The Fairmont Orchid on Hawaii Island, recognizing increased demand and need for enhanced cultural
programming, has appointed its first director of Hawaiian culture.
Kaiulani Blankenfeld, who has been with the resort since 1999, stepped into the role this month and will lead both short- and long-term strategic planning to advance the property's Hawaiian programs and practices, including increasing the knowledge base of staff and guests.
Born and raised on Oahu, Blankenfeld was steeped in Hawaiian traditions and customs growing up, and it shows in the various professions and skills she and her siblings hold. One brother is a surfer and surfboard maker, another is a master navigator with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and a third is an "amazing canoe maker," she said.
"I was blessed to be raised in a multicultural, multiethnic family," Blankenfeld said. "My father was [of] Hawaiian, German, Japanese and Portuguese descent, and my mother was half Hawaiian and half Caucasian.
"We grew up celebrating every culture in our heritage, but we were primarily raised to know we are Hawaiian first and foremost."
Blankenfeld's passion is hula, and she has been dancing and performing since she was a small child.
"I loved and was drawn to hula early in life. It just felt so rooted in our culture and connected to our ancestors," she said. "Hula became an amazing life-grooming activity for me. You learn grace. You learn poise. You learn the culture."
While Blankenfeld has always been passionate about sharing that culture and history with guests and resort colleagues alike, now it is her actual job description.
"As we looked into the future with our strategic planning and saw the evolution of today's traveler, it was really evident that guests want to dive more into the culture," she said, "and we wanted to take what we are currently doing and not so much improve but increase offerings and make them more prominent."
Travelers are looking to connect to the destination.
Blankenfeld first came to the Fairmont Orchid as the assistant director of human resources and has since worked in a variety of roles that have allowed her to learn about all aspects of the guest experience and resort operations. She has served as director of recreation, director of learning, director of guest services and executive housekeeper.
Guests are increasingly looking for "deeper experiences," Blankenfeld said.
"They don't just want to see something or drive by it," she added. "They want to touch and immerse themselves in it and understand it at a deeper level. Travelers are more savvy today and are looking to connect to the destination."
She is working with all departments to deepen the understanding and connection to Hawaiian culture and history. She has worked to empower staff to share their own Hawaiian stories, especially the Hui Holokai, the Fairmont Orchid Beach Club ambassadors who share their cultural knowledge, ocean skills and stories with guests while running paddleboarding, outrigger canoe outings, snorkeling and other programs.
"So much of what was passed down in the premissionary era was oral history," Blankenfeld said. "Our chants and stories were how the myths and legends were passed down. When people tell the story of Maui's fish hook, you might get 10 different stories because 10 different families passed them down a little bit differently. Nobody is wrong, and everyone is right."
The Fairmont Orchid's cultural programming includes a sunrise canoe excursion, including a chant to welcome and express appreciation for a new day; beach and historical hikes that visit petroglyph sites; a traditional fishing excursion; and a daily conch-shell blowing and torch-lighting ceremony at sunset.
Moving forward, Blankenfeld has her sights set on expanding the hula programming, including a series of classes in which guests would learn a routine that they could then perform on the property's sunset terrace. Blankenfeld also recently got her license to perform weddings and said she would like to expand the Fairmont Orchid wedding experience, weaving in more traditional Hawaiian elements.
Blankenfeld is also hoping to partner with experts in various areas from the Hawaii Island community; she's on the hunt for lomilomi massage practitioners and experts in lapaau, traditional herbal medicine and therapy.
"Everything we do has to be pono, right," Blankenfeld said. "We want to be bringing cultural conscience to everything we do. I want to reach out to elders on the island, because we are still learning every day about the culture and history. I want the cultural practitioners in the community to bring their knowledge of things they mastered, so at the end of the day we are making our ancestors proud."