It matters not from where you come, but it’s all about what you do with your life. With a will, you can succeed, despite the odds.

So sayeth, in different tones, the two stellar honorees in the Sales and Marketing Executives’ double-barreled celebration last night at the Sheraton Waikiki’s Hawaii Ballroom.

Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism organization, and Cha Thompson, retired co-founder of Tihati Productions, were saluted side-by-side for their exemplary leadership and service to the hospitality community in Hawaii. In marketing lingo, they are the best sellers, instrumental in servicing the somewhat tentative community of the visitor industry, particularly when the market has been affected by the dark cloud of the pandemic in the past 2 1/2 years.

Mufi Hannemann

 Hannemann technically was the 2019 honoree, Thompson the 2021 awardee, but neither could be properly recognized because of the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic. So SME doubled up, recognizing both individuals in the group’s first-ever dinner gala (previously recognitions were made over simpler luncheon events).

Coincidentally, both Hannemann and Thompson projected commonality in backgrounds and in service. And they live up to SME’s Hawaiian theme: “E hele me ka pu’olo,” which translates to “leave a place in better condition than when you got there.”

Both grew up in ZIP codes not generally associated with achievement; both are minority leaders of color (Samoan and Hawaiian, and/or a mixture of Polynesian ethnicity) and faced growing-up-time challenges. A stellar athlete in basketball and football, who ached to attend and graduate from an Ivy League college, Hannemann is an Iolani graduate who earned scholarships to attend Harvard, and broke down barriers to become the first-ever Samoan graduate from Harvard. Before taking on the leadership of HLTA, the state’s largest and oldest private sector tourism organization, he was an elected City Council member and a two-term Mayor of Honolulu.

Robert Cazimero sings, Cha Thompson dances.

Thompson, the self-annointed Queen of Kalihi, is proud to be a Farrington High School graduate, where her sweetheart, Jack Thompson, shared a passion for Polynesian entertainment; she, as a hula stylist, he as a Samoan flaming fire-knife dancer, and both co-founded Tihati Productions.  In 2019, before the pandemic shut down everything, Tihati marked its 50th anniversary as the state’s and world’s largest producer of Polynesian spectacles with 12 shows on four of the state’s key islands with more than 1,200 employees who uphold the authentic cultural roots of the South Seas islands.

Not surprisingly, both Hannemann and Thompson have corralled White House-related accomplishments; as a beneficiary of the scholarships of the White House Fellowship program, Hannemann has established the Pacific Century Fellows modeled after the D.C.  pioneer, and has been appointed to serve five U.S. presidents.

Thompson’s Tihati brand has been recognized by three presidents, and is the only state entertainment entity that has staged a full-on luau show on White House grounds during the Barack Obama presidency, and Tihati has established scholarships to fuel future performers. In a passionate revelation, Thompson said it was not easy being a Hawaiian-Samoan entity in the early days, where her company had to prove it had the smarts to make a living like any other fledgling small business, commonly facing the naysayers in the community.

Karen Keawehawaii

With its depth and breadth of island entertainent, Tihati provided mainstream headliners including Robert Cazimero and Karen Keawehawaii, who performed brief vocals for the dinner crowd; not surprisingly, Cazimero tapped Thompson to provide her trademark hula for his “Hawaiian Lullaby” selection; and nobody says no to Cazimero.

Excerpts from Tihati’s vast library of artristy – hula maidens, dancing to a tune tracking the array of island lei, animated and rigorous male dancers, capturing the syncopation and drum-fueled energy of the pulse of Polynesia – to charm and excite the spectators. It was a slightly scaled down version of Tihati’s 50th anniversary gala in the same showroom.

Tihati dancers, in a hula about different island lei.

With two honorees, it  made sense that there were two emcees, the one complementing the other: Billy V. and Augie T.  The former is a veteran announcer-emcee, invited by Thompson; the latter is the stand up comedian,, tapped by Hannemann, and like Thompson and Keawehawaii, are former Farringtonians.

At one point, Hannemann made a humble and earnest revelation, that he initially declined the request of SME that he join the list of honorees; he recommended another possible recipient, who also served admirably in visitor hospitality community, but agreed only after a second individual (Thompson) would share the spotlight, admitting she was the perfect match with parallel  missions to serve the hospitality community. He was right. …

And that’s Show Biz. …

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