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Hilton Hawaiian Village reopens as Hawaii tourism slowly recovers

  • Video by Jamm Aquino

    The reopening of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort, the state's largest hotel property, and the start of COVID­­-19 vaccinations in Hawaii are major milestones on the still long and winding road to tourism recovery.

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Joni Blum, left, a visitor from West Virginia, reacted Tuesday to the view in her surprise suite upgrade at Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki. The resort reopened after nearly nine months due to the pandemic.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Joni Blum, left, a visitor from West Virginia, reacted Tuesday to the view in her surprise suite upgrade at Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki. The resort reopened after nearly nine months due to the pandemic.

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Above, concierge Keli Pave, left, and senior marketing manager Emily Matsuoka sanitized the resort’s counter area.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Above, concierge Keli Pave, left, and senior marketing manager Emily Matsuoka sanitized the resort’s counter area.

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Hilton Hawaiian Village front desk supervisor Gina Eubanks-Pascual, left, talked with the hotel’s first guest since reopening, West Virginia visitor Joni Blum, on Tuesday in Waikiki.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Hilton Hawaiian Village front desk supervisor Gina Eubanks-Pascual, left, talked with the hotel’s first guest since reopening, West Virginia visitor Joni Blum, on Tuesday in Waikiki.

The reopening of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort, the state’s largest hotel property, and the start of COVID­­-19 vaccinations in Hawaii are major milestones on the still long and winding road to tourism recovery.

HHV’s Tuesday reopening is expected to return some 250 to 300 employees to work. It also has allowed many of the property’s contractors, including Hatsuhana Japanese Restaurant Hawaii, Lappert’s Hawaii, Blue Water Shrimp, CJ’s New York Style Delicatessen, Rocky Japanese Steak Teppan Restaurant and Round Table Pizza, to resume operations.

But by week’s end only two of the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s five towers will have opened: the Rainbow Tower on Tuesday and The Ali’i tower, a celebrity playground where Michael Jackson once stayed, on Friday.

>> PHOTOS: Hilton Hawaiian Village reopens in Waikiki

Reopening HHV’s two most popular towers returns only about 1,100 rooms to operations. It’s a cautious restart that creates employment for just a fraction of the nearly 2,000 employees that worked at the roughly 2,860-room resort before its April 13 coronavirus-related shutdown.

Still, it’s an improvement over the toll the pandemic has taken over the last nine months, which decimated the hotel industry statewide and saw employment at the Hilton Hawaiian Village fall to a low of 60 workers.

HHV Managing Director Debi Bishop said, “It’s going to be a slow start, and we’ll build from there. We’ll bring more people back to work as occupancy levels improve. At this point we don’t know how quickly it will come back. But you have to start somewhere, and we want to be open so we can bring back our team members and our guests.”

ROAD TO RECOVERY

A Hawaii hotel forecast prepared by Hendersonville, Tenn.-based STR for the Hawaii Tourism Authority estimates that by the end of 2021, statewide hotel occupancy will have hit only 46.3%, still short of the 50% to 60% occupancy that the industry needs to break even.

The start of COVID-19 vaccinations for Hawaii’s health care workers Tuesday created some optimism that better times are coming. Tourism is expected to improve as Hawaii and other states inch toward herd immunity, the point where preexisting immunity to COVID-19 is high enough to stop spread.

But Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green has cautioned that it could be another six to eight months before herd immunity is achieved here.

Likewise, Alison Hoyt, STR’s senior director of consulting and analytics, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the company’s 2021 forecast assumes substantial progress against COVID-19 in the first half of next year and that at least one or more vaccines would become available by the middle of next year.

When it comes to revenue per available room (revPAR) growth, the state’s largest hotel market, Oahu, is expected to be a laggard. RevPAR, considered the most telling industry performance measure, is the money earned for each available hotel room regardless of its occupancy status.

“Oahu’s revPAR next year is forecast at 20th out of top 25 U.S. markets,” Hoyt said. “When we look at the recovery time to get Oahu’s revPAR back to the $202 that it achieved in 2019, our forecast is beyond 2024. It will be a five-plus-year recovery from the losses of this year.”

Many of Hawaii’s hotels temporarily closed during the pandemic as government restrictions and fear of COVID-19 significantly reduced travel demand. About 65% of the state’s hotel room supply had returned by Oct. 15, the start of the state’s pre-arrival testing program under Safe Travels Hawaii. But so far, Hawaii’s formal welcome-back to travelers hasn’t filled hotel rooms to the degree that many had hoped.

STR reported U.S. occupancy for the week of Nov. 22-28 fell to its lowest level since May, with Oahu’s occupancy rate of 22.7% among the lowest levels in the nation’s top 25 hotel markets.

Some 404,086 visitors came to Hawaii between Oct. 15 and Monday, but only 249,735 came for pleasure or vacation, according to Safe Travels Hawaii. As many as 89,780 passengers in the Safe Travels Hawaii program said they were here to visit friends or family. On Monday only 4,036 of these passengers reported that they were staying in a hotel.

HOPE RETURNS

HHV wasn’t crowded Tuesday, but it was nice to see activity restarting, said Local 5 union member Charlotte Nahinu-Liberato, a reservations supervisor who has worked at HHV for 38 years.

“I’ve got hope again,” said Nahinu-Liberato. “It’s been like a ghost town over the last eight months. I’m so excited that another four members of our 20-member department have been brought back. Also, the phone was ringing nonstop today. Guests want to come back, and they want to know what’s open.”

West Virginia visitors Joni Blum and her son Daniel also were excited by HHV’s reopening, which allowed them to finally realize the Hawaii vacation that they had originally planned for June. The Blums postponed their earlier trip due to Hawaii’s COVID-19 restrictions and tourism lockdowns.

They sailed through current pre-arrival testing requirements, but hit a snag Monday when they arrived in Hawaii to find that HHV hadn’t reopened yet.

“We didn’t get an update from our travel agency, and my heart sank to find the hotel was closed,” Joni Blum said. “We found another hotel last night. We showed up early today to make sure the property was really open.”

The pair’s early arrival paid off as HHV upgraded their resort-view room to a six-night stay in the Niumalu Suite, an ocean-front room combination that retails for approximately $2,350 a night.

Hilton also is offering kamaaina a nightly rate of $164 for stays through May 31. The rate waives the resort charge and includes free self-parking for one vehicle, 10% off of lagoon toy rentals from Waikiki Beach Activities, 20% off select spa treatments and 20% off Blue Water Shrimp and Seafood.

Visit HiltonHawaiian Village.com/kamaaina to book the Kamaaina Package.

Yukiko Yamagishi, owner of Hatsuhana Japanese Restaurant, said she hopes locals and visitors will soon make HHV busy again.

“We went from about 50 employees before the pandemic to about 10 or 15 now,” she said. “I’m hoping business will get busier and I’ll be able to bring more employees back.”

BRINGING BACK WORKERS

Unite Here Local 5 spokesman Bryant de Venecia said the return of 212 Local 5 union members — or about 12% of HHV’s once 1,746-­strong union workforce — is the largest hospitality employee callback in Hawaii since the pandemic began. Yet, even with the Hilton improvements, de Venecia said only 1,200 of Local 5’s 8,000 Hawaii hospitality workers have returned to work.

“The reopening of Hilton Hawaiian Village is just one more tiny step,” de Venecia said.

Nearly all Local 5 hotel employers in Hawaii have reopened, save for Turtle Bay Resort, but de Venecia said normalcy is still a ways out.

So far, the Sheraton Waikiki has called 103 out of 1,022 union members back to work, he said. Some 68 out of 1,022 Local 5 union members have returned to the Princess Kaiulani, de Venecia added.

About 30 or so Local 5 members also had returned to work at the Sheraton Kauai. However, de Venecia said about half were furloughed again Thursday after the property closed following Kauai’s decision to opt out of the state’s pre- arrival testing program.

Travel demand for Kauai has dropped dramatically since Dec. 2 when Kauai began requiring trans-Pacific and interisland passengers to quarantine for 14-days. Safe Travels reported only three travelers arrived Monday on Kauai.

De Venecia said current conditions are taking an economic and emotional toll on Local 5 members.

“The majority of our unemployed members lost health care in November. Those that qualify have applied to Medquest; other members can purchase COBRA coverage, but it’s about $900 to $1,000 per family,” he said.

While some members are pursuing other careers or side gigs, de Venecia said, more help is needed.

“We really don’t know if our members can survive,” he said.

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