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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 14, 2001

Sheraton to take over Moloka'i Ranch resort

By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer

After a 14-year absence, Sheraton is returning to Moloka'i to assume operations of some parts of Molokai Ranch in a move expected to attract more visitors to both the resort and the island.

Under the Starwood agreement, Molokai Ranch's resort will be renamed the Sheraton Molokai Lodge & Beach Village.

Becker Communications

Molokai Ranch Ltd. and Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which owns the Sheraton brand, have agreed to a management and marketing deal for the ranch's 22-unit lodge and 40-unit Kaupoa Beach Village canvas bungalow camp. The companies expect both properties to be renamed as the Sheraton Molokai Lodge & Beach Village in February.

In addition to operating the visitor accommodations, Starwood will assume management of most of Molokai Ranch's recreational activities, including ocean kayaking, mountain biking, cultural hikes and a children's program.

Two other camps of bungalow-like tents, the 40-unit Paniolo camp and 20-unit Kolo Cliffs, are not part of the affiliation. Molokai Ranch will continue to run these camps primarily for special groups like schools.

Molokai Ranch will also continue to operate clay shooting, archery and horseback adventures as well as ranching activities.

About 130 Molokai Ranch lodging and recreation employees will continue to be employed by the ranch, although they will function under Starwood management, according to Scott Whiting, Molokai Ranch president.

Kenny Ching will continue as general manager of the property under Sheraton.

The management and marketing arrangement is expected to help Molokai Ranch increase revenues from its underdeveloped resort operations, give Starwood customers a wider variety of vacation options and improve the island's tourism.

Molokai Ranch entered the tourism business in 1997 with its lodge and three "tentalow" camps, where regular rates range from roughly $250 to $500 a night. In the last five years, average occupancy has risen to only about 40 percent, Whiting said.

"It's been ramping up," he said, "but obviously slower than we'd like. That's why we need to bring in the marketing muscle."

Whiting said Sheraton's global presence and expertise in Hawai'i will help the ranch resort realize its potential.

Keith Vieira, a senior vice president for Starwood in Hawai'i, said the company has found that more guests — particularly younger, affluent travelers — are looking for experiential vacations with activities like hiking and kayaking.

"We thought Moloka'i was good for that," he said. "It really is the most Hawaiian Island. We're going to take that and build upon it."

Though small by comparison to other Sheraton properties — like the 1,700-room Sheraton Waikiki or 250-room Princeville Resort — the 62-unit Sheraton Molokai will complement the company's more traditional inventory.

Vieira also said he hopes Molokai Ranch will expand the lodge to 60 rooms, which the ranch is allowed to do but is not part of its immediate plans. With a bigger lodge, Vieira said, Sheraton would try to book small corporate, adventure and incentive groups.

The management agreement makes Sheraton the only resort operator with accommodations on six Hawaiian Islands. Sheraton used to have a presence on Moloka'i from 1977 to 1987 as manager of the Kaluakoi Resort, which was closed in January by its Japanese owner and is being purchased by Molokai Ranch.

Whiting said there are no plans to reopen the 138-room hotel and no arrangement for Sheraton to manage that property if it reopens. Molokai Ranch is seeking an investor partner to possibly restore the Kaluakoi, which is not far from the lodge and tentalow camps.

In any case, Sheraton's return is certain to be good for the island, according to Marsha Wienert, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau.

"To have a corporate identity that has the type of force and image helping with sales efforts, marketing efforts and management is the best news since sliced bread," she said.

"The reason I say that is that when Sheraton had the management contract for the Kaluakoi resort, Moloka'i was having some very, very good visitor numbers, and our occupancy was doing very well. When Sheraton left Moloka'i is when we started to see a decline, and it declined year after year, after year, after year."

The number of visitors to Moloka'i has fallen from about 100,000 in 1990 to 64,000 last year and 56,000 this year through October, according to state figures. Wienert said she hopes to see a reversal of the trend with Sheraton's marketing clout.

Starwood operates 750 properties in more than 80 countries, with 13 hotels in Hawai'i.

Molokai Ranch is owned by Singapore-based Brierley Investments Ltd., which bought about one-third of the island in 1988.

Reach Andrew Gomes at agomes@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8065.