Q&A with Jeff Wagoner Outrigger Hotels & Resorts

When hospitality is in the blood, there’s no denying it. This is true for Jeff Wagoner, president/CEO, Outrigger Hotels & Resorts. His mom got bit by the hospitality bug first, working in the corporate offices of Marriott International and he’d innocently tag along. Thanks to this experience, Wagoner received an early view of the industry and it captured his interest. Eventually, he’d make it official as a front-desk agent at a Marriott in Los Angeles. Being young and ready to make his mark, there was opportunity galore. “I’m competitive by nature and played a lot of sports growing up. It became a career I wanted to choose,” he said. Gradually, he built a solid career. Today, Wagoner has two years under his belt at Outrigger. 

Hotel Business spoke with Wagoner about the opportunity proposition of the hospitality industry and the meaningful work his team is doing to help the communities where Outrigger’s hotels reside.

What’s in your leadership toolbox and how are you using these tools to bring the brand into the future? One of the things we’ve done is to create a strategic plan for our company, and that plan has been discussed and reviewed internally with everyone in the corporate office and everyone in each of the hotels. It’s a fantastic roadmap and we’re all paddling in the same direction.

There are five elements of our strategic plan: First, we strive to be best in class. We have to be good foundationally as operators and revenue generators. Second, we need to be good partners, whether it’s the wholesaler, OTAs or owners of our properties. Third, we are focused on elevating the properties. The quality of the hotels needs to be good, which means renovations. The Waikiki Beachcomber By Outrigger has undergone a $35-million dollar transformation. The fourth goal is growth and that’s about our growth strategy, bringing on additional properties. And fifth, is to be a great brand. You can see that being a great brand is a culmination of the other four elements.

We ask ourselves, “Are we ready to grow?” And, when everything else has been done well, the answer is yes. We just acquired a new property—Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay—which is set to close on April 15.

You’ve been in the role for two years. What challenges are you facing? From a challenge perspective, something the industry is facing in general is cost. When you’re at this time of any cycle in the industry and not seeing the kind of average rate growth we all like to see on regular basis, but costs continue to escalate, then that’s a challenge to keep an eye on it to ensure those costs don’t begin to erode the profitability of our industry.

What do you like best about your role? Our industry is about making memories for guests. Being a resort brand is the ultimate because every day you have people coming to a location like Fiji, Phuket or Waikiki and they’re vacationing and having a great time. The ability to hold this type of role is wonderful because what the people are doing here makes my day. I wake up every day and can’t wait to get to work.

Outrigger’s sustainability efforts are going beyond the standard. Please share details of the brand’s latest initiative.  Sustainability is a buzzword in the industry today and for us Ozone—which means Outrigger Zone—is deeper than reducing the use of plastic water bottles and using paper straws. It’s exciting. Outrigger properties are based in areas that are very special locations, and protecting those areas is important.

Take coral, for example, and reefs where coral might be growing. We are educating guests and locals on ways to protect the coral and we’ve created programs to grow coral in certain locations. In Fiji, guests can visit Outrigger’s Castaway Island, Fiji Resort and take part in a signature experience, which is working with Outrigger staff to help grow coral. What makes this experience special is that returning guests can see how much the coral has grown.

We’ve planted 100 football fields of coral. It’s about what’s happening in our oceans and the environment. We’re out there protecting it.

Along with the coral program, we are promoting the use of safer sunscreen and educating guests of the impact of chemical sunscreen on marine life.

Where do you expect the brand to be in five to 10 years through your leadership? I think that developing the roadmap was a nice start. Our mission is to execute on the strategic plan and create a great brand. I see a significant growth opportunity in this brand and I believe our plan is to be the premier beach resort in the world. We will be looked at as model within the resort industry in the future.

The Outrigger brand is very authentic and it is not cookie-cutter in any way. For the renovation of the Waikiki Beachcomber By Outrigger, we highlighted the Beachcomber Originals where we worked with 12 social media influencers and tastemakers to help curate the look, feel, sound and taste of here.

An artist named Makana helped create the signature salad. Erin Ibarra painted a flower mural on every guestroom floor all the way up to the 25th floor. It’s called the Floors of Flora. We are bringing authenticity to a place, and it differentiates our brand from the others. HB