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New owners of Travaasa getting to know workers, Hana

Official: No staff cuts; changes to be guided by team on-site

GREGORY DAY – President of hospitality

Every time the ownership changes at Hana’s lone hotel, residents of the town score a few pieces of stylish, gently used furniture sold by the new owners.

“Every one of us residents, we’ve all got like the old hotel furniture in our homes,” said Maui County Council Member Shane Sinenci, who grew up in Hana. “You ask anybody in town, they might have some pretty cool bamboo furniture or armoires.”

New additions to their living rooms aside, Hana residents are looking expectantly to see what else the new owners of the Travaasa Hana resort will bring. On Sept. 27, Mani Brothers Real Estate Group of West Hollywood, Calif., announced that it had purchased Travaasa, a 72-acre oceanfront resort of 75 private bungalows.

“We were expecting it, but for the sale of our hotel that’s situated right in the middle of our community, it’s a pretty big thing for us,” Sinenci said. “We welcome the Mani Brothers Real Estate Group, and we hope to work with them as far as keeping our small rural community unique.”

Until recently, Mani Brothers had mainly been focused on luxury office spaces, including several on Sunset Boulevard, said Gregory Day, the company’s president of hospitality. Founded in 1994, the real estate firm now “owns, renovates, operates, manages and leases 1.3 million square feet of prime, commercial property,” according to its website.

The Travaasa Hana is the largest employer in Hana with a staff of 185. The new owners, Mani Brothers, said there will be no staff cuts and, in fact, they may increase personnel. This photo was taken in 2016. AL ARGUETA photo

Over the last few years, Mani Brothers has started investing in hotel properties, purchasing the 47-room Malibu Beach Inn for $80 million in February 2015 and the 205-room Embassy Suites Napa Valley for $102 million in July. Travaasa, which Mani Brothers acquired from Green Tea LLC for an undisclosed amount, is the firm’s third hotel.

Mani Brothers has some plans to refresh the resort, but Day said the “footprint of the property will ultimately remain the same.” He said Mani Brothers doesn’t have any designs for improvements yet and didn’t want to nail down plans until they get to know the dynamic of the hotel and the community.

“Anybody that comes in to a unique location like this and comes in with the idea that we know what we’re doing and we’re going to fix this and we’re going to fix that . . . there’s probably a break with reality there,” Day said. “I think on a project like this, we’ll be guided a lot by the team that is here.”

Residents may not see too many changes in the first few months, Day said. Green Tea will remain the operator of the hotel, and longtime resident manager Marni Aina will still be running the place. He said there would be no staff cuts, and that if anything, they’d be hiring more people. Currently, there are no plans to change the hotel name.

Day said that Mani Brothers is focused on improving the existing property.

“We’re not going to suddenly start bulldozing trees to make room for more things,” he said. “We think the property’s pretty well positioned physically, and we think the value we can bring to this is we’re going to find a slightly different operating model. We’re going to take the very best of the things Travaasa has done quite well over the years, and incorporate that with some resources that perhaps they didn’t have access to.”

For years before they got into real estate, Simon and Daniel Mani operated a bakery business, International Baking Co., which produced and packaged bread for dozens of different brands. Eventually, they sold the business to food industry giant Sara Lee Corp., where both brothers worked for several years.

Later, they began venturing into real estate with Simon’s oldest son, Joe.

The purchase of their first hotel, the Malibu Beach Inn, came with baggage — the property had long been the subject of a beach access dispute after previous owners failed to build two stairways to the sand as a requirement of the hotel’s permit in 1988, according to the Malibu Times.

Mani Brothers said it began working with the California Coastal Commission on a solution shortly after purchasing the property. In December 2016, the commission approved a $925,000 settlement with Mani Brothers that required them to build the two stairways, install a $425,000 signalized crosswalk near the hotel and pay $200,000 in fines, as well as $300,000 to a local conservation agency, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Day said Mani Brothers owns property in areas known for their natural beauty and tight-knit communities and takes pride in “supporting the local residents and businesses while protecting its natural resources.” However, he knows it will take time to prove that to Hana.

“We want people to know who we are,” said Day, who arrived in Hana this week to meet with staff and residents. “When they say, ‘Gregory’s going to be on property today,’ the last thing I want people to say is, ‘Who’s that? What does he look like?’ I think it’s important to get to know everybody. Like anything, trust is earned and demonstrated, and you can’t do that in weeks. It takes months, and you have to mean what you say.”

Sinenci said one of the ways Mani Brothers can establish a good relationship with the community early on is by continuing to provide workers with good wages and benefits and by hiring locally.

“We have plenty of qualified people who have been part of the industry for years, so we’re hoping that by hiring local they’ll continue our small-town feel,” he said.

Sinenci’s father, Stephen, started as a cook and eventually became the food and beverage manager at what was then the Hotel Hana-Maui in the 1970s and ’80s. In those days, guests often returned and brought their families, “so we would actually kind of grow up with some of the guests that came, or their kids,” Sinenci recalled. That changed over the years as new owners catered to different demographics, he said.

Paul Fagan of Hana Ranch originally opened the hotel as Ka’uiki Inn in 1946, according to the Hana Ranch website.

The ranch and hotel, initially part of the same property, were sold to the Rosewood Corp. in 1984, then to the Keola Hana-Maui investment group in 1989 and Passport Resorts in 2000. Passport split the two properties in 2001 and in 2010 sold the hotel to Green Tea LLC, which renamed it Hotel Travaasa Hana, the website said.

With a staff of 185, Travaasa is the single largest employer in Hana, said Aina, the manager.

“We have a great social responsibility to the community, and it is really important to us that we run a successful and responsible business so we can continue to support the families in Hana,” Aina said. “We’re hoping that this new partnership will help us continue down that path of continuously providing jobs with good benefits, and they have indicated that that’s their intention.”

Aina, who’s worked at the hotel for 12 years, said she’s already encouraged by the company’s efforts to meet with staff.

“I think they’ve already started to show good faith in us by coming out and just meeting with the team,” Aina said. “Before they initiate a plan, asking the team members and the staff what has worked and what hasn’t worked. . . . It really shows that they value the team, and that has already shown some good faith about them and has put them in a different category than our broad perception of Mainland companies.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.