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Checking the changes to Hawaiian luxury with the Halekulani

For those who are unfamiliar, the Halekulani is (pardon the alliteration) a hallmark of Hawaiian hospitality, with the property acting as the keystone for the densely populated beach tourism area of Waikiki in Honolulu. At 453 rooms and suites, the luxury hotel has a time-honored history, first established in 1917 and now comprising five buildings and three signature restaurants, all with an unparalleled onsite experience. Further to this article, the property closed completely for an 18-month renovation at the outset of the pandemic in 2020.

Davide Barnes
Davide Barnes

Being regulars at the Halekulani, and true hotel aficionados, we’re keenly interested in the impact of senior management changes on a property’s operations and performance. Davide Barnes joined the property as Hotel Manager at the beginning of 2023 following an extensive global background in hospitality with senior positions at Benchmark Hospitality, Four Seasons, Hyatt and Shangri-La. Unusual for a hotelier, he also spent five years working as a market leader for Apple at their Cupertino, California headquarters. It was a delight to sit down with Barnes as part of our first return visit to Hawaii following the pandemic to see how the property is fairing and what every hotelier can learn about managing the reopening process after a full-scale PIP.

When you arrived at the Halekulani, what were your top objectives?

Upon arriving at Halekulani, what stood out to me the most was the warmth of the staff and the tranquillity of the property, which I found striking given its location amidst the bustling Waikiki area. The property was closed for some time during the pandemic, and then after reopening business came back much faster than we expected in different ways. My focus has been on operationally making sure that we’re able to continue to deliver unrivalled experiences to both our returning hotel guests and our local F&B guests. We’ve made a lot of progress in reconnecting our guests to everything they’ve always loved about Halekulani, while also introducing new experiences. At the same time, we’re driving consistency and ensuring that the experience guests have now exceeds what they had before.

Except for the pandemic, we (Larry and his wife) have stayed at the Halekulani pretty much once a year. Tell us how you can ensure such a high level of consistently excellent service.

We’ve made some adjustments on the training front, which have been crucial as we strive to maintain high levels of consistently excellent service.  All new employees must go through several days of orientation to learn about the history, hotel culture, and expectations of the hotel before starting their jobs in their departments.

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To ensure consistent top-tier service, enhanced communication of details is vital.  Each day begins with a morning briefing, attended by a representative from each department.  We do a thorough review of our performance from the previous day, as well as a detailed review of all guests arriving the next day.  We review everything – from arrival times, past visits, guest preferences – including dietary restrictions, allergies, special celebrations, and even the smallest details like which side of the bed the guest prefers.  This detailed and thorough system of communication sets our team for success every day.

Do you have many guests who, like us, make an annual pilgrimage to the Halekulani? Is this loyalty level greater than you have experienced previously in your career?

We have guests who make multiple pilgrimages to Halekulani per year. Every property has some multi-generational guests, but I’ve never worked at a hotel that has quite so many. I would attribute this high level of loyalty to our team. Most of the team returned after the pandemic and our average employee tenure is 20 to 40 years. One of the benefits to our employees is to see the loyal guests return, and I believe our guests feel the same.

On that note, what advice do you have for other GMs insofar as staff retention, staff training and staff motivation?

The key is to lead from the inside out. If you take great care of your team, this will ensure they take great care of your guests. Everything starts with the team. Something else I find to be positive from a morale standpoint is my view of a flat organization. Everyone works together; there is no bureaucratic structure. Anyone can share an idea; it will be heard and often implemented. For example, a couple of team members approached me a few months ago with an idea for an initiative to support Maui relief. They suggested a market with various arts and crafts created by staff. We moved ahead with the idea and told them we would match all the money that was made from the market. A great success, we raised a substantial donation for the Maui Strong Fund.

How has the West Maui fire disaster affected your operations and bookings?

We have not seen any significant impact on our bookings or operations as it relates to Maui. In terms of staffing, we have hired several people who were displaced and are continuing to find ways to support their community, either financially or with goods and services.

The property was closed for an extensive renovation. Can you discuss some of the rationale for closure versus remaining partially open while work was being undertaken?

When a property is open, there is never a good time to renovate all the guestrooms because you can’t deliver the same service experience. Since the experience is so important to us, we saw this as an ideal opportunity to enhance the property without impacting the guests’ stay.

How have you embraced technology while at the same time ensuring that you maintain a close personal touch with your guests?

We deploy technology not to replace service but to enhance service and service delivery.  Our approach is a high-tech AND high-touch approach. The property has been welcoming guests for over 100 years and technology helps us retain all guest details, expand this data, and help with guest recognition.

We realize the importance of guests’ technology, so during the renovation, we took the opportunity to increase the bandwidth to upgrade our WiFi system, added the latest charging stations, and included tablets to all guestrooms allowing easy access to hotel information, the ability to control in-room systems, and initiate service requests such as on-line ordering.

Anything else that you might want to add?

For all the guests returning, their expectations have changed. The definition of luxury is super subjective now. Luxury to everybody means something completely different. The team’s overall emotional intelligence (EQ) is so important, as is their confidence to serve outside of the lines in a way that they’re empowered to do the right thing.

Tags: Hawaii, luxury, refurbishment

Managing Partners at Hotel Mogel Consulting, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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