Waikiki Is Royal Again

Back in 1927, when the Royal Hawaiian first opened its doors as the most exclusive high-end property in Hawaii, Waikiki was a quiet stretch of Oahu’s south shoreline. Breezes rolled down from the mountains and through the hotel’s open windows and doorways, keeping it comfortably cool even in summer.


The Royal Hawaiian, designed to be post-modern in 1927, has become a Waikiki landmark.

The Royal Hawaiian, also known by locals as the “Pink Palace of the Pacific,” temporarily closed its doors on June 1, 2008, for a complete renovation and reopened this year on January 20 as a member of The Luxury Collection division of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which manages three other luxury properties in Waikiki. Its rebirth is a sign of Waikiki’s changing face. What had become a gaudy tourist trap has evolved into a high-end destination in its own right. Skyscrapers surround the six-story hotel (blocking the breezes and making air conditioners a necessity). Haute-couture stores line the streets, upscale restaurants provide a wide variety of cuisine for every taste, and luxury properties attract jet-setters eager to see and be seen.

“Waikiki’s visitor industry has matured over the past 50 years,” says Royal Hawaiian General Manager Kelly Hoen. “Our hotel owners—Kyo-ya Hotels & Resorts LP—have been an integral part of the local community and in the shaping of this world-class destination with over 40 years in Hawaii.”

New Again After 82 Years

Planning began several years ago when Kyo-ya decided to reinvent the destination with a $750 million investment in renovations and new projects. In addition to the Royal Hawaiian, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Hawaii manages Kyo-ya’s three other properties in Waikiki: Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa; the Sheraton Waikiki; and the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani. “These projects are really about the renewing of a legend—the legend of Waikiki as a celebrated visitor destination that essentially began at our hotels and resorts,” Hoen says.


Oceanfront rooms offer views of Waikiki Beach.

“The new Waikiki continues to transform as we speak,” she continues. “It’s a fun and sophisticated destination, and at the same time a treasured part of our island culture.” The most significant change, she believes, is the multitude of upgrades and the repositioning of Waikiki, which provides shopping and dining opportunities for a broad range of visitors. “The Royal Hawaiian Center, which is located adjacent to the Royal Hawaiian, has undergone an amazing transformation, [communicating] the host Hawaiian culture, and providing upscale shopping and dining throughout the center has met with an overwhelming positive response.”

The return of the Royal Hawaiian from historic landmark to hip trendsetter was a carefully planned endeavor to ensure that “the history is not only respected but brought back to life,” Hoen says. “Artistically, we wanted the Royal to continue to be a haven of indigenous arts [and] artists.” The murals behind the registration desks in the lobby, which depict the islands, natural vegetation and Hawaiian people, are a good example of the new artwork that has been placed in throughout the resort, she adds.

“On the practical side, Rob Iopa, an incredibly talented architect from WCIT, designed the project and has taken careful consideration of the history of the structure as well as the culturally historic land the resort sits on when he created the vision for the property—much of his work was to remove excess and reinvigorate the original structure of the property by opening up areas that were once crowded with retail shops and reclaiming magnificent spaces that had been cluttered with time and distraction.”

The effort paid off: The resort was recently awarded the 2009 Preservation Honor Award by the Hawaii Historic Foundation. “We look to our island’s roots and are mindful of our island’s culture and heritage when moving forward to enrich the experience that our hotels are able to offer to our visitors,” says Hoen, who believes that adding value to a hotel will appeal to luxury travelers, and that communication with travel agents is key to bringing in clients.


The Royal Beach Tower Pool

“We depend on the travel agent community to guide their luxury customer to the Royal Hawaiian with the understanding that their client will be provided with an exceptional indigenous experience,” she says. “Communication is imperative, and we want to be sure that all of our agency partners have the most up-to-date information about all that the Royal Hawaiian has to offer.”

As Waikiki continues to grow and change into a more luxury-minded destination, luxury management companies will be at the forefront of the movement to develop and—hopefully—improve the area for both locals and visitors alike.

“The transformation of our Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Waikiki portfolio goes beyond the physical renovations and upgrades,” Hoen says. “Once our guests have a taste of the rich variety of experiences our hotels offer in new or renewed facilities, services and programs, a new generation of visitors will fall in love with Hawaii.”                     

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