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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 17, 2001

Rod Ohira's People
Manager brings holiday spirit to Hale Koa

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer

Four flocked trees in a lobby corner at the Hale Koa Hotel are adorned with personalized ornaments from guests, many who take pleasure in seeing their contributions reused year after year on return visits.

Cheryl Apo puts finishing touches on a gingerbread display at the Hale Koa Hotel.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Thirty-four other Christmas trees decorated in different themes, 11 large gingerbread houses spread out among trains and chocolate angel statues, and a Santa's workshop reflect the spirit of the holiday season at the two-tower, 817-room military hotel on Kalia Road in Waikiki.

Even the old banyan tree in the courtyard that employees call "Gus" is dressed up for the occasion — wearing red, white and blue bows for Sept. 11 on its vines and lights on its trunk.

The annual Christmas displays create a homey atmosphere, thanks to the personal touch of 55-year-old Cheryl Apo.

The assistant general manager/food and beverage director has been making and putting up the hotel's Christmas decorations on her own time since she started working at Hale Koa 21 years ago.

"I love people and our employees," said Apo, who supervises 650 of the hotel's 952 employees in her dual role. "This business requires long hours and working on holidays so, for me, the people at this hotel are my family."

Nineteen of the 38 Christmas trees are artificial. Apo decorates them differently each year and displays them in the hotel's offices. "I start making things for the 19 (artificial) trees after Halloween," said Apo, who works on decorations after an 11-hour workday. For most of November and early December, she takes a room at the hotel and decorates two office trees a night.

Her regular set-up crew for the office and lobby displays includes Frank Leaks, Kapi'olani Community College sous chef, and another friend, Alex Cho, along with Perla O'Toole, her food and beverage secretary. Janice Caylor, manager of the hotel's Koko Cafe, and Rocky Rohfeldt from Hale Koa's activities office are in charge of the lights, she said. Other employees also volunteer.

Hale Koa keeps the displays up until Jan. 7. "The hotel is open 24 hours, and the security is at a level now that's less intrusive, so we invite the community to bring the children and come see our displays," Apo said.

Apo's annual Christmas project features something new each year.

Last Christmas, it was a "Victoria Room" with a fireplace setting. A Santa's workshop is an added feature of the room this year. The room display includes some personal items of sentiment to the hotel's employees.

There's a holiday greeting card, for example, that was given to Josie Thies by her husband. Thies, who worked in the hotel's cafeteria until she took ill two years ago at age 90, kept the card long after her husband died in 1992.

Apo and several other employees from the hotel visited Thies daily, helping her with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Thies died in late September at age 92. "She always loved the hotel's Christmas decorations," Apo said. "We found the Christmas card after she died and put it here so she could be with us this Christmas. We were her only family."

There's also a stuffed red elephant in the room. It was given to Hale Koa by the late Juliette Gazaway, known to the hotel's employees as "Aunty Dear."

Traditionally, a new tree decoration theme is introduced each year and showcased in the Koko Cafe. "Somebody gave us peacock feathers in July so this year, it's a peacock tree," Apo said, adding that her reward is "the happiness on the faces of the young and old that makes every aching bone in this old body go away."

In keeping with the good neighbor spirit generated by Apo, Hale Koa employees recently voted to cancel their annual holiday party in January in favor of adopting a needy family.

Apo's employees nominated her as a "People" subject.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hale Koa's occupancy dropped to an all-time low of 72 percent and it took about a month to recover, Apo noted. During that time, no one was laid off and all employees who lost hours because of the slowdown were offered an opportunity to make up the difference in other temporary positions, such as security.

"Everyone felt insecure at the time and our main thrust was to provide our employees with job security," Apo said. "Our payroll went up, but our feeling was that if we have two employees to one guest that's fine. At the time, we thought it was better to err on the side of good service."

Apo reports that Hale Koa's occupancy is back up to the 98 percent level.

The former Chery Kadlec (pronounced Cuddle-its) moved to Hawai'i from Chicago 37 years ago. She has been married twice — the second time to former state Rep. Peter Apo — and has a 30-year-old son.

Apo started out as a hostess at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in 1970 and was a resident manager eight years later. "My experience is from the ranks," she said. "I tell our young people that if they work hard and keep focused, fairness will always be there in the end."

Reach Rod Ohira at 535-8181 or rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com