As chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Jay Rasulo oversees myriad facets of the Disney empire, including its world-renowned theme parks, resorts, timeshares and cruise lines. In an exclusive interview with Hawaii Business, he talks about Hawaii, the differences and similarities between doing business here and in Disneyland Paris, and staying true to your business principles during a recession.
Q: How has your experience been so far in Hawaii?
A: In terms of partnering, we have had so many people reach out to us and want to be part of the project — from the cultural side, from the design side, from the construction side — who really see us as being authentic in our desire to represent everything local about Hawaii and therefore have really been great partners. On the construction side, we are making great progress. There haven’t been any real impediments to our progress and we are moving forward. The folks at Ko Olina have been absolutely great in the development. And all the different areas of local government that you interface with on a big development have been extremely helpful and have been very diligent in seeing our permits through and answering our applications for permits. So far, we’ve found Hawaii to be a great place to do business.
Q: I know you worked at Euro Disney. How was that experience similar/different?
A: One of the aspects of Disneyland Resort Paris is that it is very, very multicultural. You’re telling stories to people from a lot of different countries. There are six or seven countries that make up the base of visitors who come to Europe and also a lot of Disney stories have European roots. So the people from the different cultures know these stories in very different ways. Here in Hawaii, I think we feel like we’re dealing with a single culture in the story we want to tell, and that allows us to go very deep and add layering in what we’re dealing with. So in some ways it’s different, and in some ways it’s very similar, which is the desire to listen and adapt to where you are, the setting that you’re in, and be sure that you’re in sync with it and that you’re part of a larger community. A lot of what we’ve heard upon arrival about the Leeward coast, about its history and about the Hawaiian people – they are incredibly rich material for us. In Europe, of course, it was a very different project in many ways. In Europe, we were the authors of the story. It was a Disney story and we were telling it in a foreign country. Here, we’re telling a local story through our storytelling techniques, but we’re not the creators of that story.
Q: What kind of advantage do you have? What’s the difference between Disney telling a story? Other hotels have been trying to educate tourists about the host culture.
A: I don’t want to sound too much on my high horse, but I think we really have a culture of storytelling. Even in the telling of our own stories, we use kind of a layering where you come and you’re casual, you’re walking through, you know you’ll only get the most obvious. If you’re really interested and you go deeper and deeper into the layers, things reveal themselves that are all consistent with a single story. Given those skills that we apply from all the artistic disciplines, all of the technical disciplines, I think that we’re first storytellers and second hoteliers. Most of the companies who come are first hoteliers. That’s their business. And for us a hotel is just another opportunity to tell a great story to people you happen to
have in residence.
Q: This is Disney’s first stand-alone resort. How does this fit into the overall Disney business?
A: Our theme parks are made up of mostly families who repeat: they’ve been before, they come back, they’ve been as children, they come back as adults. But we know that even our most avid customers and guests who come back again and again do lots of other things with their family. They go on city tours, they go to resort destinations, they cruise, they do a bunch of different things.
“So far, we’ve found Hawaii to be a great place to do business.”
And we really have the skills and the ambition right now to really broaden our footprint and to become more of family vacation life than we are today. Even though we’re well known for one type of vacation, when we opened our cruise line, we became known for another kind of vacation, a cruise vacation. Now we’re trying to offer a product that is a weeklong or short-stay getaway for people that doesn’t involve going on theme park attractions or being on a cruise ship, but involves the same kind of activities, attention to detail and great services that we do in our other businesses.
Q: How has the recession affected other Disney Vacation Club properties?
A: Both from our perspective as the developers of the resorts and, interestingly, (from the perspective of) guests who really are buying 50 years of vacations within the vacation club, I think both we and they take the long view. Business cycles don’t last forever and our guests are thinking about a long-term relationship with Disney for 50 years in our vacation clubs, and we in building a resort like the one here in Hawaii are thinking, “OK this recession is not going to last forever.” Hawaii is still going to be one of the few prized family destinations in the world, and we want to be part of that. We tend to take the long view and really haven’t changed our direction very much.
Q: Right now, Hawaii is suffering from its worst tourism downturn in a long time. What advice would you give the tourism industry?
A: I think we always have to remember that we have to stay true to who we are and we have to treat people the same way, whether they’re our cast members
or whether they’re our guests. We have to stay on our narrative, stay on our story and not deviate because, when times get better, they’ll remember who stuck true to the way they do business and their principles and who didn’t. Yes,it does take some incentives that are different during a downturn to get people to come. There are many companies here in Hawaii offering incentives, but that’s part of the business cycle. I think if we stick to what we do well, continue to do it the way we know how, that our loyal customers are going to stay with us through the good times.