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Did APEC change the Hawaii Convention Center’s Future?

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Photo: Dana Edmunds

The expansive Hawaii Convention Center hasn’t always lived up to its original billing as a regular gathering spot between East and West. It is rarely fully used and has often sat empty since it opened in 1998, squeezed onto the former lot of a car dealer.

But, in recent years, the number of meetings has grown and the convention center’s leaders think the success of APEC will spur an even greater increase in business.

“We hit the jackpot!” exclaims Randall Tanaka, HCC’s assistant general manager, still reveling in the afterglow of the international conference hosted by President Barack Obama, where the convention center was the main venue.

"APEC was like a poker game when you're all in," Tanaka says. "It was a great moment. We've always known we could perform. We just needed the chance, and we got the chance. So now, we go dow what we do well."

“What we do” means going after other big meetings and one of the biggest on the horizon is the 2016 World Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a gathering every four years that brings as many as 15,000 participants from 160 countries.

Charles “Chipper” Wichman, director and CEO of National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai, has already been working for three years to bring the congress to Hawaii and the convention center, and says both are naturals for the global organization.

“The convention center is one of the foundational elements for our competitive proposal,” says Wichman. “That’s because of a whole bunch of things: its open green nature, the architecture, its site, its adjacency to large blocks of hotels. Everything is ideal. Waikiki is virtually within walking distance and it’s close to the beach and close to Ala Moana for people to eat and shop.”

Wichman likes to compare the Hawaii Convention Center with the convention center in Barcelona, Spain, where the last IUCN congress was held, in 2008.

The Hawaii Convention Center pulls out all the stops for
a big gathering, such as April’s annual meeting of the
American Academy of Neurology (top). 
Photos courtesy of the Hawaii Convention Center:
Clockwise from top: Kaz Tanabe, Kaz Tanabe,
Bob David, Keith Uehara

Barcelona’s is “a great convention center, but it’s located miles out of town,” he says. “Participants felt very isolated. There was no way to sneak out of a meeting and go see something in Barcelona. Here, with the juxtaposition of Waikiki, the beach, the shopping center and all those places to eat, it’s perfect.”

Wichman also lauds HCC’s layout, with its flexible room configurations, space for a plenary session of 10,000 to 15,000 delegates, its excellent audio/visual capabilities and the open-air rooftop garden.

“You have a combination of rooms that can be set up in many different configurations and you can have all different sizes of plenary sessions,” he says. “As well, the inclusion of indigenous people is very important and every time we have cultural ceremonies on the rooftop garden. To be able to walk out of a conference, where you’re not always confined in a big convention center, and be breathing clean air is really a plus.”

A convention with 20,000 participants pumps around $120 million into the Hawaii economy, according to a national model that Hawaii uses to measure economic impact. The trickle-down effect means the dollars end up in many people’s pockets.

“I talked to a number of my friends in the car rental business about what the availability of cars was even on the Neighbor Islands and they sold out” during APEC, says Tanaka. “I think we all have a better appreciation of how we’re all in this together.”

APEC Week provided further proof that Hawaii is the best site for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s world congress, says Tanaka, who has to make that case to planners for the IUCN and the U.S. State Department. (The State Department is involved because the U.S., not Hawaii, would be the official host.)

“We’ve been working with them for about a year and a half,” Tanaka says, “and when we were in D.C. for one of the meetings with the Department of State, we said ‘By the way, we’re doing APEC,’ and they said ‘OK, you guys can do this because you’ve done APEC.’ ”

It was the American Dental Association convention in 1999 that gave the Hawaii Convention Center its first big win. “It helped our takeoff,” Tanaka says. “Now all the other conventions say, ‘If Dental can come, we can, too.’ ”

That convention was such a success that the dental association created a 10-year cycle. The dentists returned in 2009 with between 25,000 and 29,000 delegates, and are looking at a third visit in 2019.

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