It's been 15 months since the Big Island's west coast was swamped by the same tsunami that ravaged northeastern Japan, and many longtime guests of the Kona Village Resort have decided not to return to Hawaii until the 82-acre property reopens.
"There isn't a day that I don't get a call from one of my clients asking, 'Any news yet? When are they opening?'" said Kathy Lerner, owner of the Long Beach, Calif.-based agency World Wide Travel. "The following there is just amazing, [and] I've found that a good portion of the older people who've been going for a long, long time just can't face traveling to Hawaii and not staying at Kona Village."
Repairs are yet to begin at the resort, which remains closed indefinitely following extensive damage suffered during last year's March 11 tsunami. According to Kona Village President and CEO Patrick Fitzgerald, it's the insurance claims negotiations, complicated by the property's age, that have put work on hold.
"It was built in the mid-'60s and had both infrastructure and construction that was done normal to that period," he said. "Looking at things now, relative to the damage that was caused by the tsunami and the code issues that are in place today vs. what was there in the '60s, a substantial amount of work needs to be done, particularly on the infrastructure like water, sewer, electrical and gas."
The storm did considerable damage to more than 20 of the property's 125 iconic hale -- thatched-roof, bungalow accommodations -- along with the main lobby and many of its common areas, bars and restaurants.
"There was at least one wave of seven to seven-and-a-half feet that hit Kona Village, but there were clearly also multiple waves that came in and out," Fitzgerald said. "And there were buildings that were just picked up and thrown against trees." Costly restart
Fitzgerald estimates the tsunami was responsible for well over $20 million in damage to the resort and said another $15 million to $20 million would probably be needed to bring the property's dated infrastructure up to code. Meanwhile, the official planning and design process for potential upgrades and repairs will not begin until after the insurance issues are resolved, and according to Fitzgerald, that might take another 60 days.
"My plan was to have the resort open by the end of 2013," he said. "Is that possible? Yes. If we started work soon, we might be able to make the end of next year. It's going to be hard, but we certainly want to open as soon as possible."
Nearly 200 Kona Village employees lost their jobs last spring, and although some have since been hired at the Four Seasons Hualalai next door and the Mauna Kea Beach Resort several miles north, Fitzgerald said laying off people under those circumstances was tough.
"It was one of the most difficult professional days I've ever had, telling people that have been working here for 20 or 30 years that we had to close and that we were going to be letting people go," he said.
For Ted Zell, a 74-year-old Portland, Ore., retiree who's been traveling to Kona Village for more than 20 years, it was the resort's employees who made visits so enjoyable.
"The staff is just miraculous," he said. "They're wonderful. When you get there, you are always greeted with a 'Welcome Home,' and that's exactly the feeling you get."
During a number of fundraising events organized in 2011, Kona Village guests helped raise more than $340,000 for the resort's laid-off employees, providing former staff members with gift cards for things like gasoline, groceries and monthly utility bills.
"I think that really shows you the kind of rapport they had with guests," Lerner said. "I've even heard stories, in the past, about guests putting some of the employees' kids through college." Change coming
Although no official plans have been made, Fitzgerald said Kona Village will see more than just its infrastructure upgraded prior to reopening. Some of the projects currently being discussed include adding new restaurant spaces, building bigger pools, enhancing the spa and fitness facilities and renovating all of the hale accommodations.
Ardent devotees of the property's rustic, old Hawaii charm, some longtime Kona Village guests have suggested that changes under consideration such as in-room air conditioning, Internet access and TVs and whether to maintain the resort's all-inclusive model (which covered everything but alcoholic beverages) could ruin the resort's unique appeal.
"We don't have any intent to change the ambience and the feel of the property," Fitzgerald said, adding that final decisions about some of the more controversial upgrades haven't been made.
"What we hope to do is certainly enhance the property while we're doing the work on the insurance."
For Kona Village loyalist Zell, additions like TVs or air conditioning aren't too worrisome, provided they are "done correctly." Maintaining the essentially all-inclusive pricing program, however, is an absolute must, he said.
"Not having to carry any money or credit cards around with you is fantastic," Zell said. "If you can remember your room number, you've got it made."