It was July 2020, and Hawaii was in the doldrums of pandemic shutdown. A Covid-19 testing program was still months away, and all arrivals faced a strict 14-day quarantine. Visitor numbers were in free fall. By this time, more than half of the Aloha State’s hotels had temporarily closed.
Hawaii’s hospitality industry appeared to be entering a deep hibernation, but in reality, activity behind the scenes was picking up.
When the shutdown began in March, a wait-and-see approach was common. Perhaps it would all blow over quickly, general managers and corporate executives hoped. When summer arrived and it was clear no wave of returning tourists was imminent, hotels and tourism companies started planning for the future, looking for ways to take advantage of the lull after more than a decade of continuous visitor growth.
A handful of Hawaii hospitality trends that were emerging incrementally prior to the pandemic gained new momentum when tourism cratered. Hawaii was already on its way to tighter controls on its most popular attractions, especially outdoor areas, and state officials took advantage to implement new management systems and daily capacity limits. Tour providers developed itineraries that both incorporated social distancing and offered something guests were already clamoring for: more personalized, enriching experiences. The pandemic also accelerated the integration of new technology into the visitor experience and, behind the scenes, to aid in management and operations.
At Outrigger Hospitality Group executives were brainstorming productive steps that could be implemented while guests were away. Even before the pandemic, the company’s top brass had been exploring plans for an app that would connect guests to a variety of services and information, and by August the team had the green light.
“The pandemic pushed us forward,” said Brent Shiratori, vice president, global brand group at Outrigger. “When we were looking at what we could accomplish during that period, it felt like it was the time to pull the trigger and get the app done.”
In April 2018, a natural disaster and its impact on a picturesque corner of Kauai presaged some of the changes now coming to Hawaii tourism.
A record rainfall caused devastating flooding on Kauai’s north shore, triggering landslides that blocked the one road leading to Haena State Park and the rugged and breathtaking Napali Coast. When visitors were suddenly cut off from the area, residents and wildlife enjoyed the respite. By the time the road reopened to the public in mid-2019, a new management plan and reservation system had been installed for the park, drastically reducing the number of daily visitors.
The strategy on Kauai’s north shore was closely watched as a possible model for Hawaii’s other busy parks, and when the pandemic hit, that movement kicked into overdrive.
“Haena, Hanauma Bay, these are sensitive areas, and we shouldn’t be flooding them with thousands of visitors,” said Ben Rafter, CEO of Springboard Hospitality and a member of the Hawaii Tourism Authority board of directors. “The former way of doing tourism has to change. Possibly the only good thing about Covid is that we saw what happened when tourism dropped to zero. That’s not going to work for the state. And we had seen what it looked like when we were over capacity prior to the pandemic. We have to find a happy medium.”
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, the Oahu snorkeling spot that attracts 3,000 visitors a day in normal times, temporarily closed, and sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals reclaimed the beach. When the preserve reopened in late 2020, a new reservation system was in place and the number of daily visitors was capped at 720. While the limit may increase as Covid-19 restrictions are eased, the rules are part of efforts to better manage the bay, including visitation caps below what had previously been the norm.
During the pandemic, resident requests prompted officials to launch a reservation system for Waianapanapa State Park in east Maui, and new restrictions and fees are also being considered for Diamond Head State Monument just east of Waikiki.
Hawaii hospitality analysts universally say tighter management of attractions is on the way. Several have bemoaned that the pace of implementation has not been quicker, and as of now there is no plan to coordinate the reservation systems so they will be on one, integrated platform.
“It’s a golden opportunity to better manage resources, and certainly more could’ve been done to get there during the pandemic,” Honolulu-based hospitality consultant Keith Vieira said. “It’s the only way to manage the impact on the community effectively, and it improves the visitor experience. Instead of not knowing if it will be crowded or if I’ll even get in, I’ll know 10 a.m. on Tuesday is my time and I’m good to go.”
There’s an app for that
As Hawaii officials turn to technology to improve the management of the state’s most visited attractions, hospitality companies are likewise turning to algorithms, artificial intelligence and smartphone apps to improve the guest experience.
Many of the initiatives were already in development prior to the pandemic, but the implementation of social distancing rules spurred the programs forward as companies sought solutions that would both help with Covid-19 restrictions and serve as good investments for the future.
The renovation and relaunch of the Waikiki Beachcomber in April 2019 were a chance for the Outrigger Hospitality Group to test services now spreading to the company’s other properties.
“Technology was a very important aspect of the renovation as we looked to add what guests are looking for today,” said Mike Shaff, vice president of hotel operations for Outrigger Hospitality Group, adding that travelers expect seamless connectivity with in-room entertainment systems and internet service that won’t buckle when multiple devices are online.
“Zingle, the texting service, allows guests to communicate their needs very easily,” Shaff said. “If they are out and about around Honolulu and want fresh towels in their room when they get back, they can text that to us. We want to automate as many operations as possible and provide those touchless options to eliminate the need for a stop at the front desk.”
Outrigger Digital Passport, a smartphone app for guests that launched in April, replaces many of the paper materials handed out to guests with one digital resource.
“A phone app made the most sense, and it really serves as an information compendium,” Shiratori said. “It has everything from restaurant hours to guest activity calendars, digital coupons, a resort map and information on how to reserve a cabana at the pool.”
Outrigger is continuing to build on the existing technology with plans to streamline the messaging system and link guests to concierge services on their mobile devices.
“We want to keep customizing the guest experience, and we’re exploring creating recommendations based on guest interests,” Shiratori said. “When that data is available or guests share that information on what they like to do, we can create a more customized, unique experience with more localized content.”
Hotels across the Islands, including Timbers Kauai, Royal Lahaina and Montage Kapalua Bay, introduced contactless check-in during the pandemic, while restaurants embraced QR codes for menus and placing orders.
“Nobody bought into QR codes until now,” said J.P. Oliver, managing director of the Grand Wailea, which is now using the technology for its restaurant menus, spa services and general information.
“Everything is available for download to your phone, and we also have a virtual concierge service that guests can use with text and email,” he said. “A lot of these elements were available before, but it was hard to get buy-in from guests. Now, these processes are becoming commonplace, and it is really streamlining communication with guests.”
As pandemic protocols are lifted, hotel operators will likely adjust again, several Hawaii hospitality analysts said, balancing the technology’s benefits with delivering the best guest experience.
“A lot of guests probably view check-in as a hassle, so contactless check-in that speeds up the process and saves money on staffing could be a win-win,” said Frank Haas, a hospitality consultant and former Hawaii Tourism Authority vice president of marketing. “With QR codes at restaurants, on the other hand, maybe you gain flexibility to change the menu more frequently, but you may miss the opportunity to upsell or have the server explain the menu and answer questions. So I think in some areas they’ll be wary of unintended consequences.”
As Covid-19 precautions forced people into “bubbles” of family or close friends, tour providers and hotel programming directors adapted, crafting exclusive, bespoke experiences. Now that travelers have seen the perks of a private guide and more personal attention, it will be hard to go back to larger, one-size-fits-all operations.
“Since the rollout of vaccines, my requests for multigenerational family trips with private home, private tours, private everything have just gone off the charts,” said Debbie Misajon, a Hawaii travel advisor and owner of the Coconut Traveler. “I don’t think that will go away for a while.”
When Turtle Bay Resort reopens on July 1, there will be a suite of new experiences, including a private outdoor movie screening with a digital projector, a private cultural tour of Oahu’s North Shore and a “surf with a pro” outing where guests can learn various skills and techniques from a seasoned expert.
“Coming out of the pandemic, we see guests wanting fresh air and wanting to get out and do a variety of things,” said Turtle Bay managing director Tom Donovan. “We’ve put a lot of focus into enhancing our programs and offering unique, memorable experiences.”
Kaanapali Beach Hotel recently launched a voyaging academy offering guests a deep dive into the Hawaiian traditions of ocean sailing and wayfinding. A recent renovation at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai included the construction of a dedicated center for five staff marine biologists. The center will offer guest programming, including a junior marine biologist experience and the opportunity to hire a marine biologist for a day who will accompany guests on hikes, snorkeling and other excursions.
Analysts say it’s still unclear if demand for such experiences will persist even when all of the emergency orders and social distancing have faded away.
“The jury is still out on touring,” Haas said. “The early indication is that people are more likely to try to be in a self-defined bubble and are still looking for smaller groups and more personalized experiences.”
Misajon, for one, believes the trend toward more tailored experiences unique to the Islands is not going away.
“It’s really interesting how many families I’m seeing that are coming and doing everything as a bespoke experience,” Misajon said. “My clients are very interested in more curated programs. They want to meet a native Hawaiian and learn about the ahupuaa [land division] system or the fish ponds. There’s been a great revival of interest in Hawaii, especially with international destinations still restricted. People are coming, and it’s great for travel agents.”