Hawaii planners of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit did not forget that the aloha spirit is a state law or that it’s proper to visit Oahu’s Royal Mausoleum to ask the blessing of Hawaii’s buried monarchs before pursuing a new course like bringing a world-class event to Oahu.
Culturally, they knew that a bag of $1.99 li hing mui was the gift to send with their APEC application since President Barack Obama, who was born and raised here, would review it.
"The look on his chief aide’s face was ‘What the hell is this?’" said Tim Johns, vice chairman of the APEC 2011 Hawaii Host Committee. "I said, ‘It’s seed, you eat it.’ He said, ‘I don’t think that I can get this through the food security detail.’ I said it would strike a chord and remind him of his youth."
APEC’s Hawaii Host Committee approached everything from bidding on the event to planning and executing it in a uniquely Hawaii style. They draped U.S. Secret Service and U.S. State Department and APEC’s top planning officials and delegation emissaries with lei. At meetings they wore flowered shirts and dresses instead of business suits, gave hugs, held hands and offered up pule (Hawaiian blessings). They shared Hawaiian music, dance and food and at every turn incorporated into APEC one of the state’s main tourism marketing messages, "The people of Hawaii would like to share their islands with you."
"It was important to us that we had the support of our kupuna and that Hawaii values played a role in this event," said Mike McCartney, Hawaii Tourism Authority president and chief executive.
At the same time, Hawaii APEC organizers understand the importance of respecting the customs of the 21 nations that will be represented here this week, McCartney said. Local businesses and volunteers have prepped for nearly two years so that everyone who comes for APEC feels at home and leaves understanding Hawaiian culture, he said.
"Protocol originated with the cave men. He who was the mightiest made the rules. That’s still true today. If you don’t understand the culture, what is likely to happen? The answer is conflict."
To that end, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Outrigger Enterprises Group, Hyatt and Hilton have done everything from training staff in APEC languages and protocol to creating new signage and advertising. They added familiar foods to menus, upgraded linens in favored colors and ordered culturally appropriate VIP gifts.
Waikiki retailers also have made investments that cater to customers from throughout the Asia-Pacific region. For instance, Royal Hawaiian Center has expanded its free hula classes from twice a week to twice a day for APEC, said Sam Shenkus, marketing director for The Festival Cos., which manages the center for Kamehameha Schools.
And, even though Oahu’s military bases are experienced at hosting VIPs, their protocol experts have stepped up their game, too.
"We are bringing in 12 protocol experts. My responsibility is to create a distraction-free environment so that these folks can focus on the business at hand," said Cynthia Rambo, Pacific Air Forces/Hickam protocol director.
Rambo, who has been asked to assist with the introductions of state leaders to Obama and coordinate a possible event hosted by first lady Michelle Obama at Hickam, said protocol will play a key role at APEC.
"Protocol originated with the cave men," Rambo said. "He who was the mightiest made the rules. That’s still true today. If you don’t understand the culture, what is likely to happen? The answer is conflict."
At the APEC level, small details and relationships matter, said David Carey, president and chief executive of Outrigger Enterprises Group, which developed an APEC hospitality curriculum for Hawaii’s visitor industry. Since the State Department left hotel choices to delegations, hoteliers had to develop rapport with APEC decision-makers.
"You probably wouldn’t want to put Russia and China together," Carey said.
When it comes to APEC, location matters, said Joseph Toy, Hospitality Advisors LLC’s president and chief executive.
At the APEC 2003 Summit in Bangkok, hotel choices reflected relationships and status, Toy said.
"APEC is all about Asia showing face," Toy said. "In Bangkok the super three (U.S., China and Russia) were all virtually in the same intersection."
Carey said hosting the delegations from Australia and New Zealand is a natural fit since they are familiar with the Outrigger brand.
"I’ve gotten to know the consul general over the last several years really well and the Australian ambassador to the U.S.," Carey said. "I said if there is any choice, given our relationship with your country, we’d love to be on the list of hotels that you consider."
While many of the hotels selected for APEC 2011 have done business with visitors from these nations or have properties there, the event requires heightened cultural awareness. For instance, Outrigger has told employees not to ask the Australian delegation which sporting team they "root for" since the term is vulgar there. Outrigger also told staff to pay attention to time since punctuality is important to New Zealanders.
Jerry Westenhaver, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort & Spa, where the Koreans are staying, said the hotel put kim chee on its breakfast menu and made sure its new restaurant Japengo and other hotel renovations would be completed for APEC. Hyatt also went through 11 drafts of its Japengo menu so it "would be all things to all different markets, Westenhaver said.
"You’ll find California-style sushi on the menu to please our North American guests; however, you’ll find authentic Japanese-style sushi prepared by Japanese chefs, too," he said, adding that the hotel also flew over Park Hyatt Beijing’s chef Brian Yang for Japengo’s opening and APEC preparation.
Since Sheraton Waikiki and the Royal Hawaiian are hosting APEC’s CEO Summit, they must understand and accommodate all 21 APEC cultures, said Kelly Sanders, general manager of the Sheraton Waikiki.
"It’s a cultural challenge having all of these different economies here," Sanders said. "We have to meet everything from their service expectations to diet and other restrictions."
In courting China, Starwood discovered that they found their Southern Chinese cuisine lacking, he said.
"We thought we did it well and had some of the best Chinese food on island — but not so much," Sanders said. "They wanted more Northern cuisine, so we sent for six chefs from Beijing."
Starwood also worked with customs to bring over ingredients and pastries from China, said Brian Hunnings, Starwood’s area director of food and beverage.
"We’ve spent months preparing for this event," Hunnings said. "The Chinese delegation has had (many) tastings, and we are ready. They have been very clear in their menu direction. They want about 20 percent of the food to showcase Hawaii. They like this food but they love Chinese food."
Sanders said in addition to the food for APEC, great care went into floral arrangements, amenities and gifts.
"Toothpaste is something that we bring in America, but in China everything is there in the room," he said. "We brought our amenities up to the level that they expect, and during APEC we’ll offer 24/7 service."
Starwood also has learned that while wine, especially the bold California reds, makes a good Chinese welcome, a gift of food insults them, Hunnings said. Red and gold are favorable gift colors; however, the Chinese don’t like white gifts because to them the color signifies death, he said.
Once Starwood figured out what gifts the Chinese preferred, they still had to figure out how to get them to take them. Chinese custom requires turning down a gift up to three times to save face, Hunnings said.
"We didn’t want our staff to have to make four or five trips to each room," he said. "When dealing with the Chinese, we have learned that it’s best to deliver welcome gifts when no one is there. That way, we can just leave them in the room."