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Talk Story with P. Alfred Grace of Polynesian Cultural Center

P. Alfred Grace, President & CEO, Polynesian Cultural Center

Photo: David Croxford

Grace, a Maori, originally from Turangi, New Zealand, began his career at the Polynesian Cultural Center 30 years ago as a student performer. He climbed the ranks to senior VP of sales and marketing, assumed the newly created post of COO in 2009, and was named president and CEO on Feb. 26, 2013. He talks about the future of the nonprofit visitor attraction as it celebrates its 50th anniversary in September.

Connecting a visitor attraction to a university is an interesting model. How did it come about?

As far as I know, no other university has this model. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is owner and operator of both Brigham Young University-Hawaii and PCC. When the university opened in the 1950s, it was designed to provide young members of the church, throughout the Pacific Rim, with the opportunity to further their education. But soon, they found that the cost of attendance was difficult for many families. So PCC became a concept to provide an opportunity for students to supplement their families’ contributions to their education.

How do you balance PCC’s mission with business?

Our mission is to preserve and perpetuate the arts, crafts and culture of Polynesia. But we’re finding more and more Polynesians growing up in cities. The irony of it is we have Samoans, Tongans and Maori raised in Australia, learning about their culture here at the PCC. We provide the opportunity for them to connect with who they are. And it has an impact on them to know that they come from very proud cultures and it makes a difference in their lives. 

Right now, we have about 1,100 employees.  More than 700 are BYU-Hawaii students. We provide them with employment to help them with the educational costs and be a part of their practical learning process.

We have accounting positions, inventory control and merchandising, point of sales, sales management. They can become team leaders, supervisors and have up to 45 people reporting to them. Our student managers are responsible for hiring, training, motivating and seeing that they achieve their goals.

We are also a significant employer in the community. This area of Koolauloa … is heavily Polynesian. For many of these folks, we allow them to live their cultures but also work in areas they excel in due to their heritage.

Major renovations began in 2009. What’s the status?

Since 2009, we’ve been reinventing ourselves and going through an overhaul of nearly all of our major structures to prepare for the next 50 years. At the end of 2014, we will have refurbished all the major facilities and added several major enhancements, including the luau facility and new Samoan village. The last renovation of this scope took place in the mid-1970s. That’s when The Gateway, the main restaurant, was built.

We’re building a new marketplace that’s twice as large as the old one and it’s scheduled to open at the end of 2014. It will spread out into the parking lot. We hope it will become a place where moms can come with their children and have a special ice cream that might come from New Zealand. Or eat at a Tahitian roulotte … their version of the lunch trucks. It will be a place where you can just relax and enjoy yourself for a short while.

How much will the renovation cost?

That’s a moving target. When you look at the Gateway restaurant and just a complete overhaul of the former IMAX theatre into a multidimensional, multipurpose structure, and factor in the marketplace, it will be well over $50 million.

What is the trend in visitor numbers over the past five years?

We tend to reflect the deterioration in visitor arrivals in 2009 with the loss of airlift and other economic issues. But we have been able to grow our attendance back at a solid rate since 2010 by providing experiences that interest our kamaaina. We’re seeing significant improvement in our local residents coming out to PCC. What really kicked it off was the introduction of the new night show in 2009; we definitely see in our history, as we’ve introduced new experiences, we see the bump in attendance. Attractions tend to be very cyclical. When we introduced “Ha – Breath of Life” in the summer of 2009, we saw 648,257 visitors that year and 31 percent were local. Last year, we saw 719,000 visitors with 26 percent local. Our new “Hawaiian Journey” show at the IMAX opened last month and has been popular with both kamaaina and visitors. Hopefully it will help keep the numbers up.

What is the biggest challenge of running the center?

We ask people, “What do you think of the Polynesian Cultural Center?” and they say, “Oh, I loved it.” Then we ask if they’re coming back and they say, “No, not this time. I’m really busy. You know, I’ve been there, done that.” And that’s one of the biggest challenges. Hawaii’s such a magnificent destination. You can have such a wonderful time just sitting on the beach and time is a significant factor for guests. So our intent is to create these wonderful, new experiences to complement those they already have, to give the guests the motivation to return.

What other ways are you using the center’s facilities to attract kamaaina?

We could easily envision local businesses doing their presentations or holding company retreats here. They could have their families join them in the afternoon for activities, followed by dinner and the show. It would be no problem. We’re starting to step up the opportunity and make it available. Right now we’ve kept it on the low because we want to make sure it’s right and we’re ready. It’s about expanding the use of the facilities. So instead of the villages just being used from 12 to 6 p.m. we can run workshops and activities in the morning and also do overnighters and evening activities. It allows us to provide more people with a greater variety of experiences. 

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Aug 13, 2013 02:08 pm
 Posted by  Ted Asia


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Aug 14, 2013 06:08 am
 Posted by  Naupaka Point

Great article which leaves questions.
1. In what areas will you expand? 2. How soon will the adjacent new Hotel be completed? 3. As the son of the "General Contractor of record building the PCC" my question is did we do it right or should we have built it better in what areas?

Aug 20, 2013 11:53 am
 Posted by  abelup

This fact is well warranted at this time as the Mormon religion, (commonly known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) is planning their 50th reunion of the Polynesian Cultural Center in September of 2013. This pseudo religion is a sophisticated savoir-faire business organization, with non-transparent, self government of vast schema of corrupted commercial enterprises, and glimmers of promises for “The Chosen People”-The Polynesians a place in the Celestial Kingdom. I hold immense resentment, indignation and anger towards the Mormon Church in Laie and throughout the islands of Hawaii. The Mormon Church has excavated the Polynesian culture of its spiritual serenity and has no vested interest in the preservation and or the foundation of the Polynesian Cultural Center or the recently eliminated institution of Higher Education, Church College of Hawaii.

The Mormon religion’s ambition in Hawaii is to harvest the Hawaiian and Polynesian populations of their money, land, and talent for their gain. This is my story!!!!!

What the Mormon Church owns in Hawaii and how much money their business enterprise rakes in under the disguise of “not for profit,” is beyond one’s imagination. The Mormon Church runs several for-profit real estate arms that own, develop, and manage malls, parking lots, office parks, residential buildings, and more. Hawaii Reserves, for example, owns or manages more than 7,000 acres on Oahu, where it maintains commercial and residential buildings, parks, water and sewage infrastructure, and two cemeteries.
Take for example, the Polynesian Culture Center, a very lucrative business (PCC), a 42-acre tropical theme park on Oahu’s north shore that hosts luaus, canoe rides, and tours through seven simulated Polynesian villages. General-admission adult tickets cost $49.95; VIP tickets cost up to $228.95. In 2010 PCC had net assets worth $70 million dollars and collected $23 million in ticket sales alone, as well as $36 million in tax-free donations. The PCC’s president, meanwhile, received a salary of $296,000, while the workers make minimum wages. At the local level, PCC opened in 1963, began paying commercial property taxes in 1992, when the Land and Tax Appeal Court of Hawaii ruled that the theme park “is not for charitable purposes” and is, in fact, a “commercial enterprise and business undertaking.” Nevertheless, the tourist destination remains exempt from federal taxes because PCC claims to be a “living museum” and an education-oriented charity that employs students who work at the center to pay their way through church-run Brigham Young University-Hawaii. In its 50 years of operation PCC has netted tax free money of approximately 1 billion dollars and that money does not remain in Laie or Hawaii for the betterment of Hawaiian and Polynesian culture or people. All money is wired directly to Salt Lake City daily.

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Aug 20, 2013 12:09 pm
 Posted by  abelup

Two years ago the Mormon Church completed an ambitious project: a megamall. Built for roughly $2 billion, the City Creek Center stands directly across the street from the church’s iconic neo-Gothic temple in Salt Lake City. The mall includes a retractable glass roof, 5,000 underground parking spots, and nearly 100 stores and restaurants, ranging from Tiffany’s to Forever 21. Walkways link the open-air emporium with the church’s perfectly manicured headquarters on Temple Square. Macy’s is a stone’s throw from the offices of the church’s president, Thomas S. Monson, whom Mormons believe to be a living prophet.

Watching a religious leader celebrate a mall may seem surreal, but City Creek reflects the spirit of business enterprise, similar to PCC in Hawaii that animates modern-day Mormonism-making money at the expense of others. The mall is part of a sprawling church-owned corporate empire that the Mormon leadership says is helping spread its message, increasing economic self-reliance, and building the Kingdom of God on earth. Deseret Management Corp. (DMC), an umbrella organization for many of the church’s for-profit businesses. “We look to not only the spiritual but also the temporal, and we believe that a person who is impoverished temporally cannot blossom spiritually.”
The Mormon business enterprise has only one purpose, fill church coffers.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Mormonism-a secretive pseudo-religion, also adopts the country’s secular faith in money. What is remarkable is how varied the church’s business interests are and that so little is known about its financial interests, even to its members who pay tith and other monthly offering. Although a former Mormon bishop received the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, and despite a recent public-relations campaign aimed at combating the perception that it is “secretive,” the LDS Church remains tight-lipped about its holdings. It offers little financial transparency even to its members, who are required to tithe 10 percent of their income to gain access to Mormon temples.
Mormons make up only 1.4 percent of the U.S. population, but the church’s holdings are vast. First among its for-profit enterprises is DMC, which reaps estimated annual revenue of $1.2 billion from six subsidiaries, according to the business information and analysis firm. Those subsidiaries run a newspaper, 11 radio stations, a TV station, a publishing and Distribution Company, a digital media company, a hospitality business, and an insurance business with assets worth $3.3 billion.

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Aug 20, 2013 12:10 pm
 Posted by  abelup

AgReserves, another for-profit Mormon umbrella company, together with other church-run agricultural affiliates, reportedly owns about 1 million acres in the continental U.S., on which the church has farms, hunting preserves, orchards, and ranches (Jesus was not a hunter). These include the $1 billion, 290,000-acre Deseret Ranches in Florida, which, in addition to keeping 44,000 cows and 1,300 bulls, also has citrus, sod, and timber operations. Outside the U.S., AgReserves operates in Britain, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. Its Australian property, valued at $61 million in 1997, has estimated annual sales of $276 million, according to Dun & Bradstreet.
“There are religious groups that own radio stations, but they don’t also own cattle ranches. There are religious groups that own retreats, but they don’t also own insurance companies. Given their array of corporate interests, it would probably make more sense to refer to them as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Holdings Inc.”

As a religious organization, the LDS Church enjoys several tax advantages. The church also doesn’t pay taxes on donated funds and holdings. Mitt Romney and others at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he co-founded in 1984, gave the Mormon Church millions’ worth of stock holdings obtained through Bain deals, according to Reuters. Between 1997 and 2009, these included $2 million in Burger King and $1 million in Domino’s Pizza shares. Under U.S. law, churches can legally turn around and sell donated stock without paying capital-gains taxes, a clear advantage for both donor and receiver. The church also makes money through various investment vehicles, including a trust company and an investment fund called Ensign Peak Advisors, which employs managers who specialize in international equities, cash management, fixed income, quantitative investment, and emerging markets, according to profiles on LinkedIn. Public information on Ensign Peak is sparse. In 2006 one of the fund’s vice presidents, Laurence R. Stay, told the Mormon-run Deseret News, “As we trade securities, all of the trading happens essentially with a handshake. … There’s lots of protections around it, but billions of dollars change hands every day just based on the ethics of the group—that people know that they can trust each other.”
According to U.S. law, religions have no obligation to open their books to the public, and the LDS Church officially stopped reporting any finances in the early 1960s. In 1997 an investigation by Time used cross-religious comparisons and internal information to estimate the church’s total value at $30 billion. The magazine also produced an estimate that $5 billion worth of tithing flows into the church annually, and that it owned at least $6 billion in stocks and bonds.

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