GM of the Kahala Joe Ibarra: On Early Life, Managing the Hotel, and Direction of Hawaii’s Tourism
by Edwin Quinabo
Before the Four Seasons Resort at Ko Olina and Aulani Disney Resort on West Oahu, or the Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore, there was one resort on the island of Oahu outside of Waikiki – the Kahala (formerly known as the Kahala Hilton when it opened in 1964). Today it’s called the Kahala Hotel & Resort currently owned by Resorttrust Hawaii.
The world-renowned Kahala (5000 Kahala Ave) sits at the end of Oahu’s famous Kahala Avenue coastline that is frequently referred to as the Beverly Hills of Hawaii. For decades the hotel had been the go-to Hawaii destination for royalty, dignitaries, the rich and famous – an exclusive hotel that is close enough to the hustle and bustle of central Honolulu, but adequately distanced away for a quiet, secluded ambiance.
Besides tourists, the Kahala has been host to Hawaii locals for weddings, galas, corporate functions. It has been a favorite staycation for couples and families. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic after the Kahala was closed briefly, it was the local clientele that kept business going at the hotel as the international and mainland tourist market came to a halt.
Joe Ibarra, General Manager (GM) of the Kahala, told the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle “As we navigated the pandemic in March of 2020, our resort closed for two months and with support of our ownership, despite not having domestic and international travel, we opened our doors in June of 2020 to focus on the local kamaaina market.
“We felt it would be our opportunity to re-introduce the Kahala to the locals. We wanted to offer the ability to experience the resort as a guest and to give them an opportunity to relax and enjoy the timeless oasis that is The Kahala.”
Joe said he saw many locals come back month after month, telling him how grateful they were to have a place where they could get away and enjoy. “We were able to build a new market segment and have since doubled our kamaaina bookings from what it was pre-pandemic” Ibarra said.
Ibarra, who took the helm of the resort in 2019, said it was a focus of his to pivot to attracting more locals to the hotel.
His efforts is paying off as the hotel recently won the award for Hawaiiʻs Best, Best Hotel Staycation awarded by the readers of the Star Advertiser.
Attracting more locals is just one change among others that Ibarra envisions for the 338-room luxury resort.
In fact, since the pandemic, the entire tourism and hospitality industry in Hawaii is changing to be more interactive, responsive and involved in Hawaii’s community. Hotels are reaching out more to work with the local community in building sustainability, preserving the environment and teaching visitors our local and Hawaiian culture.
It’s an exciting time for hotel executives like Ibarra to lead a new era of tourism in Hawaii. As the first non-Caucasian, and first Filipino-Hawaiian ancestry GM at the Kahala, Ibarra enriches the leadership pool in Hawaii’s tourism industry that is on its way, some believe, to becoming more pono (proper) and aligned with the values of Hawaii’s local community. It’s no longer just about maximizing tourist numbers, but also about building quality tourism.
How it all started, the making of a visitors and hospitality industry leader
The Kahala hotel executive looks back at two major influences in his life that steered him on his career path. The first, Joe says, was a passion instilled in him by his father Proceso Guzman Ibarra who also worked in the visitors industry.
“My father who came to Hawaii in his late 20s from Sinait, Ilocos Sur, Philippines, worked at the Waikiki Beach Marriott and at his recommendation encouraged me to consider going into hospitality.” Joe said his father started working at the Hawaiian Regent Hotel two weeks before he was born; which he looks at as hotels and hospitality have been part of his entire life.
“As the largest economic driver in the state [tourism] it has provided a roof over my head as a child and continues to do so as an adult, not only for me but for my entire ohana,” Joe said.
He remembers as a youth he and his family participated in the annual Charity Walk and many other hotel sponsored activities. Those were happy times for the Ibarras.
“The Hawaiian Regent Hotel became the Waikiki Beach Marriott in 2000, so eventually when I worked for the hotel it was like coming home to family” Joe said.
Besides the influence his father had, Joe says his education at Kamehameha Schools Kapalama was his second career influencer, another catalyst that sparked his passion for tourism because the Hawaiian culture, its history and practices he learned at the school were aspects that he wanted to share with travelers from around the world.
Going way back, fond memories, close-knit family
Before being accepted to Kamehameha Schools, Joe attended Kaiulani and Kauluwela elementary and spent one year at Central Middle School. “I grew up in Kalihi in my formative years in the low income housing project, Mayor Wright Homes.”
His father worked multiple jobs, in addition to his hotel job. His mother, Violette Mahealani Ah Nee Ibarra, worked for the State of Hawaii Transportation Department in various divisions.
Like many Filipino families in Hawaii, Joe’s father was able to immigrate to the islands because a family member who worked in the sugar plantations sponsored him. That support came from his great uncle Apo Ibarra, Joe mentions with a deep sense of gratitude.
His mother’s family hails from Kapaa, Kauai, but they moved to Oahu when Violette was in elementary school.
“My father being a first generation immigrant meant that our lives were inherently tough. Our family lived paycheck to paycheck, as many families here do, but we always had a roof over our head and food on the table.
“To make ends meet both my parents went to work and my brother, sister and I became latch key children,” Joe said. “We learned independence, and I learned how to cook for a family of five on a budget.”
Joe and his siblings would soon get some help while his parents worked. “My father was able to save enough money and thankfully able to bring both his parents from Sinait, Ilocos Sur to Hawaii.
“My grandparents went to work but were also able to take care of us. Some of my fondest memories are of spending time with my grandmother in her room learning about all my cousins in the Philippines, their names, ages, and hobbies.
Eventually Joe would meet his relatives in the Philippines as a young adult. “I felt like I knew everything about them due to her stories.”
Love for Filipino culture
On growing up Filipino, Joe said he is particularly fond of Filipino food and the Filipino people’s hospitality.
“I love Filipino food. There is nothing like my fatherʻs cooking. It is amazing to have my father be able to cook all my favorite foods. His specialty is his pork guisantes. Although we have many Filipino food options here in Hawaii, no one can duplicate the flavor and taste that comes with my dad’s cooking. It has to be the love he adds as his secret ingredient.”
Yes, love as the magical ingredient that lifts cuisine to another level, like in the film Like Water for Chocolate.
Joe speaks often about his father who he considers his role model. “At a young age I knew that my father worked so hard to provide for us. Although he worked several jobs, on his days off, he made sure that at least one day a month he would take us to the beach, or when in town, the 50th State Farm Fair or other event.
“Before he left for work on the weekends he would give my brother, sister, and I each one dollar so we could buy a snack from the manapua man who came to the housing projects each day. One dollar at that time could get us a drink and a candy bar, and as a child that was everything. It’s those little things I remember fondly, and I am so blessed to have him in my life.”
On Filipino hospitality, he said “There is a reason so many of us are in tourism and hospitality. As a people we are generous and genuinely want to share what we have with everyone. And generally we all love food.
“You can never go to a Filipino household without being asked to have a meal. Then after the meal, we must have the after meal snack (merienda). It is through breaking bread with someone that you truly get to know them and build lasting friendships.”
Home life was stable and secure enough that afforded Joe the discipline, even as a latch key teen, to study hard. After graduating from Kamehameha with honors, he accomplished what many high school graduates only dreamed of – to attend a prestigious Ivy League School.
Joe headed to the prestigious Princeton University in New Jersey where he said it was a period of tremendous growth. “I had never left Hawaii then, besides going to the Philippines for six months when I was two years old with my father. I was 17 years old, very naïve to the world and attending an Ivy league school all the way on the East Coast forced me to grow quickly as an adult.”
Like many locals who go off to study in the mainland, Joe found himself comparing Hawaii customs to mainland customs. But unlike the West Coast that draws abundant similarities to Hawaii, the East Coast is quite foreign to the typical Hawaii teen-young adult. “In Hawaii, we are surrounded with many different people and cultures, but being on the East Coast I was able to further broaden my exposure to other cultures and ways of thinking.” He said at Princeton he also was able to enhance his critical thinking skills and learned about social challenges that exist in other parts of the world.”
In an environment that’s academically competitive, and more so, among the crème dela crème at Princeton, Joe said, “Every person I met was engaged, ready to learn, and in one way or another, each of us wanted to ‘save the world’ in our own way.
“Although opportunities arose to grow on the mainland, I learned how important it would be for me to return to Hawaii and help our island home,” Joe said.
“To help our island home” – remember that, because this goal was not just an empty goal, but something the young Ibarra back then, is realizing at this moment as the fully grown adult Ibarra. (More on that later.)
After Princeton, Joe remained humble and knew he had to pay his dues and work his way up the hospitality industry. His first position was as a phone operator for the Waikiki Beach Marriott. To some, it may seem unfitting for an Ivy League graduate. But pride would not stand in the way for this future GM.
His many line positions after his first gig as a phone operator would give him valuable insight into every aspect of the hospitality industry. Not to mention, the respect from coworkers and colleagues knowing that he started at entry-level.
Four years into his new career he became Front Office Supervisor at the Waikiki Beach Marriot Resort and Spa. Within a year, he was Front Desk Manager. With management experience under his belt, he landed a Reception Manager position at another hotel, the Waikiki EDITION Hotel,
Eight years into his career, Joe got hired at The JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa, Ko Olina (today it’s the Four Seasons Resort) where he held two management positions within a four-year period: Catering & Conference Services Manager (Events Manager) and Front Office Manager. It was a big break of sorts and a sign that he was on the right path.
In 2014, he made it to the Kahala Hotel & Resort where he held various positions prior to becoming GM: Director of Front Office Operations, Director of Rooms, and Resort Manager.
GM: encompassing responsibilities
Now at the pinnacle of the hotel industry as GM in a tourism market (Hawaii) that rivals the best tourism cities in the world, and in a world-renowned hotel in the Kahala, Ibarra finds himself in the position to accomplish what he intended after graduating from Princeton, “to help our island home.”
Internally at the resort, Joe oversees all aspects of hotel operations from housekeeping, engineering, security, front office operations, spa, the six food and beverage outlets, Room Dining and Banquet and Catering operation.
He also focuses on revenue generation, sales, marketing and PR within the community and provide direct support and oversight with the ownership company.
“Helping our island home”- his post-Princeton goal coming to fruition
Besides the Kahala employees and their families that Ibarra’s work directly impacts, as GM for a major hotel as Kahala he is empowered to impact communities and the direction of the tourism industry in the state.
Ibarra was invited to be a part of the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s (HTA) steering committee for the island of Oahu Destination Management Action Plan (DMAP). The initiative brought leaders together offering different views of tourism, its impacts, and to come up with an action plan to improve the industry. That, in effect, touches the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Hawaii workers and businesses, as well as the state treasury.
He explains, “Many people do not understand that tourism is not limited to Waikiki or hotels. Tourism is linked to independent restaurants, tour operators, food suppliers, transportation companies, farmers, and many other things.
“Over 250,000 people on Oʻahu are connected or know someone whose job is linked to the industry. It also generates billions of dollars in tax revenue [over years] which supports government programs which we all benefit from.”
A prescription for improving the visitors industry, he said “if we want the tourism industry to continue to thrive, we must do a better job of building community engagement, getting community input, and thinking of how tourism impacts the different areas of our island.
“As the head of the largest private business in Waialae-Kahala, I can be an example of how we can pivot and put these DMAP action items into practice. This is something that everyone needs to be committed to in order to allow us to affect real change, and it is my belief that The Kahala can lead the way.
“Here at The Kahala we have done a few items to help educate our visitors, and I am hopeful that other resorts and brands that do business in the islands also consider implementing these items,” Ibarra said.
Two projects at the Kahala:
1) Pono Guest Video. Ibarra created an educational video that’s shown to guests teaching them their pono (proper) actions as responsible guests, to ensure they can help to maintain the beauty of the island. “Guests learn how one small action can have larger impacts and that we ask them to join us on our mission of keeping our island home pristine,” Ibarra said.
2) KISCA program (Kahalaʻs Initiative for Sustainability, Culture and the Arts). Guests can donate (optional) a daily fee during their stay which helps support sustainability, environmental, cultural preservation, and arts in Hawaii.
“We offer a myriad of activities for our guests to participate in. These activities are open to the public as we are committed to educating and sharing this knowledge with all and not just those who are staying in the resort.
“I created a video to help share this program with our guests and community. The program helps us toward reforestation as we support the growth of the Kahala legacy forest on the North Shore. Reforestation is one of the best ways to mitigate carbon impacts in our atmosphere,” Ibarra said.
KISCA provides cultural activities, and a monthly seminar where leaders in sustainability can come to the resort to share their work and educate the public and our guests on initiatives that support culture and the environment.
“If we do not preserve our home, the island we know and love now will not exist in the future,” Ibarra said.
Specific to the Resort’s neighborhood community – Joe said, “My goal is that the Kahala be an active participant in our community. He said the Kahala currently engages with the community boards, the organizations surrounding the resort and non-profit organizations in Maunalua Bay such as Malama Maunalua and Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center.
“The Kahala has been a pillar in the Waialae-Kahala community for over 50 years. As the largest private business within this area, I feel it is my kuleana (responsibility) to ensure that the resort plays a role in enhancing the quality of life of our employees and community in the area. There is so much great work being done on the forefronts of sustainability, cultural preservation, and environmentalism. I turned to the Hawaiian land management system (ahupuaa) as guide for the Kahala to partner in reciprocal relationships in our area from mauka (the mountain) to makai (the ocean).”
Advice to our youth
As a business and community leader, Ibarra’s message to Hawaii’s youth: “It does not matter how much or how little money you have. All that matters is that you work hard, focus on what’s right in front of you and take small steps that build toward larger goals.”
He said the life his father and mother provided for him was better than the life they had growing up and that he is so grateful for that.
“Going back to the province of Sinait with my father, I finally understood where he came from. I understood the opportunities right in front of me and I then knew how blessed I was to call Hawaii home. I worked even harder, knowing that my mission was to make my family’s life just a little bit better than I had when I grew up, knowing the sacrifices of the past leads to success in the future. With hard work and perseverance your dreams can come true.”