The four Chavez sisters from Chicago were decked out in grass skirts for the return of Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort’s Waikiki Starlight Luau.
During the show, the girls, ages 5 to 15, got up and danced at their socially distanced table as mom Hilda Chavez took photos and videos.
“It’s been my dream to visit Hawaii and to attend a luau since I was their age,” Chavez said. “We decided to come to Hawaii to celebrate my daughter Karicia’s 15th birthday. Before I got here, I was second-guessing myself because of COVID and all the restrictions. But I don’t regret it for a second. Hawaii is doing all the right things, and I feel very comfortable.”
Chavez’s decision to book travel to Hawaii wasn’t only about safety; she also wanted reassurances there would be opportunities for the family to do only-in-Hawaii things once they got here. The first-time visitor to the islands said that for her it would have been unthinkable to visit Hawaii without attending a luau.
The resumption of the Hilton luau on March 5 and others across the state sends a positive message to visitors like Chavez that while the COVID-19 pandemic still has the world in its grip, the state is on the road to normalcy. Visitor industry experts say that’s key to recovering Hawaii tourism, which was still down more than 80% from January 2020. Economists are predicting it will be 2023 before arrivals even come close to 2019’s 10.4 million visitors.
Still, Toni Marie Davis, executive director of the Activities &Attractions Association of Hawaii, said the return of luau is a encouraging step for Hawaii’s activity operators and attractions, which have been the “hardest-hit segment of the visitor industry” during the pandemic. She said hosting large gatherings such as luau also serves as a dress rehearsal for the eventual return of meetings, conventions and incentive travelers, who often book group events.
Jay Talwar, chief marketing officer for the Hawai‘i Visitors &Convention Bureau, said the state’s ability to manage COVID-19 has made it easier to market, but once visitors have decided to travel, “having more experiences, especially iconic ones, gets them over the last hurdle. It helps sell Hawaii.”
Davis said Hilton Hawaiian Village is one of the last luau to open on Oahu, Hawaii island and Maui. Kauai’s luau still haven’t reopened due to stricter COVID-19 travel rules. However, she said, some Kauai luau venues are discussing plans to reopen after the county rejoins the state’s Safe Travels Hawaii program April 5.
“I’m confident visitors will have a great experience in Hawaii, and it will be greater when everything reopens,” Talwar said. “But to me what’s really positive about the news that luaus and other things are opening up is that it means people in our community are able to go back to work.”
Valerie King, general manager of Sea Life Park, said luau are such huge draws that the attraction, which reopened March 6, actually relaunched its luau back in December.
“We were sold out on opening day, and we’ve been able to bring back two-thirds of our food and beverage staff,” King said. “We’ve done so well that starting March 17 we are adding a fourth day.”
Afatia Thompson, president and owner of Tihati Productions Ltd., Hawaii’s largest and longest-running entertainment company, said the March 5 show — the company’s first at Hilton Hawaiian Village in about a year — was a sellout.
“All the surveys show that the top two things that visitors want to do when they visit Hawaii is go snorkeling and attend a luau,” Thompson said. “We’re glad that they’ve found a way to allow luaus again. It’s part of who we are, and it’s part of how we share our aloha.”
Prior to the pandemic, Tihati Productions ran 14 shows across the islands and issued weekly checks to about 1,000 performers. With the reopening of the Hilton Hawaiian Village luau, Tihati is running five shows again, which has allowed the company to bring back about 100 performers, some 16 for the Hilton Hawaiian Village show alone.
Debi Bishop, Hilton Hawaiian Village’s managing director, said the Waikiki Starlight Luau typically attracted more than 400 guests prior to the pandemic. Bishop said social-distancing requirements meant March 5’s sold-out show numbered just 150 guests. Still, it supported jobs for 21 food and beverage workers, and she hopes strong demand will allow her to bring back more.
“The luau is the No. 1 attraction booked at our resort,” Bishop said. “We’re sold out for the first two weeks. We hope that continues and we’ll be able to add another night.”
But growing the experience in the middle of the pandemic isn’t only contingent on demand. New procedures at the Waikiki Starlight Luau and other luau across the state prioritize safety, which costs more.
“Everyone has had to get pretty creative to make it work,” Davis said.
King said Sea Life Park’s luau has seen a greater number of kamaaina and repeat travelers than in the past.
“When we opened, there wasn’t much to do at night,” King said. “More luaus have opened, but we are still doing really well, even though it’s not as profitable as it was before the pandemic.
“We used to be able to host 680 visitors at our luau; now we are restricted to 250 so that we can space everyone out,” she said. “We can’t do buffet dinners anymore, so we have a lot more labor and expenses.”
At the Waikiki Starlight Luau, lei making and other Hawaiian crafts are now done tableside. Group hula lessons are socially distanced, as is seating. Instead of buffet service, guests are served plated dinners. They must wear face masks except when eating or drinking at their designated seat.
The usual lei greeting from stunning Polynesian performers has been nixed. Guests are now offered a squirt of hand sanitizer and are encouraged to pick their own lei from a table filled with the colorful garlands.
However, those changes were hardly noticeable once the show began and the stage filled with hula and fireknife dancers.
Just like that, it felt like Hawaii again.