I love the story of Holiday Inn. In 1952, Kemmons Wilson was driving from Memphis to Washington DC and utterly disappointed in the family-friendliness of the places he and his kids were staying. So he opened up a motel that would perfectly meet the needs of traveling families. And then he opened up more, following the expanding US highway system.
And it’s continued to grow. Now part of InterContinental Hotels Group, Holiday Inn opened up its largest Holiday Inn Express location yet, last year in Waikiki. We’ve always loved Hawaii – it’s where my wife and I got married – and we’ve gone back almost every year since then. So I jumped at the chance to fly to Oahu with my seven-year-old to check out the hotel.
The Holiday Inn Express is perfectly-located in the center of Waikiki. It’s an ideal, affordable base for families. From the hotel it’s only a 10-minute walk to the beach, 10 minutes to the new International Marketplace with its stores and excellent restaurants, and 15 minutes to parasailing. In fact it’s so well located that when we were late getting into Honolulu, we tried to drive straight to dinner but couldn’t find parking, so we drove instead to the hotel, parked, and walked to the restaurant. We were 10 minutes late for our reservation, but would have been there on time if we had opted to go straight to the hotel from the airport.
But it was more than a hotel or a great location. IHG and Holiday Inn emphasize True Hospitality. It’s an instantly descriptive phrase of course, and an excellent thing to strive for, but to me, as a family traveler, it’s even more important. We could be at an amazing resort in a spectacular destination, but if the employees aren’t engaging with my kids, or especially if they act annoyed that we have kids, we’re not going to be comfortable. We’ve flown home from vacations before feeling disappointed, and realized a lot of the time that it had to do with never really feeling welcome.
We most definitely felt welcome in Waikiki! The staff members of the Holiday Inn Express were amazing, and it started before our arrival. The last time I was in Waikiki, we ended up at Cheesecake Factory twice and California Pizza Kitchen once. They were perfect when I needed to keep the kids happy, but we’re a foodie family, so dining at restaurants that we could find on the mainland was a little disappointing. This time I talked to the hotel in advance and they recommended Town, a farm-to-table restaurant roughly a 10-minute drive away, and Eating House 1849, just a 10-minute walk away. Both were excellent! They also mentioned the Street in the International Marketplace, and we headed over for lunch our last day. It’s a great collection of restaurants that we otherwise wouldn’t have stumbled upon, and we had an excellent meal.
Beyond restaurant recommendations, we set our entire itinerary based on suggestions from the hotel. We wanted to explore the east side of the island this time. The hotel recommended Kualoa Ranch, with its secret beach and jungle featured in Jurassic World. We wanted to go to a luau (because Waikiki), and the hotel recommended the Diamond Head Luau – not only is it farm-to-table, but it’s at the Waikiki Aquarium. Perfect for kids! We wanted to go parasailing, my daughter’s favorite thing to do in Hawaii, and the hotel set us up with a reservation at Hawaiian Parasail.
Kemmons Wilson’s commitment to family is still evident. In Hawaii especially, I want a hotel to have activities for kids, and I want an inside activity area so that kids can get out of the sun. Check! We loved the miniature golf course, shuffleboard and giant chess set on the 5th floor near the pool and jacuzzi. And the indoor activity room is perfect for a quick, shaded break. My daughter also loved watching the fish off the lobby.
Bonding with the Staff
And then there were all of the impromptu staff interactions. The ones that really stuck with me:
- We started talking to Vernon, the hotel’s Marketing Director, who very quickly grabbed his ukulele and met us in the hotel’s activity room for a quick ukulele lesson. That turned into lei making, and he even called in the hotel’s Reservations Manager, Chelsie, who taught my daughter a few hula moves. My daughter is extremely shy, but she warmed up to Vernon through a conversation about pets. He talked about his dog Coco. She told him all about her hamster Berry. And small world: for seven years Vernon worked at the hotel on the Big Island where my wife and I got married. I loved talking to him about the differences between the two islands, and he gave us a LOT of recommendations for Oahu. We navigated to Kualoa Ranch based on everything he suggested.
- Guy, the Food and Beverage Director, was a constant presence at breakfast. It’s his baby! A year ago the restaurant didn’t exist. He came to the Holiday Inn Express from a career at country clubs and yacht clubs, designed the breakfast space and chose the menu, and he sourced all of the food. I loved seeing how much pride he takes in feeding up to 1,000 guests a day. He doesn’t see it as just a free generic breakfast. He wants to serve only the best quality food, and it showed. There are pancake machines! It’s literally the only time in my life I’ve ever seen a pancake machine. The omelets were excellent. The Greek yogurt is the same brand that we buy at home. My daughter loved the various sausages. I could go on! And of course Guy didn’t just tell us about the restaurant. He also suggested a bunch of stops on our road trip to Kualoa, and gave us his shave ice preference – not the same as Vernon’s!
- And then there was Sebastian, seemingly always present in the lobby, who pointed us to his favorite sunset spot, and gave us his restaurant recommendations based on also having three kids. We loved our conveyer belt sushi experience and never would have been there if not for him! Over three days we talked travel and family and Chile and Oahu and half a dozen other things. What really impressed me about Sebastian is that even when he was fully engaged with us, he would quickly greet other guests by name and give them quick transportation updates.
- And literally every other employee, from the front desk staff to the housekeepers, was quick with an Aloha whenever we passed by. We were always aware that we were in Hawaii – which is a great thing! And it never seemed forced.
Thank you to the staff at Holiday Inn Express Waikiki for restoring my faith in the concept of perfect family-friendly service! When I think back on this trip, I’ll remember the employee encounters as much as everything we did on the island. True Hospitality really does make all the difference.