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
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
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Leadership Forum, the Hawaii Five-0 generation has been replaced by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
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
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,
"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."