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Leadership , Talk Story – March 13, 2019

Talk Story: Alfred Grace, President & CEO, Polynesian Cultural Center

Photo: Aaron Yoshino
Despite an unlikely start, the PCC has thrived for more than five decades. Founded by amateur entertainers on what was then the out-of-the-way North Shore of Oahu, it currently hosts about 2,500 visitors a day and continues to evolve.

Q: The center has had more than 40 million visitors since opening in 1963. How did you achieve that considering you are a one-hour drive north of Honolulu?

Grace: What’s really important from a strategic and tactical point is the center has always stayed true to its mission: promote and preserve the cultures of Polynesia while contributing to the educational development and growth of Brigham Young University students.

Q: Have you ever veered from the mission?

Grace: We once ran a program called The Haunted Lagoon. People would wait in line for up to three hours for that experience. It was successful as a stand-alone event.

But during the day you would have these visuals that were not conducive to an immersive cultural experience. We asked ourselves: Is it supporting the development and growth of our student employees? Is it demonstrating the spirit of aloha? No, so we closed it, even though it was a success.

Q: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owns the Polynesian Cultural Center. How does that impact operations?

Grace: On a day-to-day basis the cultural values that we uphold are consistent with the values of the church, so there is no impact.

Q: Describe your plan to attract 1 million tourists a year.

Grace: It is a big goal, but we used to do more volume back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. What’s happened since then is that we have become a mature destination. We have tourists who have been here many times.

Also the length of stay for tourists used to be 14 days on Oahu. Now it is more like seven days and that may include some (side trips to) Neighbor Islands as well.

This is driving us to be more sensitive about time and to create different experiences, such as our marketplace attraction, which we opened about three years ago. It now receives about 600,000 visitors annually, mostly people driving around the island that just stop by to experience the restaurants and retail offerings.

We also created The Huki, our new canoe pageant on the lagoon, designed to refresh the experience for repeat visitors but also to accommodate guests who can only stop by for a few hours.  They get to see one of our extravaganzas on the water and be back in Waikiki by 5 or 6 in the afternoon.

We constantly refine what we have so we can continually increase guest satisfaction. We pay tremendous attention to guest satisfaction ratings, scaled from 1-10. Right now, 81 percent of visitors give us a score of 9 or 10.

Q: The bulk of your 900 employees are students; their average age is 20. Does that make you nervous?

Grace: Our turnover is phenomenal, around 50 percent annually. So we have to have a large training department. Luckily our students can work 40 hours during their summer break to cover those operational needs.

But we place a lot of trust in them. We take our most important VIPs – presidents of countries, CEOs, dignitaries and so forth – and turn them over to our student guides. We have an excellent training program. Our orientation deals with the why, why this center exists. We don’t even get into the how to do your job until about the third day. Our main premise is to see people as people, not objects. The moment you start seeing them as objects, they know you are not being authentic.

Q: You spent about $100 million on renovating and updating, culminating in a new center in 2014. What has been the ROI?

Grace: It has allowed us to better represent what we consider to be best about our culture and heritage, in a better light and a better facility. It has allowed our ohana employees to feel very proud of the place they represent.

Much of the expense, however, is not seen – it went into the ground, into the electrical systems, sewers, all of the utilities. If you dig down 3 or 4 feet, there is water. The lagoons are fed by natural artesian wells. So maintenance here is a bear.

You will note there are very few attractions in the world that are built on the windward side of an island, where they suffer from the elements: rain, wind and sunshine, the salt. You can just imagine the chemical reaction. We actually have rusted stainless steel here.

So we spend an unbelievable amount on maintenance. The $100 million allowed us to build with material and to a quality that has significantly reduced our maintenance costs. We are saving millions each year.

Q: Are you operating in the black?

Grace: We are, but we keep putting it all back into the physical facility and into our workforce. A significant number of our student employees are on minimum wage, so as that escalates, so do our costs. But that’s fine because they are a key component in helping create an immersive cultural experience for our guests.

This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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