A Culture of Respect
by Leanna Roberts

id you know that the Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated land mass in the entire world? Hawaii is approximately 2,390 miles from California and a five-hour flight to Los Angeles. The next nearest land mass to the Hawaiian Islands is Japan, approximately 3,850 miles away and an eight-and-a-half-hour flight to Tokyo.

You might think that’s interesting, but what does it have to do with anything? That’s what I thought until mid-March of 2020 when my business, a thriving vacation rental company located on the island of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands, went from having the best start in our 10-year history to the worst, all in a matter of a few weeks.

The demise began on March 17, 2022, when our governor strongly encouraged visitors to postpone their vacations and not travel to Hawaii due to the unknowns associated with COVID-19. For anyone who depended on tourism for their livelihood, these words were ominous. A few days later, the governor issued a mandatory statewide stay-at-home/work-from-home order, upending life as we knew it. On March 26, 2020, the first day that the State of Hawaii implemented its mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for all incoming passengers, reality set in. The state had a total of 1,589 passengers arrive to the islands—only 268 were visitors. By comparison, in March of 2019, more than 30,000 passengers arrived in Hawaii daily. By the end of the March 2020, any tourist who was on the island had left for fear they would be stuck in the middle of the Pacific. The beaches were empty, the restaurants were closed, and our island was at a standstill.

Island Isolation
As I sat in my office, stunned by the chain of events, fearful of the virus we knew very little about, and fearful for the well-being of my ohana (family and friends), I thought back to something my grandfather, a small business owner, had advised me of many years ago. He said, “If you ever decide to start your own business, make sure you choose an industry that is recession-proof. You do not want to be dependent upon the ebb and flow of the economy.” Great, I thought to myself. Not only had I not heeded his advice by having a business that relied on people’s discretionary income, I owned a business in a location that depended solely on one mode of transportation: airplanes. Travel was shut down and we were completely isolated from the rest of the world.

I looked around and everyone was panicking. My staff was panicking. Owners of vacation rental properties I managed were panicking. Guests who had planned on coming to Hawaii for their vacation were panicking. Our community was panicking. As the days marched on I realized that what I thought would be a quick, “back-in-business in no time” shutdown was a fantasy.

My business is built on a culture of respect, and I believe that to excel as a leader you have to balance compassion and wisdom to accomplish your goals effectively.
Taking Action

My business is built on a culture of respect, and I believe that to excel as a leader you have to balance compassion and wisdom to accomplish your goals effectively. As I assessed what needed to be done in order for my business to survive a long shutdown (however long that might be), I held strong to one of my core values: when making tough decisions, take the compassionate course of action.

I created a three-pronged approach:

  1. Eliminate all unnecessary operating expenses, including through layoffs
  2. Commit to hunkering down to hold my business together no matter the obstacles
  3. Be transparent with my coworkers; listen and empathize with the intention to help in any way possible

I felt guilty that I had to let go of the staff that had been loyal to me for years. I felt terrible that many of my friends’ businesses were closing permanently. I was sick that there were lines of cars more than a mile long waiting to get food from local churches and nonprofits in order to feed their families. My community was suffering, and while everyone who could was doing their part to take care of each other, things didn’t seem to be improving.

It was frustrating to watch. The mainland re-opened, and people were traveling to places like Florida and the Carolinas as we stayed shut-down, isolated from the rest of the world with no signs that things would improve anytime soon. We wanted to get back to work.

Hope on the Horizon
In June, our governor announced that he would lift the inter-island 14-day quarantine rule and people could return but only to stay in hotels. This was a ray of sunshine, except why only hotels? What about businesses like ours that managed vacation rentals? I was not alone in my thoughts, as this announcement prompted the owner of another property management company to brilliantly suggest all of the vacation rental companies on Maui form a coalition and band together so our voice would be heard. We felt allowing one type of lodging to open versus another type was not equitable and lobbied hard in front of the County Council, the mayor, and the governor to be part of the reopening. As a member of this group, I was so impressed with the level of commitment and heartfelt desire of each member to work together to push our government officials to allow us to open our businesses. In the end, it worked and we were able to re-open alongside the hotels.

As we moved through months of new travel rules and regulations and the ups and downs of re-opening the islands, we survived. I was able to slowly bring back our team as the islands re-opened, first with travel restrictions and then without. We began to thrive once again.

I have learned that living on an island that is dependent on one economy is risky (thanks, Grandpa). I have learned that finding a balance between the quality of life that we all desire living on a small, isolated island and accommodating the number of tourists that support our livelihood is complicated and controversial. Most importantly, I have learned that being in charge is not a popularity contest and you have to be willing to make hard decisions. However, my commitment to compassionate leadership has kept me focused on quality relationships and connections. After all, that is why I chose to start my own business in the first place.

Leanna Roberts
Leanna Roberts has been involved in the hospitality industry for more than 35 years, from managing hotels and resorts to consulting and owning her own businesses. Her extensive operational knowledge combined with high-touch, high-quality customer service uniquely positions her to assist homeowner and vacation rental clients through iTrip Vacations Maui, a vacation rental management company. Creating a memorable vacation experience for guests visiting the island of Maui is her true calling and passion.