by J.D. Brown and Margaret Backenheimer | November 01, 2016

While some of the major tropical meeting destinations worldwide have found themselves in a tailspin due to adverse economic conditions, political unrest or the spread of the Zika virus, Hawaii continues to hold strong as a preferred island paradise.

An increasing number of mainland visitors are pushing the 50th state toward a record-breaking year. The surge of visitors is expected to sweep well into 2017 and, as a result, existing hotels, resorts and other meeting venues are expanding their facilities and new properties are going up at an explosive rate.

Oahu: Changing the Landscape

Honolulu, Hawaii's largest city and host to a majority of groups visiting the islands, has seen the most dramatic developments. A prime example is Kuhio Avenue in Waikiki, which borders the newly reopened International Market Place. New hotels have already made Kuhio Avenue and the surrounding area a top gathering spot for groups in Waikiki. The Hilton Garden Inn/Waikiki Beach, which opened in June just across the street from the International Market Place, boasts 623 guest rooms and a meeting room for up to 30 people.

Also new this year is the Ritz-Carlton Residences/Waikiki Beach, a 307-unit condo-hotel that also houses the new BLT Market restaurant, and the 112-room Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club, which opened its doors in April with a 100-seat restaurant. This winter will see yet another addition: the 230-room Hyatt Centric, located in what was once the Waikiki Trade Center. Additionally, the Aqua Waikiki Wave hotel is being transformed into a 250-room Marriott Autograph Collection property. Underscoring the revitalization of Waikiki in general is a $115 million transformation of the Pacific Beach Hotel, which is expected to be rebranded as the 'Alohilani Resort at Waikiki Beach by the end of next year.

Association planners can also turn to well-established hotels and resorts that have recently improved their properties. The Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa has renovated its 7,000 square-foot, divisible Kona Moku Ballroom with new carpeting, wallpaper and multicolored chandeliers. At the Sheraton/Waikiki, the Leahi Club Lounge, which overlooks Diamond Head from its 30th floor perch, is now available for group meetings. Not to be topped, the Hilton/Waikiki Beach offers a room on the 37th floor for functions of up to 30 and the Hilton Hawaiian Village recently renovated its Tapa Conference Center. And the Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa, offers a 390-square-foot "spaception" area in its spa as a place for attendees to relax after a full day of meetings.

The 1.1 million-square-foot Hawaii Convention Center, now managed by AEG Facilities, features 47 meeting rooms, a 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall, two theaters and a 2.5-acre, outdoor rooftop garden that can host group barbeques under the stars, complete with grilling stations, Hawaiian performers and fresh flower leis. The convention center is scheduled to host a wide variety of upcoming association conventions including those of the Hawaii State Bar Association, with an estimated 350 attendees, and the Hawaii Dental Association, with some 3,000 people.

Sites that have shaped U.S. history are also popular for event gatherings. At Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island offers more than 100,000 square feet of space and can accommodates groups as large as 10,000.

West of Honolulu, on the shores of Ko Olina, the 371-room Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina opened this year following a $500 million renovation. The hotel's transportation fleet consists of Mercedes-Benz sedans, a helicopter and a 75-foot yacht. The 642-acre property also features several miles of seaside and lagoon paths and, for meetings, two ballrooms and five function rooms for up to 1,500. Next door, Disney's Aulani Resort offers meeting space for groups of up to 450.

In the nearby town of Kapolei, Hawaii's first Hampton Inn & Suites-part of the new Ka Makana Alii shopping center-offers 175 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 100 people.

On Oahu's east side, a popular property for small groups is the Paradise Bay Resort near Kaneohe. Nearby, the Ko'Olau Ballrooms offer meeting space for up to 850 and a top-rated golf course.

Farther up the coast, the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie welcomes groups for luaus and tours of its six authentically recreated South Pacific island villages. On the North Shore itself, the main meetings resort is the Turtle Bay Resort in Kahuku. In August, it opened a 140-seat open-air restaurant and a lanai for private gatherings.

Maui: Adding to the Adventure

Maui was recently named the No. 1 island in the world for 2016 by TripAdvisor. Ka'anapali, on the west coast, is home to the island's most concentrated cluster of meeting resorts. The largest is the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa, whose renovated event spaces include the expanded Monarchy Ballroom, a new, beachfront event lawn and new Regency Club Lounge. Nearby, the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa offers group programs and cultural advisors ready to customize an association's itinerary. Groups that meet at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa, which recently renovated its Ocean Tower guest rooms, are also treated to outdoor experiences offering a sense of place: sunset cruises, beachfront barbecues and scavenger hunts through botanical gardens. Small groups seeking a second Westin nearby might opt for the Westin Ka'anapali Ocean Resort Villas, which completed a renovation last fall. Next year will mark the opening of a third Westin: the Westin Nanea Ocean Villas, expected to open in May.

Another cluster of resorts can be found in Wailea, on Maui's south coast, and several have newly enhanced spaces. The Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort has added three new luxury villas and the Four Seasons Resort/Maui at Wailea has two new outdoor event venues. The Fairmont Kea Lani has finished installing 1,528 solar panels, the latest of more than 50 environmental initiatives carried out since 2001. Last year the Fairmont also completed a $70 million renovation. The newest hotel in the Wailea area is the Residence Inn Maui Wailea, which recently opened with 200 suites and meeting space for up to 130.

On the eastern side of Maui, via the famously winding Road to Hana, the Travaasa/Hana has transformed its sea ranch cottages into ocean bungalows (still free of clocks and TVs), and opened a new open-air restaurant and bar.

Island of Hawaii: Going With the Flow

With its fields of black lava, dynamic peaks and lush rainforests, the Island of Hawaii (or, as it's still commonly referred to, the Big Island) is particularly alluring. Its main attraction is hard to resist: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary and has seen new active lava eruptions. In Hilo, the rebranded, remodeled and expanded Grand Naniloa Hotel, a DoubleTree by Hilton has just opened with 320 guest rooms and 13,000 square feet of meeting space. KapohoKine Adventures, also based in town, offers outdoor excursions that explore the national park, work in a mala (cultivated garden) or ride Hawaii's longest tandem zip line.

Many groups base their meetings in resorts along the Kohala Coast, on the western shore. Top meeting properties include the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, which 51 years ago opened as the most expensive hotel ever built. Today the property, now part of Marriott's Autograph Collection, is benefiting from the completion of an $8 million renovation, which includes its first dedicated indoor meeting space, the new 3,500 square-foot Kaunaoa Ballroom. Its sister hotel next door, the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, recently renovated its 85,000 square feet of interior meeting space.

Kailua-Kona, also on the western side, is another popular destination. The Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay has converted its presidential suite into the Sheraton Club Lounge, available for private group functions. The resort also offers hands-on opportunities to learn about Hawaiian culture. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture held its annual meeting last year at the Sheraton Kona Resort with 275 attendees, who "learned more about the Hawaiian culture from hotel staff than they ever thought they would," said Megan McDonald, the group's director of meetings and events and executive assistant. "The Sheraton Kona's dedication to making this meeting an unforgettable adventure and learning experience is what set them apart." Bill Chambers, convention chair of the Far West Athletic Trainers Association, also praised the resort after the group's recent annual meeting. "I have never had such a positive response from our attendees," he said.

Kauai, Lanai & Molokai: Garden Getaways

Hawaii's smaller islands provide idyllic getaways. The largest of these small islands is Kauai, where in the northern town of Kilauea gatherings of up to 200 can be held at Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens, and in the town of Ha'ena, the Limahuli Garden & Preserve offers sustainability tours by appointment. Between these two locales is Princeville, home to several resorts including the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas, which has been recently refreshed. Two miles west is the St. Regis Princeville Resort. Other sites that welcome events are the family-owned Princeville Ranch and the Princeville Makai Golf Club.

Near the airport in Lihue, on Kalapaki Beach, the Kauai Marriott Resort presents associations with a choice of 13 newly enhanced meeting spaces. Up the coast, near Wailua, the Hilton Garden Inn/Kauai on Wailua Bay features 216 remodeled guest rooms, suites and two-room cottages, along with meeting space for up to 350 people.

On Kauai's southern shores, near Poipu, the Koloa Landing Resort at Poipu, now a member of the Marriott Autograph Collection, is completing a $100 million expansion. The 25-acre property has added 208 studio and one-bedroom condos and an events center with space for up to 1,000 people. There are also two 8,000-square-foot lawns that can each host up to 800.

Lanai, once dedicated to pineapple plantations, is a small island of 3,000 inhabitants. Lanai's main meetings resort, the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, reopened earlier this year after a major renovation project. In addition to its meeting space for groups of up to 500, the hotel's new Island Activity Center can book groups on horseback riding treks and four-wheel utility terrain vehicle tours. An 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, a spa, extensive gardens and a new organic restaurant help make this a true luxury resort. Meanwhile, the Lodge at Koele has closed for its own revamp. On Molokai, the Hotel Molokai's popular restaurant has reopened.

Island Appreciation

Hawaii knows how to accommodate groups, as is attested to by the recent surge in tourism. Chambers summed it up best after his group's experience on the Big Island: "The success of any meeting can be measured when you do not want the meeting to end. This certainly was the case for us," he said. Even better, he added, staging a gathering in Hawaii "was a meeting planner's dream."