Waikiki's Iconic Ilikai Hotel Closes

The Y-shaped Ilikai hotel that has graced the Waikiki skyline for nearly five decades and hosted everyone from U.S. presidents to Elvis Presley has closed.

The new owner ceased hotel operations on the iconic property on Thursday because of mounting operating losses.

The 30-story Ilikai was considered Hawaii’s first luxury high-rise hotel when it opened in 1964. It gained prominence in the 1970s when it was featured in the opening sequence of the hit TV series “Hawaii Five-0.”

However, by Thursday afternoon, the open-air lobby had turned into a virtual ghost town as the last guests checked out and were relocated to other hotels. Ballrooms and several shops had already been closed for years. The condos and time-share units will not be affected.

Arnal Chandra, of San Francisco, was one of the last guests to check out. Chandra, who has stayed at the Ilikai every two months or so for business, said he’ll miss the hotel and employees he’s gotten to know personally.

“The service is always great,” he said. “It’s very sad to know they won’t be here or I won’t be able to come back to this hotel and see them.”

The final hours for the roughly 75 full-time employees who abruptly lost their jobs were filled with hugs, picture taking and emotions. Wearing bright floral leis and black buttons to show support for their union, they tearfully turned in their hotel ID cards and uniforms before they punched out one last time and were handed their final paycheck.

New York-based iStar Financial Inc., which acquired the hotel for $51 million at a foreclosure auction in May, hasn’t indicated what it will do with the 203 hotel rooms in the 1,000-unit hotel-condo-timeshare property. It announced the closure Tuesday.

“It’s a shock to us. We never thought we would be on the streets tomorrow,” said guest services employee Joli Tokusato. “A lot of us have worked here for so long, we don’t know how to write resumes any more and the job market is extremely tight, so a lot of us are very, very scared for what the future might hold.”

While holding back her tears, Tokusato cheerfully assisted guests behind the granite desk she stood behind for so long. She began her career 19 years ago as a “pool girl.”

“I have an empty feeling right now,” she said, adding that her fellow workers are like family.

The employees expressed frustration about how a vibrant, successful 800-room hotel operation has been dismantled, sold off in pieces as time shares and forced into foreclosure in just three years by former owner Brian Anderson.

Many still hold out hope that the new owner will reopen the Ilikai with the same employees. However, many fear the iStar will open the Ilikai with a non-unionized work force.

iStar did not return a phone message Thursday seeking comment.

Bellman Bob Kong has worked at the hotel since 1978 and said he loved his job and serving countless honeymooners, vacationers from around the world and celebrities. As evidence of his always-on-the-go job, the 56-year-old Kong nearly looks like a man half his age.

“I was six years from retirement. Now I don’t have a job,” said Kong, who’s worried about being able to pay for medical benefits and find a new job to support his three children and mortgage in high-priced Hawaii. “It looks pretty grim.”

Besides presidents and Presley, former guests who stayed at the Ilikai include Stevie Wonder, Lucille Ball, Mickey Mantle, Redd Foxx and many other celebrities.