by Alex Palmer and Andrea Doyle | March 11, 2018
With a destination as classic as Hawaii, incentive winners will arrive with their own expectations and assumptions: a lei upon arrival, sandy beaches, and perhaps a zipline outing, among other options. But while these can be a lot of fun, incentive trips are about the unexpected and the exclusive - things you can't get on your average visit to the islands. 

That was the thinking by Frank Robinson, president of Hawaii destination management company Island Events, who sat down with his team five years ago to rethink the standard offerings they were providing to groups. They looked for ways to incorporate uniquely Hawaiian history, culture, and cuisine into all the entries on the agenda, while adding more memorable, and challenging, experiences, going far beyond just providing a luxury getaway.

"The Type As who are winning incentive trips now are working 24-7, and when they get to Hawaii, they want an experience that really connects them to the place," says Robinson. "So we said, 'Let's do something authentically Hawaiian.'"

So Island Events recently guided an incentive group on a course in freediving - controlling one's breath while diving deep under water, without the use of scuba equipment. They spent three hours on the shore and three hours in the water, learning to dive as much as two to four minutes. Another group of 20 took part in an outrigger regatta. 

"It's been done, but for 20 people, we had an opportunity to really engage in the cultural element," says Robinson. "It's not a rush of 400 people, they can learn what the different words mean in the canoe experience and realize the magnitude of what that did for the whole culture."

Now, if a group does a nature hike, Island Events will bring a historian who can describe the battles fought nearby or the peoples who lived there. 

It also means finding suppliers or educators who can help deliver those experiences. If attendees do something more typical, such as a surfing class, Island Events will engage a small, local group to teach it. 

"So you learn about local culture while you're still surfing," says Robinson. "If people are working with a hotel that has a cultural advisor, I recommend that they incorporate that into their program."

In Oahu, for example, they will go to the Waianae coast, where, following the surfing class, attendees grab poke bowls on the way back. Cultural advisors also tip off Robinson and his team to activities and options they may not realize are available to them. He gives a recent example: the advisor at Grand Wailea who clued them in to the fact that they could bring a giant, authentic canoe right up to the beach.

"Those are the things people are looking for now that are different from 10 years ago," says Robinson.

Expanding Options

Of course, the offerings in Hawaii have significantly expanded and evolved recently. That's especially true of Oahu, home to the state capital of Honolulu plus Waikiki, Diamond Head, the USS Arizona Memorial and other Pearl Harbor Historic Sites, botanical gardens, and miles of pristine beaches.

A destination that doesn't rest on its laurels, Oahu's hotels and resorts are constantly evolving. Noteworthy projects include the former Pacific Beach Hotel that is now the all-new Alohilani Resort Waikiki Beach following a $115 million transformation. In addition to five new culinary concepts, the 839-room resort has nearly 20,000 square feet of redeveloped meeting and event space across a variety of indoor and outdoor venues. 

Boasting a destination pool deck along with authentic design touches inspired by Oahu's lush landscape and rich cultural heritage, the property's new name, Alohilani, is Hawaiian for "the heavenly brightness."

The lobby includes the O Bar and its 280,000-gallon saltwater Oceanarium. Home to more than 1,000 species of indigenous marine life, it also includes specially built coral reef formations. The lobby also features arrival spaces for groups - not to mention a business center and boutique shops. 

In other hotel news, the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa is redesigning its 1,310 rooms. This follows a $22 million transformation that included the Nanea lobby and redesigned event spaces. 

The 1,636-room Sheraton Waikiki's meetings and convention spaces are also now boasting a new look, thanks to a $1.4 million revamp. Its almost 26,000-square-foot Hawaii Ballroom is one of the largest in Waikiki.

Located on Oahu's stunning North Shore, the 850-acre Turtle Bay Resort completed a $54 million multiphase renovation. There are 410 refreshed, all-ocean-view guest rooms and suites, plus 42 newly designed oceanfront beach cottages. Upgrades also include enhancements to the lobby, restaurants, and bars; and an 11,000-square-foot spa and expanded fitness center with new wellness programming, two swimming pools, and 25,000 square feet of meeting space. Among the numerous other offerings: on-property helicopter pad, horse stables, tennis courts, two championship golf courses, 12 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, off-road Segway tours, a surf school, and eco-kayaking. 

More than 28,000 of Waikiki's 30,000 guest rooms sit within a 1.5-mile radius of Waikiki, only eight miles from Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, and close to some of Hawaii's top attractions. 

With so much available on the island, it may be tempting for planners to pack every day of their attendees' schedules with activities. But on this, Island Events has an innovative approach, as well: instead of cramming the final day of a Hawaii trip with additional activities, make it one of free time at the resort, setting up a cabana poolside and running cultural activities throughout the day. That may mean a lauhala bracelet weaving experience, a "smartphone-ography" class, or orchid growing (in which the attendee learns how to grow orchids and takes that back to their home). Or it might just mean sitting back and having a poolside conversation.

"Some of the best engagements between attendees happen over a Mai Tai by the pool," says Robinson. Some things never get old. Questions or comments? Email [email protected]