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Waikīkī Hotels Getting Back to Normal, But Obstacles Remain

Edmund Garman
CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

Waikīkī was a ghost town a year ago in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the state's travel quarantine restrictions.

But these days, it's alive with the sound of crowds and traffic.

The Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority last week reported hotels in June saw a 77% occupancy rate, which is down 7% from the same time in 2019. Hotels across the state are cashing in to make up for the lower occupancy.

The industry standard of measuring revenue per room - known as RevPAR - was $247, up nearly 5% from 2019 levels. And the average daily room rate is $320.

In Waikīkī, the Outrigger Hospitality Group had properties that remained open during the pandemic. They are now seeing business return.

"The Outrigger Waikīkī, we never closed," said Sean Dee, chief commercial officer for Outrigger. "For months it was just kamaʻāina [and] first responders. That probably was running in the low 30s at one point."

Dee said since the implementation of the state's Safe Travels Program in October, and the rollout of the vaccine, the Outrigger Waikīkī is now seeing occupancy in "the mid-80s and 90s."

According to Dee, the Outrigger Beachcomber — which is across Kalākaua Avenue from the Reef — is also seeing a similar occupancy rate.

Although occupancy rates have been good for Outrigger, Dee said the group's Oʻahu hotels are still struggling.

"Mainly because there's been no international visitation. So there's no international guests returning to the islands, limited flights, a lot of issues with quarantine on both sides," he said. "So until the international recovery happens, for a while, you won't see a full recovery on Oʻahu."

Dee said other islands in the state, which see a higher number of domestic travelers, have seen a very strong second quarter, and he anticipates that will carry over into the third quarter of this year.

In the spring, the Outrigger announced it was bringing back employees to meet the growing surge in travelers. It was the first time domestic travelers could bypass the state's mandated quarantine.

The company also highlighted its Clean Commitment program, which set policies to keep guests and staff safe.

"Social distancing, four people to an elevator, it's tough to manage, but the principle of the program will remain in place, probably for the foreseeable future," Dee told Hawaiʻi Public Radio. "We still require masks indoors, we enforce that."

Dee said the company hasn't had any issues bringing its staff back to work.

But staffing is an issue elsewhere in Waikīkī.

Unite Here Local 5, the state's largest union for hospitality workers, said its members are seeing a 99% occupancy rate at some properties. But only 62% of its membership has been called back to work.

The union, which represents more than 9,000 hotel employees in the state, is concerned hotels will take this time to cut employees.

But Hawaiʻi Lodging and Tourism Association president Mufi Hannemann said there are some obstacles to recalling workers, such as the extension of unemployment benefits.

But he said there are efforts to bring employees back. The HLTA is planning to launch a mini-job fair within the upcoming Career Expo at the Neal Blaisdell Center on Aug. 4.

"There'll be a special section they'll carve out just for hospitality workers, to help start recruiting people back to work," Hannemann said. "And to let them know that if there's a will, there's a way. Certainly, we'd like to see [them] come back."

Hannemann said another obstacle in recalling workers is the lack of guidance for large events and conventions.

Outrigger Hospitality Group is an underwriter of Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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