive access to the USS Arizona’s museums and theaters. A valuable resource in terms of logistics and questions is the Honolulu-based Pacific Historic Parks, which can also help arrange group tours of both Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head State Monument.

About 25 miles west of the city center, the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort has permanently closed, but the Four Seasons Resort at Ko Olina is set to take its place in mid-2016 with 358 guest rooms and more than 16,000 square feet of indoor space, as well as expansive lawn and beachfront areas. Also under development on the island’s leeward side is Ka Makana Ali’i, a 1.4 million-square-foot, mixed-use site expected to open in late 2016 with shops, restaurants and Hawaii’s first Hampton Inn & Suites.

Approaching the North Shore, the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie offers luaus and tours of its seven authentically recreated South Pacific island villages and the new, 1950s-style Hukilau Marketplace. Immediately adjacent is the new Courtyard Oahu North Shore Marriott, which opened in June.

The North Shore’s landmark meeting resort, the Turtle Bay Resort in Kahuku, remains a model for properties combining on-site and off-site venues. In addition to some 25,000 square feet of indoor event space, team-building options take groups off property for activities such as surfing, sky diving or horseback riding on the shore. Also encouraged are ways to give back or appreciate local culture. The area is also home to Oahu’s newest and longest zip line, stretching nearly half a mile: North Shore Zipline at Keana Farms. The adventure includes a visit to a working farm, ATV rides and panoramic views from eight dual zip lines.

Inland, a less exhausting new option is the tasting room at Manulele Distillers in Kunia, home of Ko Hana Hawaiian Agricole Rum. Groups can tour the cane garden and taste three signature rums, hand-harvested single varietals of heirloom sugarcane introduced by Polynesian explorers a thousand years ago.

Maui: Adventures & Aloha

Hawaii’s second-most popular meetings destination, Maui, has just about everything one dreams of in a Pacific island, from multicolored beaches and abundant recreational opportunities to an array of five-star oceanfront resorts. And awaiting groups are numerous off-site settings. One fertile possibility is O’o Farm, located in the upcountry community of Kula. O’o Farm provides customized event planning for up to 100 people with a lot of dramatic scenery and farm-to-table cuisine (or farm work for those who prefer to get their hands dirty).

Associations seeking a new approach might look to Lumeria Maui in Makawao, which hosts banquets, meetings and wellness retreats on the northern shore. A few miles south, at Piihilo Ranch, zip lines, hiking to waterfalls and valley tours await groups of up to 150.

To the west, in Wailea, another outdoor venue is the Wailea Golf Club, where groups visiting in the late afternoons often gather to take in ocean views backlit by golden sunsets. Its three championship courses are, however, its most notable attractions. Several nearby resorts have their own dedicated event spaces and special programs. These include the Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort now in its second year of upgrading guest rooms and meeting spaces. The property runs a volunteer program in conjunction with the Maui Humane Society, encouraging guests to lend a helping “paw” by walking shelter dogs or brushing cats for a few hours one day of their stay. A few miles south, the Makena Beach & Golf Resort’s country-themed Makena Ranch can host events of up to 500 and features an outdoor grill, saloon bar and Wild West corral. It’s one of the property’s seven outdoor event venues.

On the northwest coast, Ka’anapali is the island’s most concentrated cluster of meeting resorts. One of the local properties, the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, offers “Creative Ways to Connect,” a menu of off-site and on-site outdoor group programs. The Westin Maui Resort & Spa, also encourages groups to make the most of outdoor options, just one of which is a botanical tour of its gardens, streams and waterfalls. In other local developments, the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa recently debuted the new, 4,871-square-foot Lahaina Ballroom in its Lahaina Tower. For something outside the boardroom (or ballroom, as the case may be), resort staff can set up outdoor programs that include expert-led stargazing and wildlife tours.

It’s not far down to Lahaina, the celebrated 19th-century whaling village where the Lahaina Restoration Foundation has made three of its historic sites available for group events: Hale Pa’ahao Prison, the Wo Hing Museum and the Baldwin Home Museum. Planners might also incorporate a night at Maui Theatre to see ‘Ulalena, which incorporates native dance, music and more than 100 instruments. The 680-seat theater is also available for special events.

On the less-developed eastern side of Maui, via the famously winding Road to Hana (or a quick flight on Mokulele Airlines), the Travaasa Hana is transforming its sea ranch cottages into redesigned ocean bungalows, part of a complete guest-room renovation expected to be completed at the end of the year. Travaasa also offers outrigger canoe adventures for small groups.

Hawaii: Explosive Growth

With its vast fields of black lava and soaring peaks, Hawaii Island (or, as it’s still referred to, the Big Island) is particularly alluring to groups eager to escape from the tourist centers on Oahu and Maui. Appropriately, the centerpiece of Hawaii Island is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016. To commemorate its heritage, a special monthly hiking series is planned with corresponding “After Dark in the Park” programs already underway.

The Hilo-based KapohoKine Adventures offers a number of thrilling excursions that, depending on a group’s preferences, can take in the volcano Kilauea and active lava flows, the national park and Thurston Lava Tube, dinner at the Volcano House Hotel, zip lines, the dramatic Waipio Valley and views of Halemaumau Crater. Also in town is the Hilo Naniloa Hotel & Golf Club, an oceanfront property undergoing a $20 million restoration and expansion that is expected to debut this spring as the DoubleTree by Hilton/Hilo-Naniloa with 388 guest rooms, an upgraded banquet facility, a concert hall and a new restaurant.

Most associations base their meetings in resorts and hotels along the island’s coastline. The Kohala Coast, a 20-mile stretch along the western shores, is home to many of the island’s top meeting facilities, including those at the iconic Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, which marked its 50th anniversary in 2015. Launched by venture capitalist Laurance S. Rockefeller, the Mauna Kea was, at the time, the most expensive hotel ever built. Today the property is constantly improving, and its Kaunaoa Bar & Grill is currently being transformed into the new Kaunaoa Ballroom, set to welcome its first meeting-goers in mid-January 2016 with 4,000 square feet of space, floor-to-ceiling windows that boast views of Kaunaoa Bay, an adjacent boardroom and an outdoor pre-function area.

Farther down the coast, both the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows and the Fairmont Orchid recently refreshed all guest rooms and suites, and the Fairmont renovated some 30,000 square feet of indoor meeting space as well. Also in the area is the Hilton Waikoloa Village, one of the outer islands’ largest meeting properties.

Kailua-Kona, also on the western side of the Big Island, is another destination popular with visiting groups. The Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay can arrange sunset tours led by a cultural supervisor, and it prides itself on working with planners to develop agendas incorporating Hawaiian activities—lei making, hula lessons and ocean sports, to name a few—and tours of nearby historic sites.

Also notable is the Courtyard Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, which sits on 13 beachfront acres and has been crowned by locals as having the island’s best luau for three years running. Off-site events of up to 150 can be held at Hulihe’e Palace, former summer home of Hawaiian royalty overlooking Kailua Bay. And in the heart of Kona coffee country, the Holualoa Inn is set on 30 acres on the slopes of Hualalai volcano and can be used as an executive retreat site or as the location of an open-air event for up to 120. Several local coffee producers welcome group tours and tastings.

Two ranches in and around Waimea draw organizations eager to offer attendees a wilder side of Hawaii’s interior. In town, the 110-acre Anna Ranch is the restored estate of Hawaii’s first lady of ranching, Anna Lindsey Perry-Fiske. The property, now a National Historic Site, makes available the main house and expansive lawn for group functions. Meanwhile, about 10 miles to the northwest is the 8,500-acre Kahua Ranch on the verdant slopes of the Kohala volcano. Groups can enjoy horseback and ATV riding, guided historical tours of the working ranch and fireside dinners.

Kauai, Lanai & Molokai: Nature’s Bounty

Hawaii’s smaller islands provide idyllic getaways for attendees seeking new experiences. Kauai is renowned for its lush gardens, several of which double as event sites. In the northern town of Kilauea, gatherings of up to 200 people are welcome at Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens, and near the community of Wainiha, the Limahuli Garden & Preserve offers a “sustainability tour” of its 17 acres to groups by appointment. On the island’s south shore, in Koloa, Allerton Garden is part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden collection and can host gatherings of up to 75 attendees.

Princeville is home to resorts that include the St. Regis/Princeville. Meetings can be staged at its 2,500-acre Princeville Ranch, which also lends itself to hiking, horseback rides and zip line tours. On the steep bluff 200 feet above Anini Beach, the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas invites groups of up to 100 to meet on the resort’s front lawn.

Near the airport in Lihue, on Kalapaki Beach, the Kauai Marriott Resort presents associations with a choice of 13 newly enhanced meeting spaces. Just north, along Kauai’s “Coconut Coast,” the 25-acre Aqua Kauai Beach Resort offers indoor and outdoor event space that includes its Shutters Lounge, which can host groups of up to 500 people.

And another five miles up the coast, near Wailua, the Aston Aloha Beach Hotel is scheduled to be rebranded the Hilton Garden Inn/Kauai–Wailua Bay in 2016, making it the first Hilton brand on the island. Plans include the refurbishment of all guest rooms and 5,000 square feet of meeting space.

At Poipu Beach, on Kauai’s southern tip, the Sheraton Kauai Resort boasts 65,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor function space, including its two oceanfront restaurants and the Ocean Courtyard, with new seating, a stage and fire pits. Nearby, the Koloa Landing Resort & Spa is expanding its grounds with a new swimming pool and a 12,000-square-foot events center.

Lanai, once dedicated to pineapple plantations, is a small island of 3,000 inhabitants largely owned by entrepreneur Larry Ellison, who is investing in the island’s tourism sector. Lanai’s pristine countryside rewards attendees wishing to explore rugged landscapes and serene beaches. The island’s two luxury resorts, both managed by Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, are currently closed. The Four Seasons Resort Lanai (formerly Manele Bay) is undergoing an extensive “lobby-to-roof” renovation project and is expected to reopen in early 2016. Plans for the Four Seasons Lanai, Lodge at Koele, which is housing the construction team, are still under consideration. The Jack Nicklaus Signature Manele Golf Course has remained open for day visitors five days a week.

Over on the island of Molokai, the Hotel Molokai’s restaurant (a popular gathering spot), Hale Kealoha, will have its grand reopening next month after an extensive rebuilding project. Outdoor adventures on the island are plentiful and include the legendary mule rides down the tallest sea cliffs in the world to Kalaupapa National Historic Park.

Pull of the Islands

Many associations have found Hawaii the ideal place not only for combining business and pleasure—both indoors and out—but for exploring their professional and personal focus. With sites that draw upon nature, tradition, history and adventure, attendees who come to the islands for a gathering among colleagues will find themselves leaving with much more—a sense of having experienced something greater than just work.