Lessons From The Private Isle

Larry Price
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Wednesday - July 01, 2009
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The Hawaiian Islands all have their own secrets and outstanding attractions. The Big Island, the largest, is complete with volcanoes and nationally renowned observatories. Maui, the Valley Isle, has lush valleys, a world-famous volcano of its own, and the most rare plant in the state, the silver-sword, which only grows on the slopes of Haleakala. Kauai, the Garden Isle, is favored by filmmakers, and Molokai, the Friendly Isle, now claims Hawaii’s only saint, Father Damien. Niihau is the Forbidden Isle because it is closed off from the world, and is the only reservation in the world for the preservation of all things Hawaiian.

Then there is Lanai, known by its new name, the Private Island. Lanai has a lot of secrets. Legend has it that in the 1500s Ka’ulula’au, the mischievous son of a Maui chief named Kaka’alaneo, was sent to the then-uninhabited island of Lanai as punishment for a careless mishap. At the time, so says the tale, the island was home to many evil spirits, and a place where no one wanted to go. Ka’ulula’au had no choice, and upon arriving rid the island of its evil spirit and sent word back to Maui, and in short order the island became populated with willing residents.


The biggest challenge for the island of Lanai was to build a sustainable economy. By the 20th century everyone was convinced that cattle and sugarcane weren’t going to succeed on the island, and many frustrated residents left.

James Dole arrived on Lanai in 1922 and purchased the entire island for $1.1 million, with the intent of turning it into a pineapple plantation - and he did just that. The venture was so successful that, in short order, Lanai was producer of a quarter of the world’s pineapples. The pineapple crop was so successful, Dole built a plantation camp in the flatlands and as the island thrived, the plantation camp became known as Lanai City and the island became known around the world as “The Pineapple Island.”

In the late 1980s the pineapple business was no longer a profit-maker, the plantation closed and most of Lanai’s residents left for other employment opportunities. With only 3,000 residents remaining, Lanai gave up its name and became the “Private Island.” Luckily for Lanai, in 2000 David Murdock purchased 98 percent of the island with a vision of reviving it and training and employing the remaining residents in the field of hospitality. Imagine training farm workers to provide world-class customer service to the elite travelers of the world!


The rest is history. Lanai has now emerged on the economic landscape as a world-class vacation destination with the Four Season Resort at Manele Bay and Four Seasons Lodge at Koele, along with two championship golf courses, which are among the best in the state. Billionaire Bill Gates chose to get married at the 12th tee at Manele Bay, and the Lodge at Koele attracts some of the most famous people in the world.

So what’s the lesson from “The Private Island?” All of the whims and desires of these famous people are catered to by former plantation workers! No one is really sure how the management of the Four Seasons Resort trained all these workers, but they did it and in the process saved the island. It has to be one of the miracles in customer service, anywhere.

Someday, the story of Lanai’s work force will be shared with other islands and communities that lose their economic base and languish in despair. These workers would be well-served to take a look at how the farm workers on Lanai made the best out of a real tough situation. It was probably all about attitude.

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