WAIKIKI BEACH SERVICE FROM PAST TO PRESENT
By George Downing
Waikiki Beach Services originated in the late 1800’s. It’s enlightening to note that they came into existence because of visitor demand for them! It is safe to say that the Manager of the Moana Hotel was not concerned with “creating an Authentic Hawaii Experience and unique sense of place” or providing “innovative outdoor activities”, or even creating an “eco-tourism” experience! No! Visitors arrived at a pristine Waikiki Beach and looked at the locals surfing and canoeing and said – “Hey that looks like fun – we want to try that. We spent a lot of time and money to get here and that looks like something we ought to do while we’re here – can’t do that anywhere else!” And so Waikiki Beach Services were born…
In 1901, the Moana Hotel built a bath house right on the beach (No environmental impact statements or shoreline management permits in those days) – build it brah! That bath house would house beach and water sport service for hotel guests and the general public. From the inception of the first beach service there was a problem that present day beach service operations still face: Who is qualified to provide water activity? The Moana Hotel gave control of water activities to the watermen of Hui Nalu. Hotel employees provided beach service.
Five years later (in 1906) the Outrigger Canoe Club (located on the site of today’s Outrigger Main Hotel) began offering similar services.
Subsequently, the Moana bath house was demolished and the Outrigger Canoe Club was the sole provider of beach services until the Halekulani Hotel was built.
Fast forward to 1943 – up until that point the Outrigger and the Halekulani were the only water sports providers.
In 1943, on the Steiner House property (today’s Kuhio Beach north of Duke statue) a military officers’ club began offering water sports activity to military officers only. (Whoever said our leaders didn’t know how to have fun!?)
When WWII was over, the club was closed and the City and County of Honolulu leased that same property out as a beach concession which would be called Hale Au Au. This concession offered the same services as the Outrigger and the Halekulani. It turned to younger beach personnel, to provide water activities. Up popped that competency problem again, and finally (as a solution) in 1954 under the administration of the State Harbors Division came the Water Safety Qualification Board. It was created to license water activity personnel. It remains in existence today. If we are to maintain safety for all in our increasingly crowded surf areas at Waikiki, it is essential that this program be well managed. Today there are 76 licensed surf instructors/second captains and canoe captains. There are 4 city leased beach concessions operating in Waikiki shore waters. In addition, the state leases 2 beach concessions.
At this point, it is appropriate to focus on the key ingredient of the service environment in which beach and water activities are provided. To that, let’s rewind to the mid 1950’s and come forward. In that period both the number of visitors and their demographics were quite different from today. Smaller numbers of visitors who were more affluent were Waikiki’s customer base. They expected courteous service and rewarded it with “tips”. In the host community socio-economic conditions were more benign and population density was lower-life was easier. Not surprisingly the result was far more gracious times, the AlohA Spirit was alive and well both in the community and on Waikiki Beach. The combination of the discernible AlohA Spirit and the probability of generous “tips” produced beach workers who were gracious and service oriented – the “Beachboys” of the era. Beach and water activities were provided in an almost ideal environment. Visitor satisfaction was high and repeat visitors were the rule – not the exception. These “Beachboys” were an ethnically diverse group. Despite this, it was a tight knit patriarchy. The leaders decided who would work (who was capable) and enforced a code of conduct which included the requirement that beach workers be courteous and respectful to their “bread and butter”: the tourist.
Offenders were suspended from working (or even coming to the beach) for a day, two days, or a month, depending on the gravity of the offense. This group effectively regulated itself without government oversight or hotel management because it had good leaders. The leaders understood that for the group to prosper 2 things were necessary:
1) Visitors must be safe
2) Courteous service must be offered with AlohA
Times changed in the community and on the beach. Larger numbers of less affluent visitors began making their way to Waikiki. “Tipping” for service became a rarity.
At the same time the patriarchy which (through its leadership) guaranteed safe water activities and courteous service to visitors began to disintegrate – the leaders retired, died, etc. A few survivors and a new group filled the vacuum left by the departure of the original beachboys. As this new group moved in, the AlohA Spirit in the larger community was being eroded by increasing population density and declining socio-econumic conditions. The more progressive commercial visitor entities recognized the implications of the loss of AlohA Spirit and instituted Hawaiian culture and service training from providers such as George Kanahele. Unfortunately, there was no George Kanahele training for the Beach Service providers.
The lack of AlohA in a beach service organization limits its revenue potential and diminishes the entire visitor industry by turning a potentially positive, unique visitor activity into a negative experience.
The challenge that today’s provider of beach service faces is finding competent people who have the AlohA Spirit. Make no mistake: you’ll find one or the other: competent people lacking in AlohA Spirit, or people with AlohA Spirit who are not competent.
The challenge is to find potential workers who are BOTH. The rewards for those who succeed will be great.
In the case of Waikiki, if competent people with AlohA Spirit can be found, then perhaps the Hawaii Tourism Authority, HVCB and HOTELS can once again promote the truly unique Hawaiian activities: Surfing and Canoeing.
Duke Kahanamoku lived with AlohA and modeled the way for all of us. Raised in the magic waters of Mamala Bay, Waikiki where he swam, surf, sailed, canoe paddled and canoe surfed. Duke traveled the world sharing his AlohA and the gift of surfing, ultimately spawning an industry that has attracted millions of tourist to Hawaii to experience our very best AlohA through a memorable beach boy experience. Generations of visitors from around the world have recognized Hawaii and Mamala Bay known to most as Waikiki as one of the most popular destinations of the world.
I grew up on Waikiki Beach as a surfer, canoe paddler, and eventually worked as a beach boy earning my living taking tourists out on surfing lessons, canoe and catamaran rides.
Throughout the world, top of the mind impressions of Hawaii start with or include visions of Waikiki. No doubt, it is the centerpiece of our visitor industry. What makes Waikiki special – elevates it to iconic status – creates its cachet? Many visitor destinations feature beaches – hotels – restaurants – shops – entertainment venues. It is Waikiki’s unique qualities: special culture, AlohA Spirit, birthplace of surfing, surfing and canoeing activities available to all, with the worldwide landmark, Diamond Head providing a movie set like border to the area. Combine all these ingredients and the mystique of Waikiki results. Waikiki beach itself is the stage from which many of these activities originate.
The legacy that Duke has bestowed on us is that our true Ambassadors of AlohA are our Waikiki beach boys. With every encounter both on the beach and in the water, they have a responsibility to live and surf with AlohA, representing the very best that Hawaii has to offer.
Imagine the possibilities and what our future holds. Let’s ensure that our Beach Services are the best in the world with standards of excellence comparable to a five star hotel. Everything should be meticulously maintained and spotless. Surfboards, canoes and catamarans in pristine condition. Our beach boys the best trained waterman, with skill sets on par with our finest water safety lifeguards. Most importantly let’s ensure that the AlohA Spirit is thriving throughout Mamala Bay.
Looking back, I’ve spent over 70 years on the beach at Waikiki. There is one thing that still holds true after all these years. Where in the world can you be riding a wave with Diamond Head to your right, the sunset to your left and Hawaiian music playing along the shoreline and now days if you’re really lucky Kanoe Miller doing the Hula. We call that stoke Hopupu! Waikiki is truly a living treasure that deserves our very best AlohA. As Duke asked of me and I ask of all of you, it is all of our Kuleana to Malama Mamala Bay, Waikiki. AlohA to you.