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Honolulu reminds me of Miami before South Beach

Hawaii needs a Miami makeover

Tyler Brûlé, FT  Feb 26, 2010

If last week’s column offered a glimpse of a world destroyed by the collapse of “old media” then a visit to Honolulu offers a live example of what a world without paper media might look like.

Last Saturday morning I touched down in Honolulu to visit my Mom and grandmother (they decided to watch the Olympics from the South Pacific rather than frigid eastern Canada) and spend a week in the sun. Before I boarded my flight from Narita I stocked up some reading essentials (Casa Brutus, Brutus, The Economist, The New Yorker) and reckoned I’d walk out of the apartment in Waikiki to stock up on whatever was missing from my poolside pile (The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Dwell, Foreign Policy). A quick tour up and down Kalakaua Blvd (the main drag through Waikiki) and the side-streets produced few results – convenience stores had check-out magazine racks with identical looking titles all speculating on the state of the Pitt-Jolie relationship.

Where was the open-air international newsstand to satisfy the tastes of all the entertainment industry Angelenos and mag-addicted Sydneysiders parked poolside at the Halekulani? Or cute café-cum-newsstand run by funky kids from Hiroo? Or the musty smelling independent bookstore owned by a local couple from Diamond Head? With considerable effort I had to jump in a cab to the rather faded but thankfully well proportioned Kahala Mall to find some newsstand salvation at Barnes & Noble.

While not exactly the breezy, open-air, coffee-scented newsstand I had in mind, it nevertheless added to my stack and I returned to my lounger somewhat satisfied.

Before long, however, I was sitting up, scanning the horizon, watching planes descend into the airport and thinking about all the other things absent from this US state capital on the doorstep of Asia.

Honolulu reminds me of Miami before South Beach exploded with the whole Art Deco hotel renovation boom and the place was overrun by Brazilian models.

Just as the early 1990s saw Miami transformed as the regional hub for US companies doing business in Latin America, Honolulu feels like it could also play the same role in the middle of Pacific by hosting US and international companies wanting a base on American soil but with easy access to Asian capitals that are considerably closer than Washington, DC. Local carrier Hawaiian seems to have the right idea by opening up links to Sydney and Manila and announcing that it was going after slots at Tokyo’s Haneda airport when its new international terminal launches in October and plans to open up direct routes into other Asian markets when it takes delivery of new long-haul aircraft.

Others in the market seem to have less of an idea and are still looking east (back to the US mainland) when they should be looking west (across the Pacific). It’s for this reason that President Obama lobbied hard for his former home-state to host the 2011 APEC Summit and get locals (and mainlanders) thinking about striking up stronger links with Hong Kong, Taipei and Fukuoka rather than San Diego, Portland and Seattle. For a market that needs to re-invent its hospitality sector, the summit couldn’t come at a better time and APEC’s Asian flavour should jolt a few hotel groups into action. The big hotel brands rely on Japanese tourists to snap up premium, ocean-front rooms with rates to match knowing that the guaranteed sunshine and short flying time from Tokyo ensures they need do little in the way of offering a superior service or better designed experience.

At the same time, domestic tourists who don’t hold passports are blissfully unaware of the delights of Asian hotel service, so don’t demand more than a Starbucks close to their lobby. This has translated into a market that’s been resting on its laurels a little too long and looks rather out of step with the rest of the world in terms of service innovation, design and architecture. It’s also no surprise Honolulu, and Hawaii in general, took a beating over the past 18 months and was just barely saved by a strong yen.

With the property market depressed and a new generation of travellers from Australia, South Korea and Japan all looking for something a little more unique, the time couldn’t be better for Honolulu to reposition itself.

Further back from the Waikiki’s beachfront, tucked away on the side streets, small hotels from the mid-1960s are crying out for sympathetic facelifts and fresh management. Oddly, the market hasn’t quite come to grips with the concept of smaller-scale, luxury hotels, let alone raising the service stakes so they come a bit closer to what one might experience in Hong Kong, Bangkok or Kyoto.

Honolulu has long had the luxury of sitting at an interesting crossroads in the middle of the Pacific; now it’s time to up its game in the hotel sector and become Hong Kong’s mid-ocean mirror on America’s doorstep.

Hawaii needs a Miami makeover

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