The announcement by its management that the Royal Hawaiian Hotel will close for renovations next year is a partial surprise, but not unexpected altogether, and there appears to be a good chance that labor and management will be able to work collaboratively to save the jobs affected.
In the last contract talks, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., the company behind the Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis and W brands, told Local 5 is had major renovation plans that would take rooms out of service and force furloughs. I don't know what was said in closed-door negotiating sessions, but the public discussion focused mainly on plans to reinvent the Princess Kaiulani hotel.
Keith Vieira, senior vice president of Starwood for Hawaii and the South Pacific, who appeared on KGMB9 this morning to discuss the plan, hinted that the original idea may have been to close some rooms, then others, so the hotel did not have to close altogether at any point. But doing all the work at once can be cheaper and faster. That matters if the project costs millions and if the company is going to keep paying health insurance while employees are furloughed.
And it may. Vieira did not say so, but he did acknowledge that management and the union plan to try to work some kind of way to keep the employees whole. He specified that he doesn't want to lose any employees and admitted that many of them may be considered desireable hires by rival hotels. Local 5 says its priorities are (1) no break in medical coverage, and (2) preserving seniority.
Vieira is a hard-headed businessman but he is also a guy who worked his way up through the ranks, so he's not the sort who can't imagine what it's like to be on the rank-and-file end of such a matter. And if he forgets, Local 5 will be happy to remind him. But the best hope for the employees is the economic reality that it's hard at any time to find people with the high octane aloha to serve guests in a high-end hotel, and harder still at a time of 2.6% unemployment.
Many, perhaps most of the employees may find that they are never idle at all: Starwood wants to transfer them to other properties. Starwood holds the management contracts for all of the Waikiki hotels owned by Kyo-ya Corp.: the Royal Hawaiian, the Moana Surfrider, the Sheraton Waikiki, the Princess Kaiulani and the W (up the road on the Gold Coast side of Diamond Head.) If there aren't enough openings at these properties, Starwood also manages resort hotels on Kauai, Maui and the Big Island.
The project is scheduled to begin next June and take just a few months. Warning to furloughed employees: construction schedules have a way of slipping in the best of times, and some kinds of construction foremen are in short supply at the moment. But it is fair to assume Starwood will seek a fast turnaround because every day the Royal is dark means a lot of lost revenue and the possibility that some regular customers will discover and enjoy a rival property.
In other news...
The Italian Film Festival is on. (I inadvertently called it the Hawaii International Film Festival on the air this morning.) Check newspaper for local listing but tonight's screening is at the Doris Duke Theatre.
The bankruptcy judge in the Hawaiian suit against Go has ruled that Go parent Mesa did indeed destroy a business plan that Hawaiian lawyers were entitled to see.
KGMB9 lets me continue to do "Everybody's Business" on PBS Hawaii, which airs Fridays at 7:30 p.m., and this week's show will focus on the housing crisis.
I also still play classical music on Hawaii Public Radio on Saturday mornings 5am-7am. This labor of love is called "Howard's Day Off." Set your alarm now!