Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

It is a tough call to make: When is the right time to shutter a popular resort for necessary work, putting revenue and employees on hold? It was a question that Halekulani management had been pondering since an assessment of the Waikiki property last year revealed the need for vital infrastructure improvements.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, and Hawaii instituted a 14-day mandatory quarantine for trans-Pacific arrivals. In June, RevPAR for Aloha State hotels was down 89% and total room revenue fell 94% compared with the same month in 2019, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Average daily rate dropped 42%, and occupancy fell nearly 16 percentage points, to 68%. Those figures were a slight improvement from May. 

As the crisis dragged on into its second and third month, Halekulani management and ownership started to assess their options and finally decided in mid-July to take the tourism shutdown as a window of opportunity. Halekulani will now be closed until July 1, 2021, for renovations that not only include behind-the-scenes work like reinforcing the pool and new water lines, but a refresh of rooms and public spaces, as well. 

Halekulani will remain closed until July 2021 as it undergoes renovations and a refresh of rooms and public spaces.
Halekulani will remain closed until July 2021 as it undergoes renovations and a refresh of rooms and public spaces. Photo Credit: Barbara Kraft

While the renovations were already in the works, Halekulani Corp. COO Peter Shaindlin said the pandemic pushed up the timeline by one year or more. 

“Before the coronavirus, we had not confirmed anything but were looking at our options,” he said. “In my judgment it would’ve been worse to scramble to reopen now, then have a vaccine come out and things normalize. Then after everything normalizes, we close again for a big renovation.”

Halekulani celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017. In 1984, after an extensive remodel, the property reopened under the new ownership of Mitsui Fudosan, and this will be the first major renovation in more than three decades.

“We have an internal theme of ‘Legacy and Innovation,’ and we want to preserve and evolve that,” Shaindlin said. “It takes 100 years to develop an icon, but it only takes 100 days to ruin it.”

While new technology will be implemented throughout the property, the renovation will take care not to lose the human touch.

“One reason people come to us is to escape the feeling of synthetic culture,” Shaindlin said, adding that the elements that have made the Halekulani one of Waikiki’s iconic properties will remain. “People should expect to see a refreshed and rejuvenated Halekulani as it heads into its second century.” 

While there will be new uses of touchless technology and other digital tools, Shaindlin has no interest in chat bots designed to mimic real-life people while using text messages to check in with guests during their stay.

“We’re looking at more ways for guests to get service from staff directly,” he said. “During this time, maybe guests don’t want to talk to one of our staff in person for 20 minutes about a surf lesson or theater tickets. Instead they can push a button and the concierge can chat with them via their 80-inch flatscreen TV in the room or on their phones.”

Roughly 850 Halekulani employees will be laid off during the year-long renovation, Shaindlin said, but the company is maintaining employee benefits during that time and has promised all of the current employees will be invited back upon reopening.

The Halekulani Corp. has recent experience with this type of project that informed the decision. Last year the neighboring sister property Halepuna Waikiki opened after a year-long shutdown and overhaul of the former Waikiki Parc.

With both the state’s plans for pretravel coronavirus testing and the U.S. mainland’s infection rate in flux, management has not set a date for Halepuna’s reopening, but Shaindlin does expect to welcome guests back again in the fourth quarter. In the meantime, the team is busy installing new health and safety procedures, which are continually being revised and enhanced.

“If we fail with something this important, it would mean we were lazy,” Shaindlin said, who added that he not only wants to have the new cleaning, social distancing and safety protocols in place but also wants to ensure the staff has enough training so they fully understand the steps and can communicate them to guests. 

For additional peace of mind, they plan to go beyond standard procedures. For example, instead of 6 feet between tables at their restaurants, they will have 8 to 10 feet of separation. 

Shaindlin envisions a two-phase implementation of new protocols. First the property will open with the new system, then they will watch how guests move around and what is and is not working. 

“So version 1.0 is when we open, then we’ll have a version 2.0 after we see for 30 days or so what the feedback is and how we can refine it and take it further,” he said. 

Moving forward, Shaindlin believes, at least until there is a coronavirus vaccine, this is an opportunity for guests in the urban resort area of Waikiki to discover the outdoor highlights of Oahu.

“In five minutes you can be on a surfboard, and in 15 minutes in a car you can be at Tantalus in the forest with a 100-foot waterfall,” he said. “There will be more interest than ever before in the natural wonders of Oahu, and the room will serve as a home base, a glamping tent if you will, for guests who are out doing all these different things all day.”

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