LIHU‘E — Donald “Hawk” Kawaihalau worked the graveyard shift as a valet and shuttle driver at the Kaua‘i Marriott Resort &Beach Club for over 21 years.
He is one of over 450 employees affected by recent layoffs spanning the hotel, including 56 housekeepers, 20 banquet servers, 25 laundry attendants and 14 pool servers, to make 457 affected employees.
Essex House Condominium Corporation, which operates as the Kaua‘i Marriott Resort &Beach Club, will cease operations in March.
In a letter to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations and Mayor Derek Kawakami dated Dec. 31, hotel General Manager Paul Toner explained that the Massachusetts-based Sonesta will take over as the new operator to manage the hotel, “most likely at the close of business on March 1, 2021.”
Sonesta will manage the hotel property as a Royal Sonesta, according to a letter from Art Gillespie, president of the Kaua‘i Beach Club Owners Association and the Association of Apartment Owners. It is set to become the first Sonesta resort in the state.
The 232-room hotel is owned by Services Properties Trust. Last October, the trust terminated its agreement with Marriott International for 122 hotels in over 30 states after Marriott could not meet its payments.
The property is the fourth-largest employer on the island, according to DLIR 2019 statistics on the state’s open-data portal.
Kawaihalau, who grew up in Nawiliwili, has spent his life working in the tourism industry. His first job was as a beach boy at Kaua‘i Surf. He later spent stints at Coco Palms and a resort in Las Vegas.
“At my age, I spent my time,” Kawaihalau, 75, said Tuesday afternoon. “For the younger guys, it’s really sad.”
The affected employees will be given information from Sonesta on employment, according to Toner’s letter to the state.
Spokesperson Lucy Slosser could not comment on hotel specifics, but said, “business levels have been profoundly affected by the pandemic, and continue to determine operational and staffing adjustments.”
Due to the pandemic, the resort closed from April to October, temporarily furloughing employees and reducing work hours. To aid employees, Kaua‘i Independent Food Bank and the resort’s charity fund provided monthly care packages of groceries. The resort was also able to make pool repairs.
The hotel and timeshares are separately operated, and conversations between Sonesta and Marriott Vacation Club are ongoing “to ensure that the services you are accustomed to will continue to carry on into the future,” Gillespie wrote.
Beach Club timeshares will continue to be managed by Marriott Vacations Worldwide as a Marriott Vacation Club, according to Gillespie’s letter.
Kawaihalau has no regrets, saying he enjoyed his work, management and fellow associates. But he’ll miss meeting tourists from around the world.
“The island really misses them,” he said. “I’ll miss meeting new people.”