Did APEC change the Hawaii Convention Center’s Future?
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The convention center’s spacious common areas, decorated
“Our business goes in cycles,” says Tanaka. It depends on the economy, how well individual professions or industries are faring, and unexpected events, such as international scares like the SARS virus of 2003.
Chris Vranas, executive director of the American Association of Orthodontists, remembers that the 2003 convention in Hawaii was a major success despite a fear of SARS from Asia that scared some attendees away. “It was one of the largest doctor and staff attendances we’ve had in recent years,” he said, and drew 16,000 people to the convention center.
Vranas is deep into planning for the group’s next Hawaii convention, May 4 to 8, and expects 18,000 participants.
“We‘re able to plan the program so the members who come can attend the program and can also see Hawaii,” said Vranas. “If you have a meeting of over 2,000, the convention center is the place to be. If it’s around 800 to 1,500, you have other options like the Sheraton Waikiki or the Hilton Hawaiian Village, which are wonderful. But bigger than that, you need the convention center.”
The convention center staff helps make it easy, Vranas says.
“In some cities, once you’ve booked, it gets turned over to your client services, but in Hawaii, your sales people stay involved because they want you back. They have an excellent relationship with the key hotels you need and they all work hand-in-hand. When we get a bid, we ask the convention center to secure about 70 percent of the blocks of the hotels and when we come for a site visit they coordinate everything with the hotels, the destination management companies … everyone. They interface for us.”
Vranas envisions a need for 30,000 room-nights for the orthodontists because 60 to 70 percent of the doctors will bring families with them and extend their convention time into vacation time, and that often includes Neighbor Island visits. Extra educational sessions have been planned for hotels on Maui, Kauai and Oahu’s North Shore Turtle Bay Resort.
“You have one of the best destinations that make convention attendees truly feel welcome,” says Vranas. “And when 17,000 or more are coming, you’re talking about a significant impact to the economy.”
In 2009, when the American Association of Dentists booked Hawaii for its convention, about 50 participants came from China, Japan and Korea. Tanaka says that points to the future for the convention center and for Hawaii.
“That’s where we’re going,” he says. “We want to be the port that brings the international business to meet with the domestic business. That’s how our positioning has been for the last three or four years. We’re really working on trying to get this hybrid of national and international participation.”
The convention center staff is willing and able to link American groups with their counterparts in Asia, even flying with leaders of U.S. groups to Asia to organize meetings with their Asian counterparts.
“That was something engineered by June Matsumoto, who is in charge of global outreach,” says Tanaka. “It’s helping U.S.-based associations begin to reach out to similar associations in Asia. For instance, like the American Dental Association, there’s one in Japan called the Japan Dental Association and what we do is reach out to them and say ‘Hey, maybe you want to come to Hawaii and meet with your counterparts?’ They’ll ask, ‘Can you help us with translation. Can you arrange the meetings?’ So we become like the protocol officers. We’re the matchmakers. And we know how to work with the embassies and the commercial services. We can help them do a trade mission.”
In some instances, staff can also translate websites with direct links to the association to ease registration and hotel reservations. “It has to be for the right size association, though, because the costs can get a little prohibitive,” says Tanaka. “If we think the potential is there, it could be the defining moment on why they choose Hawaii.”
Tanaka says his staff goes out of its way to bridge cultural gaps, make connections and follow up loose ends. “We’re much smarter now,” he says. “We know where we can get help: the embassies, the American chambers of commerce and the specialty associations in those countries.” It also helps that convention center employees are skilled in Asian languages.
Attracting scientific, academic or business groups is not necessarily a moneymaking operation for the Hawaii Convention Center or any convention center.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of convention centers do not run an operating profit,” Tanaka says. “What they are is magnets to attract and fill hotel rooms.”
To that end, HCC staff work closely with hotels to arrange attractive convention packages.
“We have an ongoing relationship with all the hotels,” he says. “We know what they need. They’ll give us an offer and we present that to the client, and they’ll say, ‘OK we can work with this.’ It’s a dynamic process. For instance, I may need 2,000 rooms in a four-star hotel and I need them on a Monday-through-Friday-arrival pattern. But we may exceed that hotel’s inventory at that time, so we go back in to look for other rooms. That’s the dynamic process.”
Hawaii and the convention center’s success with APEC did not go unnoticed. This month, Tanaka will sit down in Chicago with the crew that runs the nation’s largest convention center – 10 times the size of Hawaii’s – and give them pointers.
“The man we worked with on APEC from the Department of State, he tells these guys in Chicago that they need to talk to Hawaii about how to run a host committee and get a city ready,” Tanaka says. “So this friend of mine from the Chicago Visitors Bureau that handles sales and marketing for citywide conventions, calls me and says ‘Can you guys sit down with us and tell us how you put this together?’ ”
In May, Chicago will host back-to-back summits of NATO and the G-8 leaders, a role that Hawaii has already played well.
“We’re going to tell them what we did,” Tanaka says. “It’s a classic moment. Yes, we can play. We can perform.”
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