Burnishing an Icon

It's serious business, upgrading an icon. Just ask John Blanco, managing director of the Kahala Hotel & Resort.

We spent an afternoon chatting with Blanco about what's underway at the hotel, and it was clear immediately that guest and travel agent input has played a critical role throughout the planning process. Blanco and colleague Glynis Esmail, vice president of marketing and sales for Landmark Hotels, note that the management team actively sought comments from guests and retailers about what aspects of the hotel and its services they liked—and equally important, what changes they thought were needed.

 View of the Kahala Hotel & Resort, which is in the midst of upgrades

Blanco notes that the hotel's clientele can span multiple generations within a family, since it opened on KahalaBeach in 1964; and it was important to understand the hotel's long-term allure for these customers, and to ensure that they and the agent community understand their input is appreciated.

He adds that the management team wants its travel partners to know that the door is open. "We value your business; we love your customers," he says.

Esmail adds that that it was important to assure the travel community that proper care would be taken of the hotel's heritage and atmosphere. This is why retailers are encouraged to visit and to experience the new room product for themselves. Agent liaison is Sharon Klaschka, director of sales, at 808-739-8862. (The hotel was purchased by Kahala Hotel Investors, an affiliate of Honolulu-based Trinity Investments; it is managed by Landmark Hotels. Both have longtime ties to Hawaii, including with the Kea Lani Resort on Maui before its acquisition by Fairmont.)

As we toured a model suite, Blanco mentioned that many guests wanted assurance that the hotel's resident dolphins would continue to call the Kahala home—as indeed they will. (In fact, they swam toward us and one jumped, almost on cue.) Although guests are likely to appreciate the technological upgrades, such as wireless Internet access and flat-screen TVs, Blanco says the most-requested items were more storage space and new sliding-glass doors. He adds that the message of keeping the dolphins and taking care of the staff came through clearly and repeatedly.

Concept for the living room portion of a new suite

Every room is receiving thorough upgrades in a process that closes three floors at a time—rooms on the middle floor are worked on, sandwiched between a floor above and below—to minimize guest impact.

The new color palette is brighter, and the Frette towels and linens are custom-made for the property. Bath amenities also are custom-made by Floris of London.

The Small Details

Many of the touches are subtle but of the sort repeat guests will notice, such as the replacement of bedside tables with stylish, compact dressers. In response to guest comments, the sliding-glass doors have been replaced with soundproofed sliders, and the shutters that previously slid in front of the glass doors for privacy have been replaced with drapes.

All rooms are receiving new carpet and 40-inch flat-screen TVs. Other amenities include compact fridges that are true refrigerators, capable of keeping milk and other perishables fresh, as well as coffee-making setups. Your clients may never realize it, but installing these refrigerators required the installation of new electrical circuitry. Suites are being fitted with dark Ipe-wood flooring and will have microwaves.

Work has been proceeding from the bottom of the tower to the top, and Blanco says half the rooms will be completed by the end of June, when work will pause. It will resume in September in the Dolphin Lagoon wing, and is scheduled to conclude in December. By that point, the investment in the project will top $20 million.

Blanco's quest for a distinctive product for the hotel's grand afternoon tea is emblematic of the hotel's attention to detail. The months-long effort was rewarded with an agreement with France's Mariage Frères, in existence since the 1700s, to supply tea; the Kahala is the only hotel in the U.S. to have such an arrangement.

Although establishing the agreement took months, Blanco says the time was well spent, adding that his first step is to look for local items, such as the spa's products, developed and made on Kauai by Malie.

The hotel has now brought all of its operations with guest contact, including the spa, back in-house. The new spa director is Paul Telford.

Blanco sees this as a time for returning the Kahala to its previous golden era, drawing on the strength of its staff, its location and its history.

The Kahala is hoping to draw on its ties with travelers who've honeymooned at the hotel over the years with an anniversary club that it hopes to unveil in April and launch in June, according to Esmail.

Enhancements to the hotel's food-and-beverage operations include expansion of choices at afternoon tea, in addition to the aforementioned tea itself. Hoku's has seen such refinements as Christofle silverware and service tableside. Restaurant-goers are served prime grade of beef, not choice. Even something as simple as orange juice has not gone unnoticed. "You have to have fresh-squeezed orange juice," Blanco says, noting the hotel now receives its juice from an Oahu purveyor. "It's all part of the value proposition," he explains.

The food poolside also has been taken up a notch, as well, while remaining relaxed. One of the new items is sushi-grade ahi that's seared and served on a bun for casual eating.

The next phase of the hotel's upgrades next year will address the public areas: expanding the spa and Plumeria Café. Ideas also are being explored for Hoku's.

Blanco says the demand for the hotel's spa suites product far outstrips supply, and the hotel is looking at building a new, larger spa with 10 to 12 treatment rooms, and incorporating a fitness center. The retail space and the location of the front desk are also under review. "We want to get people closer to the reason they came here," he says, even during the check-in process.

Other concepts under discussion for the 2009 time period include the possible reshaping of the dolphin lagoon and addressing the pool.