With a team of native Hawaiians at the helm, the Kaimana Beach Hotel reopened in December with an array of updates to the design, artwork, dining options and programming at the property on the eastern edge of Waikiki.
The hotel was purchased in 2018 by BT Kalakaua, a partnership between Honolulu-based BlackSand Capital and Tsukada Global Holdings of Japan, which then leased the property back to the previous owner, New Otani Co. When that lease expired late last year, ownership brought in Private Label Collection -- which also manages the Hotel Wailea, Relais and Chateaux -- and was founded by Honolulu native Jon McManus, to oversee the 122-room property first opened in 1963.
Haaheo Zablan, whose roots in the resort area date back to his great-grandmother working as a lei maker on Waikiki Beach in the 1920s, was named general manager. Chris Kajioka, a Hawaii native who has been nominated for the Best Chef Northwest and Pacific James Beard Award and co-helms the kitchen at the celebrated Senia in Honolulu, was brought in to oversee a culinary refresh.
The rooms were updated in 2018, so the new management focused on upgrading the public spaces, restaurant and five suites on the top floor. With the design updates, they strove to integrate new elements with the hotel's existing style so they would "feel like they always belonged here," Zablan said.
"Overall, the spaces are lighter and airier," he said. "The goal for us was to create a place where the community can come and get coffee in the morning, have lunch, brunch or dinner at Hau Tree and hang out in the lobby. We wanted it to be somewhere comfortable to hang out with friends and a daily gathering spot before anything else."
There is a mix of both vintage and new furniture, with many of the new pieces custom designed by Henderson Design Group, including tile-topped coffee tables. The chosen materials, colors and patterns invoke 1960s Hawaii, such as rattan, teak and bright pastels. Additionally, the Henderson team combed Hawaii's vintage stores for unusual and original artwork from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. The lobby is now decked out with colorful and creative gallery-style walls of vintage and new art reflecting Hawaii's history.
At Hau Tree, Kajioka has collaborated with executive chef Alan Takasaki, who ran Oahu's Le Bistro in 2015 when it won the People's Choice Best Restaurant award from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, to re-create the restaurant's menu around shared plates. Featured dishes include grilled washugyu flank steak with charred radicchio and horseradish gremolata as well as grilled kanpachi (amberjack) with sea asparagus vierge. For brunch, the two chefs have put new spins on popular dishes like eggs benedict, ahi tuna burger and lemon ricotta pancakes.
The Hau Tree cocktail menu, designed by local mixologist Jen Ackrill, puts new twists on classics like the Old-Fashioned and tropical favorites like the mai tai.
"We've had lots of great feedback from guests on the new bar program, and that bar is rocking on the weekends with not a seat open," said Zablan who recommends the Kapua Fizz: gin with apricot liqueur, calamansi, egg white, lime, absinthe and maraschino adorned with dried flowers.
The new, locally rooted management team is also tapping into its deep knowledge of the Islands to revamp programming with a focus on unique experiences tailored to guests. Every guest has complimentary access to the Kaimana Beach Club, which includes fitness classes, lei-making tutorials, use of Electra cruiser bicycles and beach chairs and towels. The hotel has also partnered with professional longboarder Kai Sallas, who was raised in Waikiki, for surf lessons and surfboard rentals.
"We plan to curate personalized experiences for our guests, and it's also important for me to immerse our guests in Hawaiian history and language," Zablan said. "That includes using Hawaiian language on signage and incorporating history and language into the lei-making and other classes for immersive content that ties everything together."
The hotel staff will also tailor itineraries and activities for guests for immersive dives into outrigger canoeing, snorkeling, hiking or other elements of Hawaiian life and culture that guests wish to explore.
In late February, the hotel reported that 67% guests were from within the state. Zablan said management hoped to maintain the Kaimana Beach Hotel as a popular spot for locals even as tourism numbers rebound from their pandemic nadir.
"We are going to build on that with special offers and room upgrades for locals," he said. "And when air travel picks up and tourists are coming back to Hawaii in larger numbers, we become a place where travelers can come to have a more local experience."
In the meantime, the slower-than-typical traffic has made it easier to experiment and refine the new elements of the property.
"Opening during the pandemic gives us the time to test things, whether it's dishes or programming, when there are not a lot of guests around," Zablan said. "It's worked to our benefit, as we've been able to try some things and make adjustments. Also, being managed locally rather than by a worldwide company means we can be flexible, course correct, and continue to move forward."