Above and Beyond
From a new hotel-condo to buzzworthy dining experiences, big things are on the horizon for Hawai‘i’s hotel scene — and hospitality industry veteran Kelly Sanders is at the forefront.
Kelly Sanders is a familiar face in the visitor industry. Before joining hotel management firm Highgate as executive vice president of Hawai‘i properties in 2018, he spent 21 years at Starwood/Marriott, where he oversaw several of its resorts in the Aloha State.
It was his idea to bring large-scale sand sculptures to the lobby of the Sheraton Waikīkī. The “Sandsational” displays continue to be a hit among visitors and locals alike.
“And had I not signed an exclusive back then I would have it in (Highgate) hotels today,” he says. “It is spectacular and a great signature piece.”
In 2014, former Gov. David Ige appointed Sanders to the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority board. He served two terms before stepping down in 2020.
During the pandemic, he and his team launched the “Love Hawai‘i” staycation promotion at the ‘Alohilani Resort Waikīkī — Highgate’s flagship property in the islands. Kama‘aina got a discount on their stay and $10 from each booking went to nonprofits such as Aloha United Way, Make-A-Wish Hawai‘i and other organizations supporting the community during unprecedented times.
“I think we generated over $200,000 for those different organizations,” Sanders says.
‘Alohilani is also part of the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative at Gunstock Ranch on the North Shore. Under the initiative, which is part of HTA’s Mālama Hawai‘i program, guests contribute a $5 tree fee that goes toward planting native trees on Hawai‘i Island and Gunstock Ranch on O‘ahu’s North Shore. Guests may also opt to tour Gunstock Ranch and plant a tree themselves. ‘Alohilani has committed to adding 100,000 native trees at the forest.
Service is something Sanders prioritizes in his personal life, too. He’s on the board of Diamond Head Theatre, chaired the board of the American Heart Association and works with Adult Friends for Youth, Make-A-Wish Hawai‘i and March of Dimes, among others.
In 2021, he shared his coming out story in a video for the Hawai‘i LGBT Legacy Foundation to support and inspire the next generation.
Sanders’ connection to the hotel industry actually stretches back to his teenage years, when he was a busboy at a hotel restaurant on the mainland. From there, he was promoted to the front desk. Working the graveyard shift helped him pay for college and when he graduated, he got a job in hotel management.
Then, he says, he and a couple of friends decided to open a restaurant in California. They were successful enough to expand to Texas and were planning to open a location in Utah when, through a series of unfortunate events, they lost all of the restaurants.
Sanders describes that period as one of the toughest in his life.
“Losing that business and the challenges we experienced at the time redefined me as a person,” he says.
It also led him back to a successful career in hotels.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” he says.
That journey continues. These days, he and his team are focused on the future. From renovations and rebrandings to new builds and partnerships, there’s a lot ahead for Highgate in Hawai‘i.
SKY’S THE LIMIT
Renaissance Honolulu Hotel & Spa is set to open early next year in the SKY Ala Moana building on Kapi‘olani Boulevard, across from Ala Moana Shopping Center.
“(This project) is super unique because it will be our first condo hotel,” Sanders says. “It’s going to be a five-star luxury product in everything from the size of the room to the quality of the construction.
“The hotel itself will not start until the 15th floor, so when you arrive, you’ll come into the lobby to check in and then go straight to the 15th floor where the first rooms are. And all of the rooms have amazing ocean views all the way up to the 39th floor.”
There will also be two new restaurants in the lobby, two pools, a fitness center, indoor and outdoor onsen (Japanese-style soaking tubs), saunas and a steam room.
“There are very few hotels outside of Waikīkī and I think people are just forced to go to Waikīkī because that’s what’s available,” Sanders says. “Because of its location, (Renaissance Honolulu) will definitely tap into Hawai‘i Convention Center business, and it will help to start to alleviate traffic congestion in Waikīkī.”
Renaissance is just a few blocks away from the Highgate-managed Pagoda Hotel, which Sanders says is also getting a contemporary refresh — but will remain true to its kama‘aina-friendly roots.
WAIKĪKĪ AND BEYOND
Back in Waikīkī, Sanders says, the Waikīkī Pearl on Nahua Street and the Ambassador Waikīkī, near the intersection of Kūhiō and Kalākaua avenues, are undergoing separate renovations valued at $40 million and $75 million, respectively.
The Pearl is slated to reopen next year; while Ambassador reopens in September.
“We’ll re-emerge as one of the coolest lifestyle hotels in the market. We’re super excited about that,” Sanders says, adding that the properties will have completely new personalities and names that tie into the surrounding community.
Meanwhile, on Maui, renovation of the bungalows at Royal Lahaina Resort & Bungalows continues. Sanders says guests can also expect a new lobby restaurant, and upgraded pools and beach bar by year’s end.
Also on Maui, Makai Sunset Inn in Lahaina, which is closed for a full renovation, will re-open at the end of June, and in October will be rebranded as Lei Lei House.
Slated to open early next year is AC Honolulu by Marriott — the second hotel in the downtown district, located at 111 Bishop St., in the former Remington College building.
The hotel will feature about 112 rooms and an AC Kitchen — Marriott’s modern take on a café concept — as well as banquet space and a new speakeasy.
Parking will be 100% valet; the hotel has a partnership with a company that operates a nearby parking garage.
“I think we’re on the verge of really starting to see the downtown area emerge in a way that’s going to be more positive than in the past,” Sanders says. “I think we were on that trajectory before the pandemic and then during the pandemic things got worse for everyone and we’re starting on that journey again.”
He hopes the property will add to the synergy of the district and drive foot traffic to surrounding businesses.
A TASTE OF WHAT’S AHEAD
“Not only are we opening or reimagining so many of our assets that we have in Hawai‘i … we also have formed a partnership with a company called TableOne,” Sanders says.
“It’s really led by (celebrity chef) Michael Mina and his group and they will be opening five new restaurants for us in our hotels.”
Final details are being ironed out but Sanders says guests can expect everything from Japanese cuisine to dishes inspired by the Mediterranean and Southern California.
Mina won the Michelin star for his eponymous restaurant in San Francisco. That eatery closed in 2021, but Mina operates more than 40 other restaurants around the world.
“And we are super excited to announce that on June 1 we will open La Bettola, which is an Italian concept from chef (Tsutomu) Ochiai out of Tokyo,” Sanders says. “(This will be) his first restaurant outside of Japan at our ‘Alohilani Resort Waikīkī Beach.”
Initial reports indicated La Bettola would open in SKY Waikīkī — but Sanders confirms Ochiai will join another chef from Japan at ‘Alohilani — Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, whose signature Morimoto Asia Waikīkī and more casual Momosan by Morimoto are at the resort as well.