Forward Facing: Outrigger CEO on What’s Ahead for His Company and the Industry

Outrigger Hospitality Group to acquire Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay

During a recent chat with LODGING, Outrigger Hotels and Resorts CEO Jeff Wagoner covered a lot of ground. He discussed Outrigger’s growth plans and its commitment to enjoying and preserving the cultures and sustainability of each of its locations. He also reflected on the pleasure he and his industry colleagues took in being able to actually meet face to face at the recent 2022 Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS) in Los Angeles, which he says, underscored the importance of AHLA’s work in responding to industry challenges, including the stalled return of international travel, the continuing labor shortage, unclear marketing messaging about travel, and escalating inflation.

What was your general impression of ALIS?

The conference was fantastic. The big question being asked was: “When will business and group travel be coming back?” One thing that was incredibly evident throughout the conference was how important AHLA is to the industry. We heard Chip [Rogers], Rosanna [Maietta], and the board of AHLA describe their initiatives and plans to develop a strategy to tackle some of the important issues facing our industry, such as the labor shortages across the United States.

But, in my mind, what made the conference especially great was how nice it was to see everyone face to face. The very fact that a large meeting—with nearly 1,800 in attendance—could take place safely and successfully bodes well for the future of meetings.

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What were some of the top-of-mind topics discussed at this year’s summit?

Definitely, inflation. Inflation is real and we’re all seeing it all across the country. For example, the laundry providers here in the islands had to increase their pricing by 20 percent to 25 percent due both to higher labor costs and supply chain issues. When their costs go up, they have to pass them on, just as we must by raising our daily rates in response to higher costs. So, I think inflation is something that we’re all going to be keeping a close eye on as we move through 2022.

What’s the status of the properties you’ve added in recent months?

We’ve got three new properties in Thailand—Outrigger Surin Beach Resort opened in Phuket in late December, and Outrigger Khao Lak Beach Resort just opened on February 7. Still under renovation, there is the Outrigger Koh Samui Beach Resort, which is scheduled to open by July.

In Hawaii, we are in the process of renovating what was the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, which will be rebranded as Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa. We have some exciting plans for it related to the manta ray environment that exists right off of the property. We can enable visitors to have an authentic experience viewing and learning about these awe-inspiring sea creatures while taking care not to harm them.

What are some of the ways you are safeguarding the environment surrounding your properties?

Our five Waikiki properties have been recognized by the state of Hawaii for operating in a more sustainable manner through the Hawaii Green Business program, which is a free state program that works with, assists, and recognizes businesses for their green implementation measures throughout the year. Our own platform for sustainability, The Outrigger ZONE, or OZONE, is focused on the preservation of ocean and coral. This conservation initiative serves to provide enriching experiences for our guests, hosts, and local communities, as well as to ensure that our properties actively do their part to protect our oceans and help them to thrive for generations to come.

This is something we all need to focus on globally, not just in our resort environment. Whatever difference we can make matters, so we do as much as we can to get others to come along on the journey.

How has COVID affected your properties, and what have you learned from the experience?

To be honest, it’s been a roller coaster ride. We had an incredible spring break and summer in 2021—very strong occupancy—and expect it will be the same this year, but January and February have been soft, and international travel is not back at all here.

One of the things that we learned through this whole process is how important it is to stay connected to the political leaders within your communities; you need to be part of the discussion, to insert yourself into the policymaking. AHLA has done an incredible job at the national level in using its platform to connect and communicate with senior leaders within government to make a difference.

Do you have any development plans for 2022 that you can share?

We’re open to all opportunities that are representative of our brand. We’ve always leaned heavily into oceans—Pacific and Indian—and now are looking to the Atlantic—specifically, the east and west coasts of southern Florida, which offers tentacles into the Caribbean and some of those markets.

We’ve been very successful in Thailand, where we have a corporate office and see opportunities there to develop resort communities. Southern California, too, is a natural for our brand, since so many of our Hawaii customers are from there.

What’s your outlook for the industry for 2022?

I think during the first few months of the year, the resort environment will continue to be sluggish, largely because international travel is being stymied by things like border restrictions that won’t enable travelers to leave their countries. But, after that, I think international will start coming back based on what we’re seeing now with COVID cases dropping; so, I expect the second half of this year to be very strong for the industry. I don’t think we’ll reach 2019 levels in 2022, but I do believe we will be back to those levels and beyond in 2023.

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