In Hawaii, questions remain as hoteliers prepare to welcome back guests

The Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club in Waikiki has remained open during the tourism shutdown in the Islands.
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Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

After more than six months of a virtually shuttered tourism industry, Hawaii's hotel operators are both cautiously optimistic and still looking for some answers from lawmakers as the Aloha State prepares to welcome visitors back in less than three weeks.

Gov. David Ige announced that a pretravel coronavirus testing program will launch Oct. 15 after multiple delays, enabling out-of-state arrivals to bypass a 14-day quarantine period that has been in place since March 26. Hotels across the state are now hoping for a slight rebound in traffic before the end of the year, building some momentum for 2021.

The governor's announcement was accompanied by few details. Those flying to the Islands who wish to skip quarantine must get a coronavirus test within 72 hours of their arrival. The test results can be uploaded to an app where arriving passengers also fill out a survey with a health questionnaire and contact information. If the results are not available by the time the person arrives, they will have to quarantine in their accommodations until the result is delivered. CVS and Kaiser Permanente have been named as partners in the pretravel testing program, with more expected to be announced prior to launch. Visitors can go to hawaiicovid19.com/travel/ for more details.

"We're not likely to have a big rush in October, because the public has to figure out how to do it," said general manager Lynette Eastman of the Surfjack Hotel and Swim Club in Waikiki. "Also, the tests aren't cheap. They cost something like $140, and the visitor has to pay for it. It's a commitment, and it's a leap of faith. You have to book your ticket ahead of time, and then trust you can get tested within 72 hours and get the results back."

How the state will track who is and is not subject to the quarantine, which only allows the person to leave their room or home for a medical emergency, is also still unclear.

"From the hotel perspective, we're still looking for some answers from the state," said Theresa van Greunen, assistant vice president of corporate communications for Aqua-Aston Hospitality, who added that in Hawaii the hotels are liable for enforcing the emergency orders among their guests. "How do we handle check-in in terms of who is cleared through pretravel testing and who isn't?"

Aqua-Aston is having guest sign forms acknowledging they understand the state's program and the rules they must abide by.

"We don't want anybody to be surprised, and we want to be completely transparent," she said. "We've been reaching out to people with reservations, and we are also offering our new flexible booking policy with no penalty for changes."

Most of Aqua-Aston's properties closed by early April, and they have been using this time to install new cleaning protocols, train staff and order supplies such as face masks, hand sanitizer, electro-static sprayers and higher-grade disinfectants.

"We will be ready," van Greunen said. "We've all had a lot of time to prepare, and time to take a really hard look at operating procedures and new processes to provide an exceptional level of security and comfort. For most of the summer we were not accepting reservations and not encouraging travel to Hawaii. Now we have a start date and we're ready to go."

In September 2019 Aqua-Aston opened Espacio, the Jewel of Waikiki, the company's first foray into ultraluxury. The Waikiki resort features 2,250 square-foot, three-bedroom suites each with their own dedicated floor, jacuzzis on the balconies and a high level of personalized service. The property was just "hitting its stride" when the pandemic caused it to temporarily close.

"People really want to come to Hawaii," Van Greunen said. "We're hearing from people on social media a lot, and there is definitely pent-up demand. Hawaii has all the things you want during a pandemic: natural beauty, outdoor space, fresh air and adventure. We also feel Aqua-Aston properties are set up well at this time with a lot of condo-style accommodations with your own kitchen, own living space, and spacious accommodations."

The Surfjack has stayed open during the pandemic and has seen occupancy rates fall to 10%, Eastman said, but she and ownership decided that some revenue was better than none and staying open would make the transition to welcoming back more guests easier.

"From March to May, it was a struggle and obviously due to the 10% occupancies, all events, experiences and live music were canceled," Eastman said. "We were able to implement health and safety requirements at the start of the pandemic, and therefore after six months of operating, it is routine for our staff."

By June, with the reopening of interisland travel, occupancy rates started to approach 50% and then fluctuated as different areas of the state saw coronavirus cases increase and regulations on activities continue to change.

"We're now profitable and running in the black, but we're very excited going into this Oct. 15 reopening," Eastman said.  "Tourism is the No. 1 industry for Hawaii and unlike most other states, people can't drive in, and we don't have the same resources. With nobody coming in, we're stuck. So we're very excited with what's to come, but we do realize it's going to take some time for the numbers to come back."

The pandemic has sparked innovation and adaptation during the travel shutdown. For example, hotels have gotten creative with their food and beverage options as the market has not been there to fully support the previous menus and staffing levels. Mahina and Sun's at Surfjack is doing a modified takeout service, but not offering its regular three meals a day. Mugen, a fine dining restaurant at Espacio, started offering takeout service, including a chef's menu with wine pairings and bento boxes.

"We've had to be flexible, and by shifting to take-away we were able to reopen Mugen and
give the chefs an opportunity to showcase creative new offerings and experiment," Van Greunen said. "It has been pretty popular and makes sense after in-house dining was closed under the emergency order. People still have special occasions like birthdays, graduations and anniversaries that they want to celebrate."

Many hotel properties that had developed renovation or other property improvement plans prior to the Covid-19 shutdown took advantage of the pandemic slowdown to get the work done faster and with as little disruption as possible. The Kaanapali Beach Hotel, the Embassy Suites Waikiki Beach Walk, the Ala Moana Hotel and the Hyatt Regency Maui are among the properties that will be unveiling major changes as they welcome back guests.

"The pandemic has been challenging, but at the same time it's brought not just the hotels but the entire tourism industry closer as we share a common goal," said Glen Erickson, general manager of the Ala Moana, which is finishing up a $16 million renovation of its public spaces. "It sounds a bit made up, but it's been true at this really difficult time. We're really excited to see tourism return to Hawaii."

As important as it is to facilitate tourists' arrival, Surfjack's Eastman noted that it is nearly as essential for Hawaii, specifically Oahu, to get a handle on its own infection rate so it can reopen businesses and attractions and provide a complete experience for tourists. After a spike in coronavirus cases in August, a new stay-at-home order was issued for Oahu that severely limited activities.

"This recent order closed all dine-in restaurants, small business retail, business swimming pools, live music," Eastman said. "This is critical to our recovery of tourism and personally for the Surfjack Hotel and Swim Club that focuses on local lifestyle, which connects our global in-house guests with the local community."

The stay-at-home order expired Sept. 24, and the new regulations stipulate groups of five or fewer people will be allowed at parks, beaches and trails. Restaurants and retail can reopen at 50% capacity, but only those from the same family or household can dine together.

Indoor malls as well as hair salons and pools are reopening with social distancing restrictions in place. Popular tourist attractions such as zoos, aquariums, museums and botanical gardens are also limited to 50% capacity and groups no larger than five. Under the current regulations, bars and nightclubs will remain closed but could reopen as Oahu enters new phases dictated by the coronavirus infection rate.

The Surfjack is working to restore its live music and DJ dance nights while following the county's rules for social distancing and safety. The boutique hotel also has plans to run surf yoga, aqua Zumba, talk story nights, film screenings and other events as local regulations allow.

"It's going to be a transition and it's going to take time," Eastman said. "I'm excited that I have business in place, and now my challenge is how do I diversify? Sales and marketing teams are going to have to find markets to go after. But I look forward to that challenge."

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