It's a “game changer,” says Randy Tanaka.

The recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, held in Honolulu November 7-13, “is an event that changes how the rest of the world will look at us,” says Tanaka, assistant general manager at the Hawaii Convention Center.

The eyes of the world were on the center as APEC brought about 20,000 attendees, 2,000 media representatives, hundreds of security forces, and 21 heads of state, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, to Honolulu. It was the most prestigious and complex meeting the state had ever hosted, creating a few logistical challenges. But as Mike McCartney, president and CEO at the Hawaii Tourism Authority says, APEC was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase Hawaii to the world as a place for serious business meetings.”

The Olympics of Meetings

McCartney calls APEC “the Olympics of meetings,” not just for its prestige, but because of the number of separate meetings associated with the event. There was APEC, which is a gathering of finance ministers and economic policymakers from the 21 APEC nations, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their counterparts from 20 other countries. Then there was the APEC CEO Summit, a gathering of some 2,000 corporate CEOs and executives who discussed macroeconomic issues and their impact on business. Presenting to this group were heads of state like Obama, Hu, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Then there was the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting, where just the 21 APEC heads of state convened. On top of that, there was the meeting of the APEC Business Advisory Council, a group that meets four times a year and advises APEC officials on business sector priorities and concerns. With all that economic clout and policymaking power in one place there were also countless ancillary meetings taking place at approximately 15 Oahu hotels booked by APEC delegates.

Security and Protesters

With so many high-profile individuals on the island, security was the overriding logistical concern. Security was coordinated through the U.S. Secret Service, which had representatives on the ground in Hawaii for more than a year assessing security needs. Add in federal and local law enforcement plus security details from each of the visiting delegations, and there were hundreds of security personnel on the ground. (Official numbers weren't released.)

Roads in front of and around the Hawaii Convention Center were closed to traffic during APEC week, and highways were completely shut down when Chinese, Russian, and American presidential motorcades drove into Honolulu, all at different times. Hu arrived on Thursday morning, Medvedev on Friday, and Obama on Friday night, but there was little advance warning for any of them. Traffic was extremely heavy getting in and out of Honolulu throughout the week.

About 4,000 workers, including staff and vendors, were credentialed to work in the convention center for APEC, says Joe Davis, general manager, HCC. His mantra: “Remain flexible.” There were lots of moving parts, and staff had to be prepared to react to last-minute changes. One such challenge emerged early in APEC week when HCC staff discovered wireless dead spots in the convention center. So they brought in technicians who installed the necessary coverage.

To accommodate all the different nations, staff set up prayer rooms and offered a range of menu items.

Protests were expected, but were relatively minimal. Before the meeting started, 22 were arrested in front of Iolani Palace, the former home of Hawaiian royalty. While the protest had nothing to do with APEC (it was by a group in favor of Hawaiian sovereignty), it did cause state officials to close the palace for a few days, which meant that some visits by APEC delegates were canceled.

The largest demonstration came Saturday afternoon when some 300 protesters from groups including Occupy Honolulu peacefully marched against globalization. They had planned to march up to the Hale Koa Hotel on Waikiki Beach where Obama was hosting a reception for world leaders, but didn't get that far, as the Waikiki area was in lockdown Saturday and closed to traffic. However, the Hawaiian singer and guitarist Makana, who was invited to perform during the reception, sang an impromptu version of a song he wrote, “We are the Many,” which was inspired by the Occupy movement, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. He played it within earshot of Obama and other leaders, but no one seemed to notice, according to the article.

“The way Hawaii handles dissenting voices is consistent with our cultural tradition of inclusiveness,” says Brian Schatz, Hawaii's Lieutenant Governor. “People can and will speak their minds and we have no interest in diminishing anyone's free speech rights. We feel very confident that we can meet the security needs of the event and also protect everyone's first amendment rights.”

Obama in the House

As the week moved on, the scene shifted from the convention center to the Sheraton Waikiki, where the APEC CEO Summit was held on Friday and Saturday. The area around the Sheraton Waikiki, Royal Hawaiian (where the opening reception was held), and Hilton Hawaiian Village were in lockdown mode starting Friday with a security checkpoint at the beginning of the Waikiki Beach area. Traffic was subject to security checks and rerouted off Kalakaua Avenue, which is the street that runs along Waikiki Beach. Meanwhile, beaches in the vicinity were closed to bathers and boaters and Coast Guard ships were stationed in the waters off the coast.

The summit was held in the 26,000-square-foot Hawaiian Ballroom at the Sheraton, which could be broken into five spaces within minutes. One minute, Hillary Clinton was addressing the entire group in the ballroom and 15 minutes later, the retractable walls came out to create three large breakout rooms.

After a security sweep by the Secret Service of the meeting space early Saturday morning, all registered attendees and media had to go through security screens and have their bags checked to get into the hotel and the ballroom, since Hu and Obama were speaking that day.

Obama arrived through the employee entrance, which was cleared as all associates were re-routed through a different entrance, explains Kelly Sanders, general manager at the Sheraton Waikiki. All service elevators were shut down one hour prior to his arrival and again on his departure. Only two elevators could operate while he was on property. No staff were allowed in the corridors behind the ballroom during his time at the hotel.

“Thanks to our Hawaiian hosts for the great hospitality,” said Obama during his speech. “In all my years of living in Hawaii and visiting Hawaii, this is the first time I've ever worn a suit, so it feels a little odd.”

Washington, D.C.-based Site Solutions Worldwide handled the meeting planning for the CEO Summit, while New York City-based Richard Attias and Associates handled audiovisual.

The Sheraton Waikiki, which had just undergone a $200 million renovation in preparation for APEC, was in charge of the food and beverage. Because it was hosting the Chinese delegation, the hotel brought in six chefs from one of Starwood's Shanghai properties to provide authentic Chinese cuisine, says Sanders. The Sheraton and Starwood's Royal Hawaiian hosted the “Taste of America” reception on Friday night, offering a menu from around America. In addition, the hotel prepared several other specialty dinners, including one for the Indonesian delegation, as well as all the break food.

“The biggest challenge was the constant change,” says Sanders. “We'd been planning the meeting for a year and at some points we felt like we had to replan the entire meeting,” he says. “The Secret Service would come in and change everything, so we had to start all over.” But in the end, the hotel earned rave reviews from its guests.

21 Leaders Meet in Ko Olina

Sunday, the final day of APEC, the focus moved 45 minutes west to the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa, where the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting took place. Here, just the 21 leaders from APEC nations met to discuss world issues.

Its remote location in Ko Olina, with a gated entrance, may have been one of the reasons that the State Department selected the JW Marriott for the meeting. Plus, the resort's 15,600-square-foot Hokulani Ballroom, where the meeting took place, is detached from the rest of the hotel, offering security and privacy.

The hotel went into lockdown mode from Saturday evening through Sunday evening to prepare for the leaders meeting. The hotel was empty other than those coming for the leaders meeting, so some guests were moved to Disney's new Aulani Resort, which is located next door. Coast Guard ships patrolled the area off the coast, and the vicinity near the hotel was closed to boats. No one was let through the gates without security clearance.

All employees had to be checked and cleared by the Secret Service to work the meeting with different levels of clearance. Those with the highest level of clearance were servers and others with closer access to the leaders. Secret Service oversaw all food preparation and food service during the lunch.

“We were honored to host such a high-level meeting, and I applaud our associates for giving exemplary service to President Obama., the First Lady, all the APEC leaders and their entourages, amidst intense U.S. Secret Service security at the resort,” says Dan Banchiu, the hotel's general manager.

The Obamas stayed two nights at the hotel and closed out the week with a fundraiser on November 14 at the Aulani. In his press conference following the Leaders Meeting, Obama thanked his home state. “Usually when Michelle and I and our daughters come back to visit, it's just one president, and this time we brought 21,” said Obama. “So thank you so much for the incredible graciousness of the people of Hawaii and their patience, because I know that traffic got tied up a little bit.”

APEC's Lasting Impact

While traffic tie-ups certainly tried the patience of locals, 73 percent of residents supported the meeting, says Lt. Gov. Schatz. Meanwhile, Hawaii received high marks from APEC delegates, according to an article in the Star-Advertiser.

U.S. Ambassador for APEC Kurt Tong told the paper that Hawaii received an “A-plus” for hosting APEC. The destination received no complaints and was compared favorably to other cities that have hosted APEC or similar events, like the G20 Summit, he said. “Hawaii definitely has proven it's ready for the big time,” Tong told the Star-Advertiser. Some APEC delegates told him they would like to return to Hawaii with their own meetings — and that's exactly what Hawaii meetings officials were hoping for.

APEC generated an estimated $123 million in economic impact for Hawaii, but tourism leaders believe the real impact of APEC will be felt after everyone leaves.

“We are zeroing in on an opportunity in meetings and conventions that maybe wasn't there before,” says Schatz. The destination has been so good at marketing to the leisure market that it has presented challenges when marketing Hawaii as a meetings destination, he says. Hawaii tourism officials want to let the world know that meetings here are about business, and APEC serves as the platform to launch that message worldwide. “We want the meetings and conventions community to know about our ability to conduct a meeting of this magnitude,” says Schatz.

So far, so good: Hawaii has already booked three international meetings because of APEC, says McCartney.

Hawaii has started connecting North American associations with their Asian counterparts to boost attendance, but that's just a first step. Officials found through surveys that North American meeting planners knew little about APEC, so they will promote Hawaii's ability to handle such a large meeting stateside.

Also, they will aggressively market Hawaii to Asia-Pacific nations as a destination for international meetings. Right now, the vast majority of Hawaii's meetings are U.S.-based, but with the exposure of APEC to so many CEOs, leaders, and new markets in Asia, it opens new doors. Schatz visited Asian leaders in advance of APEC to promote Hawaii and marketing staff will beef up marketing efforts there. “What used to be a geographical disadvantage becomes a geographical advantage,” added Tanaka, citing Hawaii's location between Asia-Pacific and North America.

The marketing effort began even during the meeting, as the Host Committee broadcast Leaders Week TV into every hotel room in the block. It was created for APEC as a promotional video about Hawaii, its culture, businesses, and the four pillars of its economy for the 21st Century — clean energy; earth sciences; life and health sciences; and meetings, conventions, exhibitions, and incentives. Each of the 21 world leaders brought the video home with them on iPads that they were given as gifts from the host committee.

As one of the pillars, hosting meetings, a symbol of Hawaii's “Aloha Spirit,” are going to be a big part of the state's economic future. And the future starts now.

“November 13th is the end of APEC, but it's the beginning of our marketing and positioning efforts,” says Tanaka. “It's the beginning of what we want to do as a state.”