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Sean Dee, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Outrigger Hospitality Group, is a supporter of Hawaii’s Safe Travels pretest program, which launched Oct. 15, 2020.
But he’ll also tell you that the approach still faces challenges.
Here, Dee discusses some enduring difficulties of the state’s tourism reboot — and the hurdles lying ahead — as well as an update on Outrigger reopenings and renovations.
How has business been for Outrigger since the Oct. 15 start of Hawaii’s pretest program?When Safe Travels launched, we did see a little bit of a bump. It was still a fraction of the previous year — probably 20% to 25% or so — but it was a start. There was some optimism over the next 45 or 60 days. Unfortunately, each of the islands has gone in its own direction on the travel requirements and the protocols, and that’s led to confusion. This is a complex issue, and we understand that.
Each island has different infrastructure from the medical perspective — a different number of ICU beds, and a different number of ventilators. So, we did see a little bit of a ramp up leading into the holidays, but we’ve definitely seen it flatten out. It’s relatively flat now, and will probably be flat through the end of March. We think Safe Travels works, and we believe following those testing and safety procedures is the path. But with each island having its own protocols, it’s created a lot of challenges and a lot of confusion.
With each island having its own protocols, it’s created a lot of challenges and a lot of confusion.
How is Outrigger helping travel advisors navigate the confusion?We’ve completely retooled our Outrigger Expert Advisor Program. What we heard from our advisory council members, who are top tour operators and travel agents in the U.S., was, “We need more resources; we need more tools from you. You guys have an interesting website, but it needs a lot more information and modules, especially about the Safe Travels program.” We spent a lot of time during the pandemic — when we weren’t busy focusing on bookings — focusing on retooling that program and making sure it was a true resource for our tour operators and advisors.
Waikiki Beachcomber by Outrigger reopened in November. You are calling that Hawaii’s first craft hotel. What does that mean?We invested about $35 million on a complete renovation of the property — from public areas to the lobby, and all 496 guestrooms — that we started in 2018 and finished in April of 2019. We partnered with a range of local artists who helped curate the property, because we wanted to install a contemporary but local, and obviously Hawaiian, feel throughout. We partnered with surf photographer Zak Noyle, who provided imagery for rooms and large murals in public spaces. We worked with Garrett Marrero, founder of Maui Brewing Company. We also worked with local Hawaiian musician Makana and created a soundtrack for the property. And we’re just really happy with the results.
We’re also excited to be reopening Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, our other beachfront resort right on the sand, in April or May 2021. We’ve just finished a renovation of all 635 rooms, and we’re also completing public space upgrades.
As Hawaii re-establishes its tourism industry, what’s the mood like there about how many visitors should come in the future?Well, that topic, often labeled “overtourism,” is not unique to Hawaii. It’s a global phenomenon. People are often surprised when I tell them Honolulu is the 30th-ranked city in the U.S. for travelers. We get a small fraction of visitors here compared to a market such as Las Vegas. One large issue we’ve had in Hawaii has been the uncontrolled explosion of illegal vacation units. When 20,000 to 30,000 illegal vacation units emerge in neighborhoods and areas primarily zoned for residential use, you run into conflict. You have traffic issues and noise issues. Right before COVID-19 hit, there was new legislation put in place that not only defines these improperly zoned units as illegal, but it also puts enforcement in place for the person illegally renting the unit and the platform hosting it. That can have a massive positive impact for us and help us rebalance where visitors are staying and where they’re going.
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