'Queen' still serves Island visitors
Tina Yamaki took a job with the Hawaii Hotel & Lodging association , expecting to stay for six months while she spent a semester getting ready for law school.
But 20 years later she's still there and happy to be working in tourism — the state's No. 1 industry — even though it's been buffeted by the economic turmoil of recent years.
And this week, she's up to her ears in one of the association's signature events, the 32nd annual Visitor Industry Charity Walk.
"People save up all their lives to come to Hawai'i and I'm here every day," Yamaki said.
In recent years, her title has expanded — now she's executive assistant/queen — just check her business card. To earn her royal status, she helps organize events that include this week's walk, which is one of the state's largest single-day fundraisers.
In 2009, 8,900 walkers raised more than $1 million that was distributed to more than 200 local charities, she said. Yamaki said 95 percent of the money raised reaches the organizations because the hotels absorb much of the walk's administrative costs.
"We're lucky a lot of things get donated," she said. And the array of food and goodies offered during the walk means participants often describe it as more of a long buffet line than a physical exertion.
"It's still the only walk where you can gain weight," is Yamaki's standing joke.
Yamaki was born in Oklahoma and lived in Texas before moving to Hawai'i in elementary school. Her dad was from Hawai'i, her mom from Denmark but her father's Army career took them to the south long enough that an occasional "y'all" still spills out.
Looking back on her plan to be an attorney, she realizes that her career path still fits. "I was interested in business law," she said. "We do lobby at the Legislature. We do write testimony."
And she did fill out the application, get the recommendation letters, but somehow never found time to quit and go back to school. And she doesn't regret the choice.
Yamaki said she enjoys the various aspects of her job, although the economy has been a challenge. She said the number of people who walk each year has dipped a few times but stayed relatively steady.
Because the event has good buzz as a fun event that also gives back to the community, it has remained popular.
"We've kind of evolved," Yamaki said. "And with all the cutbacks, we've become a lot of people's company picnic."
That's because the participants can have fun, eat and do a good deed as a team. "You just show up," she said.
She oversees 500 people running the checkpoints; and about 20 to 30 groups of entertainers.
The other key walk folks credit Yamaki for handling just about everything: the marketing, the recruiting, the forms, the routes, the food, the entertainment, the T-shirts, the giveaways, and the security, not to mention the distribution of funds.
To give an idea of what this entails, we asked her to provide a list of the food planned for this year's lunch — not including the goodies at the checkpoints.
Yamaki says participants will be served: 1 ton of fried rice and 1 ton of beef hot dogs (made by Sheraton/ Starwood Hotels & Resorts); 2 tons of chicken; 900 pounds of potato/macaroni salad; 30 cases of salad; 30 cases of bananas; 20 cases of apples; 20 cases of oranges; and 300 cases of drinks.
The hotel association keeps busy all year round with various tasks including screening charities that receive the money from the event. Yamaki said checks usually go out in October.
Since taking charge in 1990, she has orchestrated the raising of an estimated $16 million for Hawai'i charities. No wonder she's the designated queen.