Grand Wailea's cultural ambassador aspires to be obsolete

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Kainoa Horcajo, cultural ambassador of the Grand Wailea.
Kainoa Horcajo, cultural ambassador of the Grand Wailea.
Visitors have long flocked to Hawaii to relax and soak in its scenic beauty. But thanks to the work of cultural ambassadors, Hawaiian culture has taken center stage at hotels and on organized tours like never before. One ambassador, Kainoa Horcajo of the Grand Wailea on Maui, recently met with Travel Weekly contributor Will McGough to discuss his role and its impact on Hawaii and its visitors.


Q: When did the role of cultural ambassador come into fruition in Hawaii? Why is it important for Hawaiian hotels to have a cultural ambassador?

A: As mass tourism to Hawaii increased in the mid-1900s, the pace of development outpaced the local and native community's ability to maintain a grasp on our image. Investors, developers and management foreign to Hawaii dictated the image and persona Hawaii projected to the world. As the Hawaiian cultural renaissance bloomed in the '60s and '70s, there was a push by a vanguard of Hawaiian culture to insert themselves into the industry in order to bring back authenticity and native sensibility, along with the hope of improving resident and native sentiments toward the visitor industry as a whole. 

Q: As a cultural ambassador for the Grand Wailea, what is your goal? What do you want for your guests?

A: My kuleana [responsibility] is not just to the guests who travel and stay here but more so to the team we have here and to the land itself. … I have an obligation to honor the families that existed here for thousands of years back to the first voyagers to this island and to the memory of their lives. I have an obligation to speak for those local and native families living here now and their ability to access ancestral fishing grounds, beaches and all other customary traditions.

I have many goals for being here, largest among them is to empower our team of 1,400 amazing individuals to be the ambassadors of this place themselves. It is my goal and my hope that each of us at this hotel has an unwavering affection for and connection to this place that oozes from their being in the way a fragrant flower fills the air with its essence, that we enrapture all we come into contact with with a feeling of true aloha and real Hawaii, the way the ocean surrounds us as we enter into her.

My hope for our guests is that they have an opportunity to experience the real Hawaii, both its natural landscapes and its people, and that upon returning home they carry that feeling of aloha, of love and mutual empathy, with them to improve and care for their communities in the way in which we care for ours.

Q: Do you find that guests today are seeking more cultural attractions?

A: I think guests today are educated, well traveled and do research before coming. They bring with them the desire to go "beyond the brochure," to have intimate and authentic connections through experiential and immersive offerings. We see more guests doing voluntourism and giving back to the community, especially culturally focused activities like beach cleanups, fishpond restorations and replanting native ecosystems. In addition, conventional attractions like boat rides, zipline tours and horseback rides are incorporating more and more cultural experiences into their daily practices.

Q: What are guests looking for in a cultural experience?

A: Authenticity. This is a term that has been overused, but to me this means that it is not solely created for the amusement and benefit of a visitor but is also relevant and engaging for a local person. Our guests are smart. They can see a con, spot a fake and won't settle for an experience that intentionally misleads guests into a false view of Hawaii. I take that into account when creating experiences, and instead of creating a new world for them, I try to bring them into my world. 

Q: What cultural offerings/activities does the Grand Wailea offer?

A: We offer daily, weekly, monthly and annual activities. Weekly, I lead a cultural walking tour that is less a scripted tour and more an opportunity to discuss Hawaiian culture and history alongside taking into view amazing Hawaiian art, viewplanes and native concepts. I do this every Wednesday at 10 a.m. Our keiki center, the Rock and Camp Grande offer daily activities for children of all ages to do lei making, fish identification and all sorts of other cultural activities. We have a great Hawaiian outrigger canoe experience that takes people out onto the ocean to learn concepts of Hawaiian sustainability, Hawaiian chant and how to responsibly view native marine life. May Day and Kamehameha Day are an opportunity to celebrate different parts of Hawaiian culture through lei and flowers and the honoring of our Mo'i Kamehameha with hula, chant and offerings of lei.

I also create events and activities centered around the Kaulana Mahina, the Hawaiian calendar system. My favorite is the Malama dinners done by myself and Mike Lofaro, chef de cuisine at Humuhumunukunukuapua'a. Together, we brainstormed an idea to do a monthly dinner based on the Hawaiian moon calendar. We looked at the lunar month and the moon phase for that time period. We researched what was available to fish, hunt and gather based on the traditional cycles and ancient environmental protections and then weaved a story through each dish that brought the diner into our world. We did the dinners on a Thursday and would take the whole work week prior to actually go out and dive for fish, gather from farms and hike into the mountains to pick ingredients for the dinner.

Q: What are you seeing in other segments of the travel industry, such as with tour operators?

A: I remember seeing a survey from an international travel magazine that rated the top two reasons people travel as culture and adventure. I think we absolutely have the ability to provide that to guests to these islands and to do so in a way that reshapes the dominant narrative about Hawaii, allows our people to tell our own stories and empowers our people to take great pride in ourselves, our culture, our history and our future. Almost all operators I see today are trying to find ways to better incorporate authentic Hawaiian culture into what they do. Some are doing this better than others, but the desire and the demand are there. The combination of having an educated guest base, an empowered local community and proactive, responsible businesses is a win-win for our islands.

Q: What does the future hold for cultural ambassadors?

A: From my perspective, having a position such as this is not the end goal. It is a stopgap in the journey toward a truly culturally integrated Hawaiian hospitality industry. My dream is that there will be a time when we do not need cultural ambassadors for hotels in Hawaii. We will not need them because the hotels will be largely owned and operated by people from and with knowledge of Hawaii and Hawaiian culture. … I look forward to a time when my position is no longer needed. For now, positions like this, executed well, are critically important to the industry in order to maintain cultural correctness and factual consistency as well as infusing and integrating Hawaiian culture into every aspect of hotel operations.
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