INSIDE HAWAII INC.
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
John Blanco is the new managing director for the Kahala Hotel & Resort and previously managed a Ritz-Carlton resort in Portugal. Above, Blanco stopped Thursday alongside the resort's ponds as guests in the background watched a dolphin perform tricks.
Traveling man settles in Kahala
John Blanco brings his hotel industry skills to bear at the iconic Kahala Hotel & Resort
Question: What brings you back to Hawaii after working around the world?
Answer: After bouncing around the world for many years now, there are a couple reasons.
» New job: He has been named managing director of the Kahala Hotel & Resort, which until last week was called the Kahala Mandarin Oriental Hawaii.
» Old jobs: Has worked in the hotel industry in Miami, Bali, Mexico and Singapore. He worked at the former Ritz-Carlton Mauna Lani in 1993 as food and beverage manager and at the Four Seasons Resort Wailea as executive assistant manager in 2000.
» Age: 40.
» Born and raised: Born in Venezuela and raised in Thailand, Australia, Brazil and the Ivory Coast. An American by citizenship, his father was a civil engineer who spoke several languages.
This place -- the Kahala -- is such an iconic, legendary hotel, it's one of the rare opportunities that exist in this industry. There are few of these hotels, particularly in the U.S., that are a brand in their own.
The second reason was my wife was born and raised here on Oahu . After dragging her around the world, and four great kids all around the world, (it is) a just reward to come back and settle down and have the kids grow up in Hawaii.
Q: I understand Landmark Hotels Inc. has taken over management of the hotel from Mandarin Oriental Group. Who are they?
A: It's not a brand or a chain per se. The Kahala, there's nothing that ties it to Landmark, perhaps some legal documents. Chuck Sweeney's firm belief is that hotels, such as the hotel at Kea Lani, feed off the people and the place. There's just an amazing amount of equity there, and you build on that. There's no need for a brand or a larger structure. The Kahala is unto itself.
The bottom line is as an independent you have a great deal more flexibility and the dynamics are so much more conducive than today's luxury customer brand -- and I've worked for them, so it's not necessarily a bad thing. They tend to structure where you don't have the entrepreneurial environment, where the people on the front line are making decisions to make lasting and memorable experiences.
Q: How did the resort's Japan business fare in 2005? How about overall business?
A: Japanese business was pretty much the same at about 30 percent of our total business, so it was stable from '04 to '05.
2005 closed at about 74 percent occupancy -- slightly higher than the previous year, which was 73.7 percent. We had total revenues of about $34 million last year.
Q: What's a specific growth market for the Kahala?
A: There's one big factor in the Kahala and that's the repeat guests. There's such a great bank or list of repeat guests that have been coming here for almost 40 years that we want to maintain and certainly give a comfort level to. Certainly these people ... already bring their children and grandchildren, and that sort of dynamic, if you can maintain that over the years, that's absolutely invaluable.
What's interesting is the hotel does have an Australia market, about 3 percent currently. It's something we're looking into, particularly through the Internet, seeing what kind of partnerships we can create.
Q: As part of the remake of the hotel, are the dolphins staying?
A: Yes, absolutely. That's been there since day one, 1964, so it's something to maintain.
Q: Will the hotel aggressively continue to pursue its AAA 5-Diamond rating?
A: No, we'd like to maintain that. But the rating systems, AAA (and) Mobil, they add some value and we certainly respect that. If we can have that, that's great. Will it be our primary focus? No. Our top priority is guest experience. Where are the opportunities to control better and provide a better experience, and the results from that will show through these awards and the coverage.
Q: In contrast, did Mandarin pursue the AAA 5-Diamond?
A: I believe they did. It was a high priority item, I think, for Mandarin to get that award. ... When you focus too much on the prize you may lose sight on the day to day. You focus on maybe 10 items ... whatever this particular tool or award gives you as criteria. ... It's a risky thing to do.
If we can achieve those awards through the things that we do, that's a secondary product -- the first one being satisfying the customer.
Inside Hawaii Inc.
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