A few years ago, I reviewed two resorts, the St. Regis Bal Harbour on the east coast of the United States (Florida), and the Montage Laguna Beach on the west coast (California), comparing these properties as examples of the finest accommodations that America had to offer. Mia culpa. I failed to include Hawaii and Halekulani on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, which just might surpass both of these continental jewels with its own unique blend of services and amenities unlike anything else found beyond this tropical archipelago.
A property with a rich history, Halekulani has a reputation that has been developed for almost a century. Putting aside impressive historical anecdotes, what’s most fascinating is the ‘what and how’ that this 453-room property delivers to its guests today. Speaking with Ulrich Krauer, the property’s GM, and leading his team of 823 was an eye-opener. Here is what I gleaned over several days in paradise.
What do you think makes Halekulani so special?
It is our focus on longevity. It starts with our owners, and transcends through to our staff and our guests. We have had the same ownership for over 30 years; 30% of our staff has been with us for 20 years or more while one third of that number has been for 30! The same loyalty applies to our guests. It’s not uncommon to meet guests that are on their 20th or 30th stay with us, and visitors who stay for months at a time.
Long-term employees and long-term guests: how do you do it?
It’s a process, simple but often forgotten. The equation balances how you treat your guests with how you treat your staff. In my mind, there is no difference in the level of understanding, respect and encouragement. We encourage staff to learn the names of the guests and personalize each and every experience, from enjoying a drink by the pool to a conversation with the concierge and to check-in/out – every act of guest interaction provides another opportunity to extend our customer reach. One of the advantages of having an experienced staff is delegation of responsibility. Guest issues – and believe me we have them – can be resolved immediately and pretty much always to the guests’ advantage.
Tell me about the property’s culture.
Our special-ness (if there is such a word), really begins with a culture of service. This culture transcends our staff throughout all levels. It is an understanding of the guest, an anticipation of their needs and a helping approach that is very much Hawaiian in nature. At Halekulani, we embrace this culture, magnify it and focus it on delivering exceptional guest service.
How do you follow social media?
We subscribe to social media and review platforms, and follow reviews for their potential learning. But as a whole, we do not respond to each and every social media comment. Why? We know our guests, and our guests interact with us directly. We’ve been operating this way since well before Facebook and TripAdvisor were in vogue. We really don’t need social media to tell us what is going on but definitely use it to continue to enhance the guest experience.
What are your thoughts on traditional versus electronic advertising?
While many luxury properties and even some luxury brands gave up on traditional advertising in favor of allocating most of their resources to electronic advertising (pay-per-click, display ads, SEO, video, etc.), but we did not. Why? Because we know that consumers need a continuous reminder of brands and brand values. This comes from all types of mediums, not only digital, but both traditional and digital – mediums that can both communicate our brand message and positioning.
Hoteliers who put all their efforts into Google Adwords, for example, forget to remind their customers of their property’s brand values of legacy and tradition which can’t be conveyed from a single line of text soliciting a click through. Are they merely thinking of the short term? Possibly. However, although we need to keep pace with the trends and technologically savvy, we still need to remain relevant to our customers and each of their different needs.
Food and beverage is often considered the heart and soul of any luxury property. What’s Halekulani’s point of difference?
Guests have dining options, both on and off property. We hope that they will join us in one of our three restaurants, each targeting different experiences and price points. Our high-end restaurant, La Mer, is the only AAA 5 Diamond and Forbes Five-Star rated restaurant in the state. Open for dinner, this French restaurant is clearly fine dining. Orchids, our mid-tier restaurant, is an exceptional place in own right with awards and accolades. And our House Without A Key serves a broader audience in an informal matter with live entertainment. Kitchens are different and menus are unique to each venue, but service is always top of class. The food and presentation is terrific, but service is our differentiator. In all three venues, our hostess takes your information as you enter (most are house guests although anyone can dine here), and from then on all staff addresses each guest by name and takes note of personal preferences.
Hawaii is the gateway to Asia. How does your customer base reflect this?
We have very close ties to the Japanese market, with 40% of our leisure business coming from that country. We cater to this market with appropriately trained staff, many of whom are Japanese speaking. Our menus have Japanese-oriented options. All of our signage and menus are translated, as is our website.
Are you concerned about an aging guest population?
Service and quality truly transcends all ages. While the average age of our guests would probably be approaching 60, we believe quality is ageless. That means everything from food and beverage quality to instantaneous high-speed WiFi with exceptional bandwidth. Our price points are such that we cater to those who appreciate the value of our product proposition, independent of their age.
To finish, care to provide an example of how you differentiate Halekulani?
It is the little things that count. Here are some examples. At turndown, we do not put a chocolate on a pillow or something similar. Instead, we place a small charm (a miniature sandal or a note in a glass bottle, for instance) in a see-through, hand-tied bag. This is accompanied by a short poem on a printed card. And, because our average guest stays four nights, we rotate this turndown item every four days. It’s the perfect end to a perfect day.
(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, published in eHotelier on October 2, 2015. Photos courtesy of Halekulani Hotel.)