The Ihilani Resort & Spa Remains a Destination Unto Itself

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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 neighbor-island resorts."

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 lunch.

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.

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