Late into the evening one August night last year, a hostile coup took place in the picture postcard tourist hotspot of Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach. While the city’s political leaders weren’t at risk, some of its sun-seeking visitors were.
Guests staying at one of the neighbourhood’s newest hotels – the Waikiki Edition – woke up on the morning of 28 August 2011 to find out that as they had slept, the property had been taken over and renamed The Modern Honolulu. Although the hotel they had checked-in at had been managed by Marriott International, the one they would check-out of would be run by Aqua Hotels & Resorts, a locally based hotel group. The reason for the takeover was the hotel owner’s dissatisfaction with alleged mismanagement.
The Waikiki Edition had been a much-anticipated addition to Honolulu’s most notorious strip of beach. Populated by a multitude of high-rises, most of Waikiki’s accommodation options – from luxury hotels to cheap motels – are decorated in a supposedly vernacular mix of tropical prints and rattan furniture. For those wishing to experience a slightly less traditional side of Hawaii, there are few options.
Partnering up with boutique hotel pioneer Ian Schrager, Marriott International chose Waikiki to be the spot to debut their first Edition hotel – a modern brand that would cater to a younger, more design conscious visitor. And as Honolulu has transformed itself over the last decade from a package holiday destination to an important commercial hub between Asia and the United States, the Waikiki Edition was perfectly positioned to cater to those who would rather shop at one of the luxury boutiques in the nearby Ala Moana Center than visit a staged luau on the beach.
Over the last few days, I’ve been staying at the Modern Honolulu – or the Waikiki Edition as some still refer to it. While here, I’ve visited young locals who are building media brands, restaurants and tech companies that will contribute to a bright future for Honolulu. Yet, with an ongoing legal situation and a patchy attempt at rebranding, the Modern Honolulu is sadly still stuck battling its past. The hotel’s layout, furniture and even some of the staff are leftovers of Marriott and Schrager’s original concept, now managed by a company with experience in much lower budget resorts.
While Marriott’s Edition could support local magazines by buying advertising, the Modern leverages exposure for free copies. And although I pulled up to what looked like a new, boutique hotel, there was no one at the door to help me haul my suitcase up the front steps.
Surely, as the name suggests, the Modern should be a symbol of young, enterprising Honolulu. Yet, as the Edition brand expands globally, branching out into cities like London, New York, New Delhi and Bangkok, the Modern Honolulu still feels in flux.
While it may still be the new kid on the block, without some urgent strengthening of its rocky brand foundations, the Modern Honolulu will soon feel anything but contemporary.