Celebrating 70 Years of business, the Outrigger Hotel and Resort group was originally founded by husband and wife team Roy and Estelle Kelly in Hawaii in 1947. Today it’s come a very long way. We asked EVP and Chief Marketing Officer Sean Dee to tell us more.

The Kelly family started out with two hotels, and after a few years they were able to build a hotel right on Waikiki beach. That was pretty unusual, as it was on the site of the original outrigger canoe club, famous as being the birthplace of surfing. Thus came the name Outrigger, which celebrates in its turn its 50th anniversary, meaning we’re celebrating two anniversaries. The company was family owned up until December 2016, when we were acquired by a private equity firm, KSL Resorts, who are based in Denver, Colorado. The resorts team is in La Quinta in Southern California. It’s a hospitality-based private equity firm, doing ski, golf, and hotels for the past 30 years. Outrigger’s roots remain in Hawaii, although we have expanded to Asia, in Guam, then into Fiji, Mauritius, Maldives and Thailand over the past six or seven years, and our newest property was opened in the Maldives in 2015. Our strategy is all about the tropics – warm water, beachfront locations… that’s what we want to be known for. We’re looking at some more opportunities – potentially the Philippines – we were in Palau a few years ago, Indonesia, the Seychelles, and we had a strong footprint in Australia for many years. It’s a key source market for Fuji. 90% of the business going to the two Fiji properties comes from Australia and New Zealand. Our brand is well known and we’ve had properties there for many years. So we continue to evolve. Now we are looking at a pipeline into North America, because that’s KSL’s territory, and Mexico as well – but again always looking at tropical destinations. Our spaces are unique; it’s all leisure-based business, and the commitment from our new owners is to continue the family-value model that we started with. We launched a programme about 22 years ago to basically re-energise Hawaiian culture in Hawaii, and it’s been incredibly successful. We’ve now taken this programme to all the different territories and translated it into local languages. The concept is that we take care of the hosts, they take care of the guests, and together they take care of the place. It’s a very sense-of-place driven orientation, all the way down to language, and the history of the physical place – not just the country or city or origin. That’s actually been a unique differentiator for us for quite some time now, and we’ll be continuing this into the future.

This year is the UN year of sustainable tourism for development. What are you doing in conjunction with this?

Interestingly about four years ago, our partner in Fiji reached out to us. He had formed an organisation called the Mamanuka Society, as the Fiji Castaway Island property is in the Mamanuka area.  They had decided to attempt to regrow coral, and it proved to be successful. So over the past couple of years, we turned that into a company-wide initiative, and branded it the “Outrigger Zone” – or the “OZONE”. It’s our conservation initiative. We have made a commitment to regrow football fields worth of coral at each of our properties, and it’s working. Coral can be regrown, you can replant it and move it. You can grow it on the beach in pens and then take it back out into the water. And that programme has become a foundation for us.

Outrigger Resorts also participate in year-round global and local efforts with dozens of opportunities for marine education and conservation activities. Outrigger hosts put the company’s conservation mission into action by participating in green initiatives across local communities such as marine environment educational sessions, field trips to beaches, coastal wetlands and mangroves and beach clean ups. As a result of the clean-up efforts, Outrigger’s Waikiki properties collectively recycled more than 354,000 pounds of aluminium, plastic, paper and glass. Located on iconic beaches in Hawaii, Thailand, Guam, Fiji, Mauritius, and Maldives, Outrigger Resorts is dedicated to marine preservation and works year-round on a range of initiatives to generate awareness for the cause, as well as create opportunities for guests to help with the crucial marine ecosystems conservation.

We think we can execute local culture better than anybody…

What are the three “USPs” of your properties?

One is location: beachfront premiere locations in the tropics. We have settled on an anchor in terms of our positioning to say “What can we do beyond location that reinforces our roots and is something that really appeals to today’s traveller?” We think we can execute local culture better than anybody. We’re not a big box. We don’t have a cookie-cutter approach. So when you are in Hawaii, you get a true Hawaiian experience. When you’re in Fiji, we call it the Bula Spirit. We take our values-based system to each country and then the hosts, all the way down to the housekeepers and the bell desk and front desk folks go away and work with some people from our corporate office and basically develop their own language around that. It’s been very powerful. The piece we continue to work on every day is how we compete at the luxury level – upper upscale – in terms of Outrigger matching this local culture family approach with world class hospitality. So it’s the premier locations on the beach, the local culture meets the world class hospitality, and then a really intense focus on ocean conservation.

Tell us more about the new owners.

They are not a bigger corporation than what we had before. They are wealthier. They are a private equity firm with about US$4bn in terms of assets. But they’re small, they’re nimble, they like to be known as fast and innovative. So they are bringing more experience and more capital to us, and they are probably more ambitious.

Where are they investing?

In a couple of different areas. The first is in people. Their attitude is “We have good people, but they could be great”, so we need more training and development to help those folks and they have put a big emphasis on training. They embrace our push to be a world-class hospitality company, and they are pretty rigorous on helping us get there. They have a system called the “Four Keys”. It’s their talent-based system. They believe in what they call a TBO – a Talent-Based Organisation. Four Keys is a supporter, there is a global company called Talent Plus that does recruiting and training with offices in the mainland US and Singapore. It’s actually a combination of recruiting and training. The goal over time is to develop that capacity in-house, but today it’s a mixture of third party resources. And they are investing millions of dollars in technology. We were a family-owned company and had a lot of home-grown systems which worked. They’re investing in Sabre technology, Duetto property management systems, the things we need to be competitive in this marketplace. Then again as a private equity firm they are keenly interested in better forecasting, analytics, data, being able to predict our business much better than we were in the past. It’s not that they’re big, it’s just that they’re deeply resourced, and they are rigorous and relentless on improving our returns.

How do you work with travel agents and tour operators?

We have had long relationships in the travel industry. Arguably, our company invented tourism in Hawaii. When we first started it was a very select group of hotels catering to the really high-end luxury market. We were the affordable option, and with that came the birth of travel agents in Hawaii. Classic Vacations, Pleasant Holidays; all those companies were actually incubated by Outrigger. We were the first inventory they had to sell. We thus have a long legacy in the travel agent community. We’ve got a retail team in Japan as well as in Oceania – in Sydney specifically. And then in Honolulu we have a programme. That programme is managed out of Hawaii, but it’s distributed globally – called the Outrigger Expert Agent programme, with about 8,000 certified agents. So they basically come in through that programme, they get certified, they get rewards and incentives based on booking, as well as we try to get them educated about our properties, but also to visit our properties as well.

So you do a lot of fam tours?

Yes. Fams are probably our biggest area of growth year-on-year as a company. Our PR agents are getting a lot of people out to our properties in the Maldives, Mauritius, new properties… because again in Hawaii, we’re really pivoting to be focused on the resort business, and that requires a lot of cooperation with our travel agent community.


Outrigger Konotta Maldives

The Maldives property opened in 2015. How has it been coming along?

It’s far from everywhere, and it’s a full commitment, so the guests, when they arrive, expect to get a phenomenal experience. With Unifocus now – our new tool – we actually for the first time in any property since we have been using the tool achieved 100% recommends in the past month (eds: September 2017). All those who stayed there would give it a 100% recommendation to friends and family to visit. It’s a challenge for us in the sense that we are bringing a lot of guests who don’t know Outrigger – have never heard of us – to a part of the world that they’ve never visited. Roughly 50% of the visitation to that property is mainland Chinese. We have had very little history in China. Very few Chinese travel to Hawaii, or to other parts of our portfolio, so that has been a real push, and we have just launched “Guibin” – our Chinese distinguished guest care programme.

Can you tell us a little more about the Guibin programme?

GuibinGuibin – which translates as “Distinguished Guest” in Mandarin — has been introduced at Outrigger Konotta Maldives ResortOutrigger Mauritius Beach ResortOutrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort and Outrigger Koh Samui Beach Resort – with more to follow.

The Guibin platform encompasses three key areas of guest care and engagement: relevant service offerings, amenities desired by the Chinese traveller and rigorous training for Outrigger hosts on the holiday expectations and cultural traits of Chinese guests. At these resorts, Chinese guests will experience qualified Chinese (Mandarin) speaking staff on duty, Chinese menus and breakfasts, a hotel services directory inserted in the room key packet, in-room tea kettle with tea, Chinese TV, slippers, fitted robes and other courtesies such as complimentary Wi-Fi. We have spent the past two years developing this programme in training at the property level. It’s one thing to speak the language, but understanding the cultural nuances, the holidays, what a honeymoon means and so-on. That has all been part of the training.