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In harm's way

Visitors are taking the weather in stride as industry officials emphasize they are prepared to keep folks safe and informed

By Andrew Gomes

LAST UPDATED: 3:30 a.m. HST, Aug 8, 2014


Waikiki on the eve of Hurricane Iselle's expected arrival on Oahu appeared largely like a typical day with tons of tourists enjoying the sand and surf. Bruce Taua­nuu, however, helped fill 200 sandbags to fortify one hotel from what was expected to weaken into a tropical storm Friday as Iselle threatens Hawaii's biggest tourism asset.

How well Waikiki's visitor plant prepared for Iselle will soon enough be apparent, though industry leaders say they are well practiced in preparing for hurricanes.

"Everybody is very well prepared," said Jerry Gibson, an area vice president overseeing Hawaii for Hilton Hotels & Resorts. "We've gone over the drill many times."

Waikiki is the dense base for Oahu's tourist population of about 95,000 on a typical day. So keeping all the visitors there safe, which in turn protects the image of the industry that drives the state economy, is of huge importance.

Gibson said Hilton Hawaiian Village has satellite phones in case cell transmissions go down. Diesel generators can power the complex of seven towers filled with close to 7,200 guests for three days.

"That's a small town," he said. "What's most important to us is the comfort and safety of our guests."

On Thursday, Hilton was trimming trees, moving lanai furniture indoors and had planned to drain about half the water out of its pool to guard against water blowing into parts of the hotel that are supposed to stay dry. Even the water level in Hilton's beachfront lagoon was being lowered. And of course, there was plenty of food and water for guests.

Some of the same preparations also were being carried out by Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which operates properties including the oceanfront Moana Surfrider and Royal Hawaiian hotels, and at 14 Outrigger Enterprises hotels in Wai­kiki housing about 10,000 guests.

Barry Wallace, executive vice president of hospitality services at Outrigger, said the local hotel chain holds a three-day exercise once a year to simulate operations leading up to and during a severe storm.

"The managers are really, really comfortable handling this situation," he said.

Tourists on Thursday afternoon often took the approaching storm in stride.

Michael Cawthon, who arrived here Sunday from San Francisco, said his family did more sightseeing earlier in the week because they figured attractions would be shutting down Friday and possibly longer.

Giannina and Aaron Reyn­olds arrived on Oahu on Thursday from Los Angeles and said the forecast for Iselle and Hurricane Julio didn't deter them from coming.

"We knew it wasn't going to hit here that bad compared to the Big Island," Aaron Reyn­olds said while enjoying a sunny afternoon on Wai­kiki Beach.

Jackie Hamilton, a visitor from Florida, was taking photos of her kids paddleboarding in Hilton's lagoon Thursday and said she wasn't worried about the impending stormy weather.

"I'm cautious but I'm not extremely worried," she said. "I've been in hurricanes before in Florida. I'm used to it."

Gibson and Wallace said communication with guests is the most important issue in situations where storms pose potential danger to them along with employees and hotel property.

"It's all about communication," Wallace said. "You have to keep the lines of communication clear and open."

Hotels pass along storm updates to guests in a variety of ways, including TV channels in rooms and lobbies, on hotel Web pages and via Twitter and Facebook. Hilton also has a phone hotline that guests can call.

Because the storm is disrupting travel plans for some guests, cancellation fees are generally being waived, and accommodations are being provided for guests who can't depart as planned.

Wallace said Outrigger is offering room stay extensions at discounted prices typically available to only family and friends of hotel employees.

"It's the lowest rate we ever offer, and we'll make it available to guests who can't get out (as scheduled)," he said.

Providing rooms could be a bit chaotic with some guests not being able to depart because of flight cancellations, though demand for space is expected to be offset to a degree by arriving guests who can't get to Hawaii because of flight delays.

At Hilton Hawaiian Village, Gibson said cots will be set up in the ballroom if necessary so that hotel guests have a safe place to stay. "Anybody that's here is going to be able to stay," he said.

For employees, the city agreed to operate express buses from 4:30 to 7:30 a.m. Friday to help workers get to their jobs in Wai­kiki after tourism officials expressed how critical it is to take care of visitors.

More than half of Wai­kiki visitor industry employees catch the bus to work, hotel officials said.

Some hotels were also offering available rooms to employees, including Taua­nuu, the assistant engineer at the Outrigger Reef on the Beach hotel who helped pack sandbags and planned to stay at the hotel overnight Thursday in case storm conditions created problems that needed further addressing.

"Just in case things go down, we're on standby," he said.

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