By Tony Bartlett
Reed Travel Features
KO OLINA, Hawaii -- When the 387-room Ihilani Resort & Spa
opened in December 1993, it faced the challenge of marketing as a
new Oahu destination. It remains west Oahu's only hotel and the
island's only luxury property outside Honolulu.
Owned and managed by Japan Airlines, it is the only property at
the leeward coast's 640-acre Ko Olina Resort. "The challenge is
turning out to be our strength," said Jeremy Sosner, director of
sales and marketing. "People have a choice of Honolulu -- and
Waikiki -- or a neighbor-island resort. We're the only luxury hotel
that can combine the two experiences," he said.
Ihilani is 27 miles and 40 minutes away from the night-life and
shopping of Waikiki and 17 miles and 25 minutes from Honolulu
Airport. Sosner, who regards the neighbor-island luxury resorts as
the competition, said the hotel has tapped into many markets. These
range from incentive, corporate and association meetings and
wholesaler marketing to families, Hawaii residents and weddings.
"What sets us apart is our full-service health spa," he said. "We
have golf and tennis and a high standard of service, but so do many
The hotel has the 18-hole Ko Olina Golf Club, a six-court tennis
center and a 35,000-square-foot, four-level health spa second in
size only to one at Maui's Grand Wailea Resort. Last year, Ihilani
took third place in the Top U.S. Spa category in Conde Nast
Traveler's Readers' Choice Awards.
Sosner recalls making sales calls in Chicago soon after he
joined the hotel, in January 1995. Many thought Ihilani was on
Oahu's north shore (which has the Turtle Bay Hilton, Oahu's only
other resort outside Honolulu). "That doesn't happen today," he
said. "People know where we are.
"Occupancies last year were significantly above those of 1995,
and they are up again this year," he said. For 1997, Ihilani felt
comfortable raising rack rates for the first time (the six room
categories increased an average of $15 each).
Sosner said approximately 70% of business comes through a third
party -- travel agent, wholesaler, tour operator or meeting
planner. After he joined and expanded the sales team, the first
focus was the meetings market. Groups, he said, almost doubled last
year compared with 1995 -- accounting for 30% of business -- and
group business is up 15% this year. "Ideally, it would be 40% to
45% of business," he said, adding that the perfect group size would
fill 150 rooms. The largest corporate group was in May -- Merrill
Lynch's President's Club, with 300 rooms. Association meetings have
included the American Bus Association, which took 275 rooms for its
annual meeting last fall. The biggest group will be at Ihilani in
January for its fifth consecutive year when the hotel again will be
NFL Pro Bowl headquarters for players and coaches.
One market has been disappointing. "U.S. wholesaler business has
not expanded as we'd like to see it. We're in many brochures, but
that's not enough, so we've started co-op marketing programs with
wholesalers," he said. This year, Ihilani is included in programs
of MTI Vacations and Haddon Holidays for the first time. Others
featuring the Ihilani Resort are Classic Hawaii, Creative Leisure,
Gogo, Runaway Tours, Happy Tours, Sunmakers, American Airlines
Vacations and Certified Tours.
"We get a significant wedding business, mostly local, with four
or five on weekends. But this puts us in competition with
ourselves," Sosner said. He explained that with only one ballroom,
weddings cannot be booked if there is a group in house. To solve
the problem, a new, 4,500-square-foot banquet room will open in
January. Ihilani already has a 5,530-square-foot ballroom, holding
400 for banquets, plus six additional rooms.
For 1997, new menus with more Hawaiian items were introduced at
its all-day dining room, Naupaka Terrace, and at Azul, its
Mediterranean restaurant. Other dining outlets are a poolside
grill, Ushio-tei (Japanese) and 24-hour room service. The Spa Cafe
serves breakfast and lunch, and the golf club's Niblick features
Sosner said that Ihilani's luxury standards have surpassed
people's expectations. "It's been easy to do," he said, explaining
that with well-known luxury-brand resorts -- such as Ritz-Carlton
Kapalua, where he previously headed marketing and sales -- people
have certain expectations that must be met. "This was not so with
Ihilani. We've been the underdog, and I like that," he said.
Sosner also said that Ihilani has succeeded without the
"critical mass" of other properties planned for Ko Olina, although,
he said, "we really need another hotel here to help market the
destination." Three other properties -- a luxury beachfront
condominium, a Four Seasons and a 1,100-room hotel called the
Biltmore -- were envisioned, but plans fell through when Japanese
investment dried up as Hawaii entered the 1990s. Nevertheless,
condominiums have been built along the golf fairways and residents
already are moving in.
Each Ko Olina oceanfront site has a beach, leaving Ihilani with
four beaches to itself.
Ihilani's rack rates are $285, terrace; $310, golf-mountainview;
$385, oceanview; $400, oceanfront; $440, deluxe oceanfront, and
$575, deluxe spa. Suites are $800 to $5,000.
For information or to book, call (800) 626-4446.