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Riding the tourism wave

Resort upgrades and a fresh focus on ocean sports have rejuvenated Turtle Bay and the North Shore

By Allison Schaefers

LAST UPDATED: 4:15 a.m. HST, Oct 28, 2012

Rocky Canon, a stand-up paddleboard instructor for Hans Hede­mann Surf Adventures, used to leave the North Shore every May to find work during the off-season.

But that's all changed since Turtle Bay Resort, the only full-service hotel on Oahu's North Shore, embraced its identity as the place for water adventurers and those who love to watch them. Now, even when the waves are small, Canon and his surfing dog, Pulu, find a big market for their services.

"Last August (2011) we had 14 stand-up paddleboard rentals," Canon said. "This one we did about 100. We've also seen about a 100 percent increase in our surfing lessons and stand-up paddling."

Canon is not alone. Stronger demand for Turtle Bay, its events or food and beverage outlets have filled hotel rooms and created resort jobs. It's also bolstered business for the surrounding community.

"Every year, we seem to be going up in sales. I think it's unbelievable that we serve 200 to 300 people a day at our lunch wagon," said Chet Naylor, owner of Sharks Cove Grill. "The demand has enabled us to employ about 13 workers."

Capitalizing on surf culture and tourism might seem like a no-brainer for Turtle Bay, but for years the 443-room resort labored to find its identity. When other Oahu hotels were posting near-record numbers in 2004, Turtle Bay was struggling to fill 45 percent of its rooms.

Fast-forward to 2012. The resort incorporated the surf into its logo last December and now markets itself as Turtle Bay, on "Oahu's fabled North Shore." It completed a $2.5 million renovation of its lobby and bar. It provided space last month for the Waterman League, organizer of a stand-up paddling world tour, to house its headquarters. In November it opened Surfer, the Bar, a partnership with Surfer Magazine.

The resort has also resolved a long battle with union workers that led to a consumer boycott. In September, Turtle Bay and Unite Here Local 5 workers signed a contract, two years after the previous contract had expired.

The resort's push into the niche surf and watersport market is helping fill rooms even during the traditionally slow "shoulder" seasons between winter and summer.

"We began to see our occupancy pick up last year," said Danna Holck, Turtle Bay vice president and general manger. "The exposure from all the different events has heightened awareness of our resort and filled in the shoulder seasons."

Holck said Turtle Bay expects to finish this year with an average annual occupancy of 88 percent, which is on par with or better than many Waikiki hotels. Beginning Jan. 7 the resort will be running at full occupancy when it begins a round of room improvements, she said.

"We'll be taking one wing, or about 135 rooms, offline at a time," she said. "Renovations on each wing will take about three months to complete."

Guest room renovations, combined with changes to the spa and fitness center, restaurants, lobby retail and the greening of lower-tower roofs, will total $30 million and employ up to 300 construction workers over the nine- to 10-month construction schedule. Holck said if Turtle Bay's occupancy continues to climb, the resort also will add to its more than 500-person workforce.

The capital investments and marketing changes have shored up business at Turtle Bay and spread into the surrounding community.

Valerie King, director of marketing and business development for Kua­loa Ranch Hawaii Inc., said fall activity last year and this year have been up. The 4,000-acre family-owned ranch sells grass-fed beef and souvenirs and offers horseback, ATV, movie-themed and other tours.

"This year and last year. We saw a lot more activity in September and October than in previous years," King said. "Business has been more constant."

Vancouver, British Columbia-based Replay Resorts, Turtle Bay's asset manager, brought in sports and brand marketing guru Mark Skip Taylor about two years ago to integrate the resort with the local community and create high-energy events that develop the region's "DNA and soul."

"When I got here I found an exclusive resort in a gated community. The first thing that we did was to tear the gates down. We want to give our travelers a chance to see the North Shore waves through the eyes of a local," said Taylor, who enjoyed his first surfing experience at Turtle Bay as a 13-year-old traveling with his parents.

Turtle Bay, which has long hosted activities related to the annual Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, began hosting more ocean-sports events, Taylor said. The additional activity builds on the Triple Crown, which pumped about $21 million into the North Shore in 2010. The event, started in 1983, has created a big-wave tourism market, positioned Hawaii as the world's surfing capital and cemented the role of surfing companies like Rip Curl, Quiksilver and Billabong.

The resort also added an adventure center to help visitors take advantage of Turtle Bay's raw, natural setting, Taylor said. Additionally, it stepped up the quality of its food and beverage offerings and entertainment.

"We like to say that every day is Friday at Turtle Bay," Taylor said. "Locals are coming here more now, too."

Turtle Bay's repositioning also has positively changed the mix of visitors.

"Before, only about 10 to 20 percent of our guests were experiential travelers," he said. "Now they make up about 50 to 60 percent of are travelers."

Experiential travelers are coveted in Hawaii's visitor industry because they typically do more and spend more in the isles and, as a result, have higher satisfaction levels. Bringing the Waterman League to Turtle Bay resonates with experiential travelers and lends credence to the resort's push to be seen as an epicenter for ocean sports and culture, Taylor said.

"It's about authenticity," he said. "Even if they aren't surfers, they'll come to watch or to be at Turtle Bay because it's the home of these contests."

New York City tourist Bridgette Piscicelli, who chose Turtle Bay for her honeymoon spot, is proof Taylor's theory works.

"We heard about it in the media," Piscicelli said. "We thought it would be a good spot because surfing and Hawaii go hand in hand."

While the Piscicellis are not surfers, they've enjoyed watching the sport and, with a little encouragement from Canon and his pooch, even tried stand-up for themselves.

"It was so much fun," said Piscicelli's husband, Salvatore.

Stand-up paddling is a way to translate Turtle Bay's message in an accessible way, Taylor said.

"In the last 10 years, stand-up has become a sport that a wide range of people can do in almost any town," he said.

Since Hawaii is the birthplace of surfing and stand-up, it seemed natural to select Turtle Bay as the global headquarters of the Waterman League, said Tristan Boxford, Waterman League CEO and a former British and European windsurfing champion and ocean-sport athlete.

Hawaii is unique because it embraces all of the ocean sports and has a strong waterman heritage, Boxford said.

"There's a true connection here, and we founded the Waterman League to represent this ohana of ocean sports," he said.

Boxford's league was previously located on Kauai, and his production offices were in Oregon. Now he has a core team of five or six people at Turtle Bay which expands to 25 people depending on the event.

"We're in the process of expanding," Boxford said. "There's great growth potential here. It's not easy to break into surfing, but stand-up is an all-access sport."

Boxford's events team, which runs 18 events in 10 countries, has taken the message about Hawaii and Turtle Bay global.

"Our roots are here, and everywhere we go we take a piece of that with us," he said. "When people see stand-up paddling, it relates back to Hawaii."

The relocation of the Waterman League will build on the momentum of Surfer, the Bar, said Taylor. The bar is a venue for famous watermen to talk story about their sport and to showcase surf-related music, film and fashion, he said.

"We've built that venue like a live studio," Taylor said. "We can go live to the world with a flick of a switch. We're pushing content out and bringing content in."

That's been one of the most positive changes, said Naylor from the Sharks Cove Grill. Surfing never really took off as a marketable sport until the Internet, he said.

"Surfing couldn't book TV time because they didn't know when the surf would come," Naylor said. "Now people can watch it on the Web. That's changing everything."

Turtle Bay guests had a chance to mingle with Kai Lenny, a two-time Stand Up World Tour champion, during the league's inaugural Stand Up World Series World Championship Finals, held Oct. 12-14.

"I've been coming to Turtle Bay since I was 6. It was a getaway from Maui for my family and myself," Lenny said. "The last two years I've been coming to compete."

Lenny said Turtle Bay provides a good stopping-off place for windsurfing, kite-boarding, canoe, paddling and surfing.

"I can always count on Turtle Bay. It's in the center of where I want to be, which is Oahu's North Shore, which has some of the best waves on planet Earth," he said.

Lenny recently spoke at Surfer, the Bar.

"When I was coming up, I looked up to a select group of heroes. It's the coolest thing: At the bar you can listen to their stories and get inspired," Lenny said. "It's surreal to find myself in the place that I've always dreamed that I would be. Now that it's my turn, I want to inspire others to live their dream and their passion. I want to tell them to never give up and to keep striving."

Lenny's advice sounds like a chapter from Turtle Bay's playbook. Taylor, the marketing guru brought in by Turtle Bay, said now that the resort has found its big tourism wave, it's determined to keep riding it.

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