On Location: Oahu


The Royal Hawaiian Hotel
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel

As the sun slips behind the Koolau Mountains in Oahu, windward Oahu’s Kaaawa Valley slowly succumbs to dramatic shadows. You’re perched on the edge of an enormous Godzilla footprint envisioning a T Rex stampede through Jurassic Park, which was filmed here.

Or perhaps you’re consumed with thoughts of Lost survivors Hurley, Jack and Kate scrambling to outwit the malevolent “Others.” The curiously familiar Kualoa Ranch landscape that envelops you literally sets the stage for imaginations to run wild.

Aside from its marquee role as a backdrop for blockbuster films and TV series, the 4,000-acre working ranch has diversified with recreational and eco-enterprises compatible with its lush environment. For the CMI market, it pays off handsomely.

“It’s one of my favorites for day or night events,” says Frank Robinson, CEO of Oahu-based Island Events. “We’ve done everything at Kualoa from hosting a cocktail reception in a World War II bunker followed with a luau in a Hawaiian village to bringing 100 Cessna VIPs into the valley in helicopters for a campfire breakfast under a monkeypod tree.” Those early risers also picked activities that included ATV treks, horseback riding, botanical hikes, Pinzgauer expeditions and a movie set tour.

Groups can also dive into Beach Olympics and ocean rec for 450 at Kualoa’s private Secret Island, or concerts and tented dinners overlooking “Chinaman’s Hat” island from the 1,000-capacity Paliku Gardens.

Our crew of 10 journalists tackles a trio of teambuilding challenges on a lawn fronting the 800 year-old Molii Fishpond, which was built to stash a steady supply of seafood way back when. Taskmaster Kui McCarthy drills us on the value of clear communications and adjusting game plans, which we do repeatedly to avoid hitting the turf during the low ropes race.

“When you’re at Kualoa, you don’t really have to invest your budget on decor,” Robinson says. “Why drape and hide its beauty? That’s been another wow factor with meeting planners. Every single space is fantastic.”

Kualoa Ranch is just one of Oahu’s distinctive venues often overshadowed by Waikiki’s tropical resort allure and cosmopolitan swagger.

“Oahu is a vibrant, dynamic island destination that’s rich in history and character,” says Michael Murray, CMM/CMP, the VP of Sales/Marketing for CMI at the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau. “Waikiki is great for relaxing and having fun, but groups venturing around Oahu discover some amazing stories and places instrumental in shaping the course of history for both the Hawaiian Islands and our nation as a whole.”

Most regal among these is Iolani Palace, presenting a rare opportunity to gather in the only royal palace on U.S. soil. During the 19th century, Hawaii’s King David Kalakaua and sibling successor, Queen Liliuokalani, entertained world leaders and dignitaries in this opulent residence that boasted the marvels of electrical lights and telephones even before The White House.

“We’ve had groups arrive with The King’s Guards standing sentry on the palace steps, enter on the red carpet to tour the palace throne room, then be ‘announced’ as they arrive onto a huge lawn dressed for an upscale dinner,” says Philip Richardson, President of the production company, Current Affairs Hawaii. “There are so many ways to make events really special here.”

Receptions for 3,500 are staged under banyan trees or in clear tents on the expansive Coronation Lawn, while 250 can mingle at receptions in the National Historic Landmark’s barracks with its limestone parapets and towers reflecting architecture of European medieval castles.

Planners can also tap into Hawaii’s poignant military history aboard the USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor. Receptions for 1,000 are hosted on the Fantail and Kamikaze Deck, with receptions for 3,000 on the adjacent Pier Foxtrot 5 where the USS Oklahoma was berthed during the December 1941 attack.

For Trish Grove, Communications Manager with St. Louis-based BASF Pest Control Solutions, the “Mighty Mo” was a no-brainer. “Because we’re based in Missouri, we were especially big on planning an event there in conjunction with our 2004 national convention,” she says.

Her group was so high on the venue that they returned during last October’s convention. Grove hosted a VIP reception for 12 on the ship’s Surrender Deck, and Pacific Rim-themed dinner in the Captain’s Cabin, frequented by President Harry Truman.

“You have such a beautiful view of Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial from here,” says Grove. “Everything about the ship and setting is so stunning, knowing you’re where the U.S. was brought into World War II and on the battleship where the treaty was signed at Tokyo Bay to end it.”

Most of Grove’s 4,000 annual convention attendees stayed at the 3,400-room Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa, a 22-acre megaresort fringing the widest stretch of white sand beach in Waikiki. The largest among some 50,000 sf of multiple exterior function spaces handles 1,600 for seated dinners, while the 27,054-sf Coral Ballroom accommodates 2,610.

We opt to hit the surf for our cocktail reception aboard Hilton’s 48-passenger Spirit of Aloha catamaran. Sailing into a glorious Hawaiian sunset as the lights of Waikiki dance on the shore, it’s clear how an evening on the water seems more like a reward than an event.

Known as the “First Lady of Waikiki” since its stately opening in 1901, The Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa has retained that period’s colonial-style architecture and charm despite a slew of upgrades over the years. The most recent was in 2008 when it added the 17,000-sf Moana Lani, the first beachfront spa on Oahu.

A group magnet since day one, The Moana’s archives reflect that 114 Shriners were among its first guests paying a mere $1.50 per night. These days, up to 250 with plusher budgets can gather for receptions on the 6,700-sf Diamond Lawn overlooking Waikiki Beach. The hotel is listed on the National List of Historic Places, and its original Banyan Wing displays period memorabilia such as the original guest register and dining menus. The timeless elegance continues on the grand verandah with koa rocking chairs inviting you to slip in and drift back to a bygone era.

Debuting next door in the Roaring Twenties, The Royal Hawaiian Hotel made its own statement with magnificent Spanish-Moorish architecture painted in a brilliant shade of coral pink. In 2009, the iconic 529-room member of Starwood Hotels’ elite Luxury Collection unveiled a grand scale transformation that retained its signature opulence while weaving in 21st-century upgrades that have given “The Pink Palace” a decidedly chic vibe.

More than 66,000 sf of outdoor space is crowned by the 56,000-sf Coconut Grove and 10,000-sf Ocean Lawn. The latter is where we partake in the Aha Aina royal celebration.

Far from the stereotypical luau buffet, this modern fete pays homage to Helumoa—the legendary playground of Hawaiian royalty where the hotel now stands. This is how you want to enjoy a luau: table service and vignette dinner performance while dining on dungeness crab cakes with sweet chili sauce, soy marinated butterfish on Molokai cucumbers, Waimea spring greens, Hamakua organic mushrooms and island spiced rock lobster tail.