A Unique Formula For Success

I haven't been here that long,” says Malihini Keahi-Heath, a guest services worker at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel on the Hawaiian island of Maui, as she finishes teaching the basics of hula dancing to some guests. “Only 16,” she adds, without finishing the sentence.

Sixteen what? Weeks? Months? No, in fact, Malihini considers herself a relative newcomer to the hotel even though she has been employed there for 16 years.

In an industry not known for employee retention, the Kaanapali Beach Hotel — a six-story property that is dwarfed by its towering, upscale neighbors along one of Maui's finest beaches — is an anomaly. While the turnover rate at other American hotels averages around 60 percent — and sometimes as high as 300 percent — the Kaanapali Beach has an enviable, single-digit rate of just nine percent. According to many of the hotel's 275 employees, that longevity can be explained with two words: Mike White.

A Hawaiian native (although not of Polynesian heritage), Mike White has been general manager at the Lahaina hotel for more than two decades. And despite his modesty, he is obviously proud of what he has done over the years to engender loyalty among both his employees and customers.

“It's not the typical corporate model,” White concedes as he begins to share what is a unique success story in Hawaii's highly competitive hotel industry. “We're an independent hotel (owned by an investor from Hong Kong) so we're allowed to do things differently.”

Hanalei Peters, a maintenance engineer who has worked at the property for 36 years, had several bosses prior to White's arrival in 1985. Also a union leader, Peters is one of White's biggest fans.

”We had promises from every other general manager, telling us about how they were going to do this and do that. And that all went to hell in a hand basket,” Peters explains, noting things have been very different since White took the helm.

“You can go to his office at any time and knock on the door. If he's not on the phone and he's not busy, he'll listen to anything you've got to say,” notes Peters. “He's honest. He's straight from the shoulder.”

White says that while his policies aren't new, they are often overlooked in today's corporate lodging environment.

“If you feel good about who you are, who you work with, who you work for, and what you're doing, guess what?” he muses. “You're going to be a better employee and guests are going to be a lot happier.”

The sixth-generation Hawaiian says one of his biggest successes began 22 years ago, when he organized classes in local history and culture for his employees.

“We decided that because the Hawaii school system, during the time all of us went through school, didn't have much in the way of Hawaiian history or culture in its curriculum, we needed to teach our employees about the place in which they were living,” White explains.

The classes are mandatory for all staff members, even the native Hawaiians. White says workers pride themselves on their new-found knowledge and the lasting friendships they've formed during the classes. The latest offering, Hawaiian language classes, began earlier this year.

“What we're doing here is very unusual,” White observes. “In the beginning, we thought everyone (other hotel executives) would see the value and that our resources would get hired away from us.” That, however, hasn't happened.

“Unfortunately, it seems to be too difficult to make the connection between today's cost and tomorrow's benefit when you're talking culture, because you can't draw a direct line between the cost and the benefit,” he explains.

About three years after starting classes for employees, White decided to also offer them to hotel guests. Garden walks, lei-making, and ukulele lessons are among the many activities offered seven days a week.

“We've already signed up for things for the rest of the week,” says Jennifer Thorkellson, a guest from of Nanaimo, BC, after completing hula lessons along with her husband, Paul, and their three children. “It gives depth to the holiday, which I think is important,” she adds. “It's not just splashing in the ocean. It gives some context to the place.”

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