awrence Aki, the mo'olelo, the storyteller, stood two feet away, lit from below by fire's glow. His face was shiny with sweat, his voice rising and falling with the rhythm of the waves crashing against rocks 30 yards behind him.

He spoke about -- at times, embodied -- the history of this stretch of Molokai coast, now inhabited by the wondrous Sheraton Molokai Lodge and Beach Village. He spoke of spirits, of customs handed down through generations.

About 15 advertising executives, wholesalers, hoteliers and assorted other promoters of Hawaii listened intently, wrapped in his voice, looking up at that shiny face framed by hundreds of stars.

This same audience -- and about 160 others -- had spent the previous day at the Travel Weekly Leadership Forum at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, struggling at times with the problem of how to package and market the travel product of Hawaii.

What struck me as remarkable about Aki's performance was that it didn't feel like a performance. He was one of the property's star attractions, yet there wasn't anything commercial about his presentation. He seemed genuinely to enjoy sharing his cultural heritage with a group of people he had just met. He lived the spirit of aloha.

The day before, at the Forum, it was agreed that Hawaii's differentiator from other sun, sand and surf destinations was the spirit of aloha. More than native culture, aloha is a way of life, of interactions between people, and the expression of the very spirits that inhabit all creatures on the islands, every clump of soil and each drop of Hawaiian water.

Now, how do you market that?

More to the point, how do you get people east of Denver to fly many hours over the Pacific Ocean to experience Hawaiian sun, sand and surf rather than the more convenient Caribbean and Mexican sun, sand and surf?

The aloha experience is powerful, and one that draws people back to Hawaii time and again. But can an almost ethereal, needs-to-be-experienced-to-be-understood event strengthen the destination's weaker markets?

In the not-too-distant past, Hawaiian culture had been on display in mass media more than it is today, and the destination benefited from the nation's repeated exposure to, say, the television series "Hawaii Five-0." As was pointed out at our Leadership Forum, the Hawaii Five-0 generation has been replaced by the MTV generation, and the nearer sounds of reggae and salsa may drown out the distant strum of the ukulele to young people on the East Coast.

I don't presume to have a magic fix for the east-of-the-Rockies problem. But I did observe that the streets of Waikiki present a fascinating mix of overlapping island, Asian and American cultures. Simply put, the hotel lobbies and streets of Honolulu encompass a very hip scene, with an underlying World Beat atmosphere that joins Pacific Rim and Pacific cultures. This is not pure Hawaiian culture, yet this meeting of societies, to me, captures and even adds dimension to the spirit of aloha.

Can this very real dimension of modern Hawaii be presented within the context of the spirit of aloha without corrupting it? I'd think so -- after all, the current Hawaiian experience already encompasses Lawrence Aki's campfire glow and the bright lights of Waikiki.

The politics of Hawaiian promotion are complex, and I suspect any discussion that involves a message that moves away from the traditional definition of the spirit of aloha will be, well, spirited.

"Hawaii Five-0" managed to blend modern and traditional Hawaii for the benefit of tourism. Updating how Hawaii presents itself, without losing the spirit of aloha, is the biggest challenge facing the island's leadership. Today, "Hawaii Five-0" detective Danno may well be a travel agent on the East Coast, and it's still important that he "book 'em."


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