Hawaii Hotel Benefits from Cultural Immersion

In Hawaii, with its abundance of lodging, it might seem outrageous for one particular property to boast that it is “Hawaii’s Most Hawaiian Hotel.” But no hoteliers appear to be approaching Mike White, general manager of Maui’s Kaanapali Beach Hotel, demanding a retraction.

With bigger, more upscale neighbors such as Marriott’s Maui Ocean Club and the Sheraton Maui Resort, the three-star Kaanapali Beach Hotel has carved a niche by offering guests immersion into the culture that sets Hawaii apart from the other 49 states.

The hotel’s Project Pookela (the Hawaiian word for “excellence”) isn’t new. It’s been around for nearly 30 years. White says it has reaped remarkable rewards, both for his guests and his employees. And while he thinks the program’s values can be adopted by hotels on the U.S. mainland, the task may prove more difficult.


White began training his employees in everything from the Hawaiian language to mythology, religion and the natives’ embrace of hospitality within a few months of taking the helm in 1985. He had attended a tourism conference at which one message in particular resonated.

“[We were told,] ‘If we don’t start doing something to preserve the culture of the Islands, we will lose the very essence of what makes this a wonderful to visit and also a wonderful place to live,’” he recalled. “I took that to heart.”

White’s employees, many of them union members, quickly embraced the compulsory cultural classes, all of which are provided on company time.

“In a place such as Maui, your job has to be more than just knowing how to cook a hamburger or knowing how to mix drinks or knowing how to work the computers at the front desk. You have a responsibility to be a host,” he explained. So, while his colleagues make beds and cut grass, they also lead guests in traditional activities such as hula dancing, lei making and weaving.

“We provide something that is simply not available at other properties,” White points out. “We’re not a corporate hotel, so we don’t have the significant marketing support. …By creating a Hawaiian experience that’s not just for guests, but for employees, we have differentiated ourselves in a way that makes us very successful without having to be part of a chain.”

The GM says that, over the years, lodging executives from across the country have visited his hotel to tap into the feeling of ohana (Hawaiian for “family”) that pervades the place. However, he adds that the unique experience he and his staff provide may not work everywhere.

“I think in a place like Arizona or New Mexico, where there is Native American Indian influence, it would certainly be transferrable, very easily, because those cultures and values are very similar to those of Hawaiians,” he notes. “It becomes more difficult in a well homogenized community.”

Probably the biggest stumbling block, though, is the cost.

“Many places are not willing to do it all on company time,” he says. “That is an investment, and the larger the hotel, the larger the investment, obviously. But it’s one that we felt, and I still feel, has returned far greater resources to us than it ever cost us.”

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