Something New, Something Old

At Mauna Lani Resorts, the more things change, the more they stay the same

August, 2005

When Kurt Matsumoto joined the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows as its general manager in December 2000, the resort, and just about every other visitor-related business in the state, was closing the books on its most successful year in memory. Then came Sept. 11, and the SARS scare shortly thereafter.

“We’ve gone through some very high highs and some very low lows during my five years here. 2001 and 2002 were both difficult years,” says Matsumoto. “However, we’re getting back to doing the kind of business that we were doing in 2000.”

In 2004, the Mauna Lani Bay Resort racked up $56.3 million in gross sales, a 9.3 percent increase over 2003 numbers, which placed the company at No. 140 on the Hawaii Business Top 250 list. Matsumoto is expecting the good tourist times to keep on rolling. Occupancy rates for 2005 are up 5 percent, and Mauna Lani officials are projecting an 8 percent increase in revenues over 2004.

Matsumoto says that the increasingly strong Euro and Yen have made overseas travel more expensive, while an unstable Southeast Asia and South Pacific has brought more foreign tourists to Hawaii’s shores. But not all of Mauna Lani’s recent success can be attributed to global economic shifts. According to Matsumoto, the post-Sept. 11 slowdown forced Mauna Lani Resorts to be a quicker, nimbler company that responds to changes in the marketplace in a matter of weeks or months, instead of years. This flexibility is especially important for a resort like Mauna Lani, which is independently owned (by Tokyo-based Tokyu Group) and operated and can’t rely on the marketing muscle and brand recognition of an international chain as do its Kohala Coast neighbors.

“Before Sept. 11, most of our customers would book their vacations as much as a year in advance. Today, that number is down to about three months,” says Matsumoto. “We focus our energy on how to influence the impulse buy. We use a lot of repetition in our advertising, we keep in touch with trends and we do a lot more research than we ever did. We work on building our brand one day at a time.”

Late last year, Mauna Lani got a little upgrade, with the completion of $10 million in renovations. The 12-month project included the refurbishment of all 342 of the hotel’s rooms, as well as the creation of four new, ocean-front suites. The renovation also added 11,000 square feet of meeting space and upgraded the original 7,000 square feet of space. Mauna Lani officials expect that the additions will increase meetings and incentives business, from a 30 percent share of the resort’s revenue to 40 percent over the next five years.

Some of Mauna Lani’s recent success has little to do with keeping up with the latest trends in travel. It seems that some of those trends are catching up with the resort. Culture and history have been among the resort’s core values since it opened in 1982. The resort was built near a historic fishing village and features 27 acres of historic parks, ancient caves and petroglyphs, including the 15-acre Kalahuipuaa Fish Ponds, which serve as the spiritual “piko,” or center, of the area. Its Culture Department runs a whole host of programs, including “Twilight at Kalahuipuaa,” a monthly, unscripted, informal “talk-story” session between locals and visitors near the banks of the fish ponds. The event has been running for 12 years and draws between 300 to 400 mostly local people.

“Marketing studies have shown us that visitors are coming to the Islands in search of real Hawaiian experiences, which is one of our greatest assets,” says Matsumoto. “We didn’t have to do any shifting in that area to catch up, because, fortunately, those who planned the resort incorporated culture and history from the very beginning. We have a core of people who have been here from day one who ensure that we are consistent and authentic.”

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David K. Choo