Built in 1964 at the apex of Hawaii’s first era of jet-age travel, the Kahala Hotel & Resort sits in an exclusive Oahu neighborhood just east of Waikiki. One hallway boasts signed photos of celebrity guests, from presidents and dignitaries to Liz Taylor, Adam Sandler, and Hillary Clinton. During filming of The Descendants, George Clooney stayed here. Several years ago, Elton John booked the Presidential Suite. And that’s when the problem began.
A mix-up in reservations had accidentally double-booked the Suite to Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei. Landmark Hotel Group, which had assumed management of the property in 2006, and in the midst of a long-needed $50 million upgrade, did not want to disappoint either guest. Landmark Chairman Charles Sweeney knew there was only one thing to do.
Engineers and contractors were called, and in six months they quickly tore out some walls and built out another brand-new suite on the top floor, equally as prestigious, and named it the Imperial Suite. The Sultan checked into the Imperial, was very happy, and the episode went down as another example of how Landmark conducts business in Hawaii.
“That's what I love about the islands,” says Sweeney’s son, Landmark President Shawn Sweeney. “It’s so down-home friendly, so personable, family oriented, everybody takes care of each other. And that's how we want to operate.”
While most hotels in Hawaii are managed by large corporations like Starwood or Marriott, Landmark is privately owned. At the moment, the company operates only two island properties, the Kahala on Oahu, and the Makena Resort on Maui. It’s a family business, and the Hawaiian ohana family spirit is always present in both hotels.
“We are not a brand,” says Charles Sweeney, whose long background includes stints at Marriott, Amfac, and Embassy Suites. “We are a local business.”
Landmark truly believes in their employees. Many have worked for them for 20 years or more. If somebody gets sick, the Sweeneys will put them in a private jet and fly them to UCSF in San Francisco to be treated by their own doctors.
“Without the team,” says Shawn, “we are nobody.”
In September 2010 Landmark took over the aging Makena Beach & Golf Resort (pictured), on Maui’s southwest coast. The 310-room property had not been improved since opening in 1986 as the Maui Prince Hotel. In-room TVs were still old-style tube sets. Many rooms had mold. The building had never been painted. The resort included 1,800 acres of coastline and up-country land, and the unique A-shaped structure guaranteed nearly every guestroom an ocean view. But it was already in foreclosure. It deserved better.
AREA Property Partners and Trinity Investments, the financial investors behind Landmark, partnered and took over the troubled property, mapped out a multi-million dollar renovation over the next two years, including retooled golf courses and pool area, and future Jacuzzis and heliport. Landmark then turned to someone it could trust to manage the property – Chuck Sweeney’s son Shawn.
“I wanted to be part of this,” says Shawn, who grew up in the business and whose hotel history includes working every job, from bartender on up to management. “I saw the growth potential.”
While the hotel stayed open during renovations, Shawn cherry-picked the best staff he could find, including Dr. Laura Greenwood, a retired professor and island cultural expert, to now works in training and development, ensuring a smooth fusion of the hotel and Maui’s native Hawaiian environment. Makena Resort can arrange cultural experience of all kinds, from musicians to traditional hula, and fire dancers accompanied by drums and conch shells.
Landmark also realized the value of happy employees. Tennis pro Frank Salvador quit a good job at the Hyatt to come work for Makena. As he was setting up the tennis program, he says, many nights he worked late. Shawn Sweeney kept seeing Salvador’s car in the parking lot after hours.
“I have children and I understand how tough it is,” says Shawn. “He was constantly there, ten, 12, 15 hours. I’m like, ‘You gotta get home, man. Because if you don’t, your home is not going to be stable.’ At the time we weren’t making any money. He wasn’t making any money. He left his job to join us, and he was taking less. So one weekend I said, ‘I’d like to take you and the wife over to the Kalaha, and I’m going to pay for your trip, and I just want you to go and relax. I want to thank you for this hard work you do for us.’”
Salvador was, and still is, surprised and grateful at the unexpected generosity. “Hawaiians call it pono,” says Frank. “Do the right thing.”
Shawn Sweeney and his father Charles know that Hawaii is a special place, and treat both their properties with a unique family spirit, which extends to all the staff. The Makena property even has its own house dog, a German shepherd named Makena, which prompted the Kalaha property to request its own dog. Although the Sweeneys were not born on Maui, they honor the island and that respect rings very true at both their hotels.
“In a nutshell, you want to be able to support your employees as much as you support all your managers and your guests,” says Shawn Sweeney. “You want to be as human as possible.”