Cultural Ambassadors Are Improving Hawaiian Hotels—Here’s How

Native Hawaiian advisors are helping hotels and their guests respect the islands’ heritage. But there’s more to the job than lei-making.

Cultural Ambassadors Are Improving Hawaiian Hotels—Here’s How

The ‘Alohilani Resort is located on Waikiki Beach in Oahu.

Courtesy of ‘Alohilani Resort

In Kainoa Horcajo’s office in Maui stands a box filled with volcanic rocks. They were mailed to him by resort guests hoping to atone for having taken them home, even after they’d been warned about the bad luck that would befall them. One sender feared that his business had tanked because of stones he absconded with 10 years ago. “That speaks to the power of Hawaii and our stories,” Horcajo says. “They stick with you and remain in the collective consciousness.”

As Hawaiian cultural ambassador at the Grand Wailea resort, Horcajo is the keeper of these stories, interacting with every department at the Waldorf Astoria hotel as well as with outside organizations to deepen the guest experience. A decade ago, there were just a handful of such advisors; today, Horcajo can think of more than a dozen. “Having a cultural advisor is as important as having a CFO or human resources director,” he says.

In Horcajo’s role at the Grand Wailea, he oversees lei-making classes, hula lessons, walking tours and other activities; less visible to guests are such tasks as selecting uniforms that tell a visual story and evoke pride and a sense of place; hosting people whose ancestors are buried near the hotel; and convening ceremonies during which the management staff shares the traditional drink awa and commits to safeguarding Hawaiian history. At its core, the ambassador role is “to acknowledge and honor the land itself and the families who’ve lived on it for millennia,” Horcajo says.

The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua on Maui sits adjacent to the Honokahua Preservation Site, which is considered ground zero in the movement to protect the skeletal remains of Native Hawaiian ancestors. It is an integral part of Clifford Nae‘ole’s duty to maintain the site’s sanctity and dignity. After working for the hotel as a reservationist, he stepped into the position of Hawaiian cultural advisor when he began to see cultural errors that needed to be corrected. For example: a pahu (a sacred drum) being used as a table for a flower display. “For the Hawaiian, no item should ever be placed atop of the drum,” he explains, “because it would symbolize the blocking of the voices of the ancestors.” He also noticed problems in the way language was being used. Kahuna, for instance, is a revered title in the Hawaiian culture; it should not appear in a whimsical phrase such as the Big Kahuna Mai Tai.


The Grand Wailea’s resort activities and cultural coordinator incorporates lessons in hula, language, ukulele, and coconut frond weaving for guests, and she speaks up whenever corporate initiatives risk causing offense.

Courtesy of Grand Wailea

Now it is Nae‘ole’s job to train other employees about “their responsibility, awareness, actions, and consequences of selecting Hawaii as their home.” It’s a big job that extends to such details as figuring out ways to infuse native practices into spa treatments and approving menu ingredients, names, and descriptions.

“The biggest challenge is being able to balance both the cultural and the business side of the hospitality industry,” says Summer Kealaonālei Mei Ying Collins, resort activities and cultural coordinator for ‘Alohilani Resort on Waikiki Beach in Oahu. She happily incorporates lessons in hula, language, ukulele, and coconut frond weaving into guests’ itineraries, and she speaks up whenever corporate initiatives risk causing offense. “It’s your kuleana [responsibility] to educate guests on protocol and practices and to respect the indigenous culture while operating in a fast-moving business context.”

Kainoa Horcajo likens cultural advisors to sparks lighting the torch on Hawaiian culture, giving visitors a more meaningful and immersive travel experience. Still, he looks forward to the day when he can work himself out of a job: “True success will come when executives are from the place they manage and have the cultural knowledge within them already.” >>Next: Forget the Hotel Luau, a Public Feast in Maui Honors Ancient Nature-to-Table Traditions

More From AFAR