Talk Story: Kimo Keawe

PRINCEVILLE — After a life in hotels, Kimo M. Keawe hung it up.

Keawe established a four-decade legacy in resort management starting with Coco Palms in the 1970s, and over the years he managed and owned several more, including the Hotel Molokai, before serving as manager of The Cliffs at Princeville for the past 14 years. But at the end of the 2014, he retired.

Keawe caught up with The Garden Island this week to reflect on his life running hotels and his time on Kauai.

TGI: Where have you worked in your career?

Kimo Keawe: The short version is, I started at Coco Palms as a front desk clerk and after a few years got into their management training program. I worked at several hotels in Hawaii learning the business including the King Kamehameha Hotel, Keauhou Beach Hotel, Royal Lahaina Hotel, Beachcomber Hotel in Waikiki, Poipu Beach Hotel, and the Waiohai, to name a few.

As a trainee at Coco Palms, I was a housekeeper with my daily assignment of room checkouts and stayovers to service. I worked in the laundry cleaning and processing sheets, towels and uniforms. I worked in food and beverage, from purchasing to serving and cooking, and then there was maintenance which was always challenging and interesting at the same time.

Then it was off to corporate reservations, human resources, administration and finally to the tour division, where I was a tour escort with an average of 50 passengers per tour. After all that, I think I had a pretty good idea of what this business was all about. When I was promoted to assistant manager at Coco Palms — that’s a whole subject in itself — I stayed on for several years to learn all I could from Grace Guslander.

TGI: What happened after Coco Palms?

KK: I went on to Hanalei Bay Resort, The Whaler at Kaanapali Beach, Islander on the Beach and Kiahuna Plantation — all as general manager. I wanted a bigger challenge to do the entrepreneurial thing and formed a hui to buy Hawaiian Pacific Resorts. We grew the company from five to 13 resorts and sold it to the Castle Group.

Then I put another hui together and bought Hotel Molokai. That was very challenging trying to run a business there. However, I loved it because I am an outdoorsman and spent all my off time hunting and fishing. I sold that to one of my partners and wanted to learn the timeshare business and that’s how I ended up at The Cliffs at Princeville.

TGI: What was your favorite or most memorable job?

KK: I valued the education I got at Coco Palms and working for Mrs. G. However, I enjoyed being the startup and turnaround guy for Village Resorts and taking on the challenges of Hanalei Bay and Kiahuna Plantation, which were both underperforming at the time. I also enjoyed rebuilding Kiahuna after Hurricane Iwa. My boss told me I had a year and eight days to do it. I was praying that whole time that we would have an opening ceremony with the maile lei and blessing. It came down to the wire but we did it.

TGI: What was it like to work for the legendary Grace Guslander?

KK: I remember the first time I met with her. I was interviewing for a position and she said in that low, booming voice she had, “Mr. Keawe, if you want to learn this business you start at the front desk.”

When I completed my training, I was promoted to an assistant manager and became part of management. That was kind of a misnomer as there was no management really, it was Mrs. Guslander as general manager and all of us who helped her run that fascinating resort called The Coco Palms.

I learned so much during that time that would stay with me during my entire career. First and foremost, take care of your employees and their families. They are the most important asset you have and be sincere in doing it. It’s all about the guest. They come for a memorable experience and do your part to make that happen. Attention to detail. She would plan everything down to the littlest detail.

Another trait I picked up is manmade rubbish. Wherever she went on property, she was always picking up rubbish. Back then, people were smoking a lot and tossing their butts on the ground. She valued and understood “the aina” and wanted to keep it in pristine condition always.

TGI: What should a new Coco Palms development be?

KK: From what I understand, the current developers want to preserve as much of the property as they can. They realize the uniqueness of the property and will embrace it as that’s what made it so famous. There have been other attempts to resurrect the property, but none were willing to bring it back as it was and these guys do. If we want to see this special place come back, we need to support this effort.

TGI: What are Kauai’s best assets when it comes to the hospitality industry?

KK: Its best assets are its physical beauty — how many movies have been made here? — the people and the activities. However, we need to be mindful that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

Look at the congestion now in Haena, with the number of people who use the Kalalau Trail on a daily basis even when we have storm warnings. We have done such a great job letting people know around the world what we have to offer, now the challenge is how do we manage it and preserve it for future generations to enjoy.

TGI: What has The Cliffs experience been like?

KK: The Cliffs was a great opportunity and challenge for me to see what could be done to turn this property around. They were faced with poor financial performance, litigation resulting from Hurricane Iniki, homeowner assessments to cover legal and other expenses and many disgruntled owners. What they had going for them was 22 acres of lush property on a cliff overlooking the ocean. As they say in real estate, location, location, and location!

What was needed was a vision and a plan. I developed a vision of what this property could become and with the support of a very strong board of directors — we actually have four association boards — we set out to implement the plan. Over the years, we have accomplished almost all of the original goals and more importantly, the property is financially very healthy.

TGI: Is it possible to compare the way hotels were run decades ago with how they are today?

KK: New technology over the years has affected the way we do business, especially in the way we market and sell our products, be it widgets or vacations. The world has shrunk and can now be accessed in the palm of your hand. Booking a vacation can take all of 10 minutes, if you know what you want. The role of travel agents has changed and it is much more specialized now. There are so many functions that were done manually years ago and are now computerized.

TGI: Has Kauai’s creation of the timeshare changed the industry?

KK: I remember coming back to Kauai specifically to learn all I could about the timeshare business as I felt it would be the next big thing in our industry. In the old days, timeshare got a bad rap and rightfully so. Fast buck artists would hand out handbills on Kalakaua Avenue about free vacations and then disappear once they got your money. However, the concept was a good one and different from the traditional way we thought of room accommodations. Once the big boys, Disney, Starwood and Hilton got involved, that added legitimacy to the business, not to mention adding significantly to their bottom lines.

TGI: How is the timeshare industry evolving and are you happy with it?

Like anything else, the industry changes to suit the needs of the consumer. Mature properties with Baby Boomer owners coming to Kauai for a week or two was the way to go. But now, younger owners Gen X’ers and Millennials like to have many options to choose from and take advantage of trading companies to trade their time for anything from airline tickets to exotic cruises and it doesn’t matter where they are they can still be connected to their office, family and friends. It seems to suit their busy lifestyles.

TGI: Did you have time to raise a family?

My wife Robyn and I will have been married for 45 years in 2015. We were high school sweethearts at Kamehameha. The 1960s were turbulent times. If you really want to know how old we are, Robert Cazimero is our classmate. Robyn is known to generations of Kapaa High School students as “Mrs. Keawe.” She was originally a teacher and went on the get her master’s degree in counseling. She has been doing that for over 40 years and now helps the grandchildren of former students. Robyn truly loves what she does and although she could have retired with me, will continue working until she sees her current students graduate in 2016. That was a promise she made to them when they came in as freshmen. I don’t know what the school will do when she finally retires as she is so dedicated to what she does they will probably have to hire two people to do it. We have three children and 10 grandchildren. We are very thankful and grateful for all the many blessing in our lives and for the opportunity we have had to live and raise our family on this beautiful island.

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