Flood, fire can't stop Hanalei Colony Resort's Laura Richards

When disaster struck, Laura Richard opened up rooms at her resort to the community. Photo credit: Hanalei Colony Resort

Even after spending decades at the 52-room condo-hotel Hanalei Colony Resort on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, 2018 was an especially memorable year for GM Laura Richards. In April, floods destroyed and damaged homes and infrastructure across the island, and just three months later, a fire completely destroyed several buildings on the property.

But Richards can handle challenges, and while these back-to-back disasters were certainly no walk on the beach, her 30 years of experience prepared her to deal with the issues as they arose. 

Early Days

Richards got her start in hospitality while a student at Mesa Junior College in San Diego because she wanted to be able to travel. “I went to school for hospitality business and started working with Sheraton,” she said of those early days. But life interfered and as she started her family, she transitioned into midwifery and focused on that for 13 years. Living in Arkansas’ Ozark mountains, she looked at a picture of Kauai’s Lumahai Beach from her then-husband’s time on the island. “And I decided, eating breakfast one day, I really wanted to live in that photo,” she recalled. She moved to the island, about a block away from Hanalei Colony Resort, and soon got a call from the manager. “The manager said, ‘I heard you have hospitality experience and was wondering if you could come and just train with us a little bit,’” she said. She took him up on the offer, was working as a front-desk manager three days later, rose up to assistant manager six months after that and became general manager after Hurricane Iniki in 1992. “I moved into my photograph and I found my home,” she said.

Virtual Event

Hotel Optimization Part 3 | January 27, 2021

With 2020 behind us and widespread vaccine distribution on the horizon, the second half of the new year is looking up, but for Q1 (and most likely well into Q2) we’re very much still in the thick of what has undeniably been the lowest point of the pandemic. What can you be doing now to power through and set yourself up for a prosperous 2021 and beyond? Join us at Part 3 of Hotel Optimization – A Virtual Event on January 27 from 10am – 1:05pm ET for expert panels focused on getting you back to profitability.

Laura Richards, Hanalei Colony Resort
Laura Richards. Photo credit: Hanalei Colony Resort

Starting at the resort posed its own challenges. Even in the 1980s, a large hotel company like Sheraton had the latest technology, including electronic registers and private branch exchange phone systems. “At Hanalei Colony, we had a telephone and we had paper and pencils and that was just about it,” Richards said. Looking to compete with the bigger businesses, Richards updated the technology and hired publicists to share the resort’s story. The experience with old-fashioned record-keeping became helpful, however, after Hurricane Iniki knocked down power lines and left the resort in the dark. “I was [writing] everything for the insurance by hand. It was quite an event.”

Fire & Rain

Her experiences with Iniki, however, prepared her for other trials that would come nearly 30 years later. Last spring, more than 50 inches of rain fell on Kauai in a 24-hour period, devastating buildings across the island—including Richards’ home. Rather than focus on her personal losses, Richards turned Hanalei Colony Resort into an ad-hoc center for the community, feeding and housing locals as needed and turning various spaces on-property into classrooms for 48 local students. (The resort’s restaurant wound up hosting a high-school graduation.)

“The resort was almost completely full,” she recalled. “The restaurant was out of operation, basically, however a team of chefs started coming in and rotating a week at a time and food was being sent in from all the different food banks.” For about a month and a half, she estimated, the restaurant was feeding almost 200 people every night and every morning. The Kauai Food Pantry brings food weekly and Catholic Charities comes by two times per week to collect applications from locals still in need.

As if things weren’t stressful enough, a fire devastated the property in July, destroying the laundry room, maintenance shop, pool and gazebo, causing more than $3 million in damage. The property is still emerging from that repair work more than eight months later, and still has not reopened to the public, although Richards and her network have been organizing events for the community. “We're trying to make light of a really difficult situation, so we just keep putting on [any] different activities that we can think of,” she said. “Amazing people come forward and help make things happen.” 

Richards’ efforts have not gone unnoticed. In September, she received the Pacific Business News Pineapple Award 2018 for Leaders in Hospitality Management, and received the Mea Ho’omana’o award from the Kauai Chamber of Commerce. Hawaii Governor David Y. Ige, the Hawaii State Legislature, Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., and the Kauai County Council have all publicly commended her work. 

Laura Richards' Advice

In such a digital world, it's imperative to remember that we're always working with humans, and that we're sensitive, and we like to be heard. [It’s important to] embrace the combination of working in collaboration with your team and finding the team members that have better strengths than you [and] have better knowledge than you because that's how you're going to move forward and do better at all times."

Challenge: Beyond the ongoing challenges of the flooding and fire, Richards recalled an earlier time when she had to take control in difficult circumstances: when she lost both parents at a young age and had to become independent quickly.
Success: “When you're 18, you kind of think you know the world, but it really isn't until years later that you [realize], ‘I don't know anything.’ But I embraced it … I don't have a mom and dad anymore, so what can I do? That's when I chose to go to hospitality school.”

Laura Richards' Secrets to Success

Care about the people that you work with: You can really get to know people and really get to know their strengths and help develop them to be the best they can be. 

Never forget your family members: It's very important to remember our roots and where we came from. Know your roots and embrace it for better or for worse, and embrace your family and love your family because when the chips are down, they're the ones who are going to always be there for you, even if they're far away.

Always be strong enough to present your creative ideas: It's important in upper management to create a way for the younger generation to feel safe and independent enough that they can come forward and say, ‘Hey, I have an idea,’ and even let them go out there and try certain things. Even if they fail, it doesn't matter. 

Opening year: 1969 | Number of guestrooms: 52 | Owner: NA | Management Company: NA