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Hawaii News

Highgate morphs into most rapidly growing hotel company in Hawaii

JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Kelly Sanders, president of Highgate Hawaii Group, on Wednesday walked on the outer deck of the adults-only Romer House Waikiki hotel, which is set to open June 1 in Waikiki.
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JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

Kelly Sanders, president of Highgate Hawaii Group, on Wednesday walked on the outer deck of the adults-only Romer House Waikiki hotel, which is set to open June 1 in Waikiki.

JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Ramona Sidlo, soon to be announced as Highgate Hawaii’s regional director of experiential marketing, left, Highgate Hawaii Group President Kelly Sanders and Romer House Waikiki General Manager Daniel Texeira walk in the lobby of the soon-to-be opened adults-only hotel in Waikiki.
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JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

Ramona Sidlo, soon to be announced as Highgate Hawaii’s regional director of experiential marketing, left, Highgate Hawaii Group President Kelly Sanders and Romer House Waikiki General Manager Daniel Texeira walk in the lobby of the soon-to-be opened adults-only hotel in Waikiki.

JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Kelly Sanders, president of Highgate Hawaii Group, on Wednesday walked on the outer deck of the adults-only Romer House Waikiki hotel, which is set to open June 1 in Waikiki.
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Ramona Sidlo, soon to be announced as Highgate Hawaii’s regional director of experiential marketing, left, Highgate Hawaii Group President Kelly Sanders and Romer House Waikiki General Manager Daniel Texeira walk in the lobby of the soon-to-be opened adults-only hotel in Waikiki.

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Highgate morphs into most rapidly growing hotel company in Hawaii

Highgate is rapidly expanding its hotel presence in Hawaii, which already has quadrupled since 2018 despite COVID-19 and the Maui wildfires that consumed its MaKai Sunset Inn, a boutique hotel on the Lahaina waterfront.

It opens Romer House Waikiki on June 1, which is Oahu’s first adults-only hotel, and in July will take over management of the Kaimana Beach Hotel on Waikiki’s Gold Coast. The addition of these two hotels is part of a wave of growth that has made Highgate the most aggressively growing hotel company in Hawaii in modern times.

BJ Kobayashi, chairman and CEO of BlackSand Capital, said, “It’s one of the fastest growth trajectories that I’ve seen in a short period of time not just in hospitality, but in any industry.”

That opinion is shared by other hospitality and investment leaders, including BlackSand Capital principal Ben Wang; JL Capital CEO Timothy Lee; Keith Vieira, principal of KV &Associates, Hospitality Consulting; and Mark Bratton, Colliers senior vice president Hawaii.

Highgate entered Hawaii in 2011 and had four Hawaii hotels in 2018 when it hired Kelly Sanders, now president of Highgate Hawaii Group. Since then, Highgate’s Hawaii presence has expanded to 18 properties, with another 10 or so pending as part of a growth cycle that goes to 2028. Projects also include forays into restaurants, and activities and attractions.

Sanders told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “Currently, Highgate leads in Hawaii hospitality management contracts with more than 6,000 keys across a diverse portfolio of thriving assets.”

In many ways, Highgate Hawaii Group is a chip off the old block. Highgate itself was founded in 1989 by brothers Mahmood and Mehdi Khimji and now has more than 87,500 rooms across the U.S., Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America.

“Hawaii is Highgate’s second-largest market overall from a revenue perspective outside of New York City,” Sanders said.

Highgate’s Hawaii growth trajectory began in 2011 with the Courtyard by Marriott Waikiki Beach. Highgate then purchased the Pacific Beach Hotel, The Ambassador (now the Romer Waikiki at The Ambassador) and the Pearl Hotel Waikiki (now the Romer House Waikiki).

Sanders joined Highgate during its $150 million master redevelopment of the Pacific Beach Hotel into The ‘Alohilani.

“We grew super fast with a couple of other acquisitions, the Aston Waikiki Beach, which is now Twin Fin, and Hilton Garden Inn Waikiki Beach and then the Park Shore Waikiki, and then COVID hit,” Sanders said.

Sanders said he used the challenge of COVID-19 to find opportunities. For instance, he kept associates working by partnering with the state to allow first responders and those that needed to quarantine from COVID-19 to stay at The Pearl.

He also hired a land use attorney to help build a prospecting list of hotel ownership and management companies in Hawaii.

“I started sending emails, ‘Hi, this is Kelly. I’m with Highgate. How are you surviving COVID? If there’s ever an interest in working with Highgate, let me know,’” Sanders said. “I got responses back and planted those seeds.”

Through those letters, Highgate picked up contracts for the Royal Lahaina and the MaKai Sunset as well as the Hilton Garden Inn on Kauai and the AC Honolulu Hotel by Marriott.

“We stayed super busy during COVID; it was a great opportunity to think about what the future was. That has led us to more investment, but also a lot of trusted partners that have allowed us to come in and steward their properties,” Sanders said. “Once the word got out that we were actively interested, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t get somebody calling me saying, ‘Hey, do you want to look at this.’”

On Oahu, Highgate also has the Pagoda Hotel, the Renaissance Honolulu Hotel &Spa, the Inn at Schofield Barracks and is transitioning the Best Western The Plaza Hotel and the Airport Honolulu Hotel near Daniel K. Ino­uye international Airport.

Lee said the ownership of the Renaissance chose Highgate because “the team is very owner-centric,” knows the local market and “understands the challenges that ownership has especially during times like COVID and during other slow times.”

Sanders said Highgate also has been chosen to operate a 240-key hotel that Chris Flaherty is developing in historic Chinatown under the Hyatt Unbound brand. He added that Highgate is pursuing building three more properties in Central Oahu to service the Kapolei, Wahiawa and Koa Ridge communities.

Sanders said Highgate also has been tapped by BlackSand Capital to manage their asset, the Luau Gardens, which is being built at the sight of the old Kyo-ya Restaurant.

It’s the second major food and beverage partnership for Highgate Hawaii. In April, the Renaissance opened MARA, the flagship restaurant of TableOne Hospitality, a partnership between Highgate, Michelin-star chef Michael Mina’s MINA Group and hospitality leader and restaurateur Patric Yumul, that is delivering at least a dozen new restaurants in Hawaii.

Ramona Sidlo, soon to be announced as Highgate Hawaii’s regional director of experiential marketing, said Hawaii’s newest TableOne offering, Izakaya 855-Aloha, is at the heart of Romer House Waikiki, where it will share a significant ground-floor profile with the hotel’s entryway bar.

Sidlo said it will soon be followed by another TableOne Hospitality offering, Favorite Son, which is opening in October at the Romer Waikiki at the Ambassador.

Sidlo said the TableOne Hospitality partnership as well as Highgate’s push toward experiential marketing differentiates Highgate properties from their competitive set. She creates merchandise that complement the experience and activates the spaces through partnerships and community connections.

“It’s shocking that more hotel companies don’t do this. Every hotel needs to have a soul, and that soul comes from the people, but also from the service and experience that are created in the buildings,” Sanders said. “It’s what sets us apart, especially in our independent brands because we believe that every customer needs to have a unique opportunity to experience the world in a different way or a better way. “

Bratton said Highgate’s forward thinking is why it has achieved such rapid and sustained growth in Hawaii.

“They come into properties and re-imagine these properties into something more modern, maybe hip and cool,” he said. “They are taking an old box and thinking about it differently and making capital investment and making a totally different product.”

Vieira said Highgate’s flexibility and nimbleness also has contributed to growth.

“When you want to open a hotel or convert a hotel with Marriott or Hilton, there are so many branding rules. With Highgate, they are open to how do we make this work,” he said. “They are a very nimble hotel company. They can move and give you decisions without going before a corporate board.”

That was the case on Maui, where Highgate Hawaii was the first hotel company to partner with the American Red Cross and FEMA and housed displaced fire survivors at the Royal Lahaina Resort, which is still 100% dedicated to disaster.

Wang said, “At Royal Lahaina, they’ve been a great partner of ours and they’ve been a creative problem solver given that we acquired it late in the pandemic in 2021, and they were able to help guide us through that recovery, and then of course, the tragic fires happened and we had to pivot. Not only do they deliver value to their partners and guests, but the local community is very important to them.”

While Maui tourism has not completely recovered from the fires, Sanders said Highgate is pursuing building a from-the-ground-up hotel on entitled property in Kihei.

On Kauai, Highgate has the Hilton Garden Inn and in the summer of 2026 is slated to begin managing the former Coco Palms Hotel under Hawaii’s first Kimpton brand.

Highgate does not yet have any hotels on Hawaii island, but Sanders said that he is aggressively looking.

“So many of the resorts in the Big Island already have long-term management and brand agreements, so there just has not been an opportunity,” he said. “The Kohala Coast area is ideally where we would like to be.”

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