Mr. Fantasy Resort
Christopher Bagwell Hemmeter, 1939-2003
Christopher B. Hemmeter was one of the Aloha State’s most charismatic hotel developers in the 1970s and 1980s, and his influence is perhaps nowhere more evident than at Waikoloa Beach Resort.
It was here that one of his loftiest dreams took shape: the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa. Nowadays operated as Hilton Waikoloa Village, when the sprawling 1,240-room resort opened in September 1988, it was the largest and — built at a cost of $360 million — the most expensive hotel ever built in the islands.
But Hemmeter, who passed away in 2003, was never one to think small. When you spoke with him — whether you were a bank executive considering funding one of his massive projects or a journalist writing a story — you’d listen to his vision and soon come to believe that what he was describing was not only possible, but the best thing ever. It was his gift to dream big and make you dream big right alongside him.
A resort, he said in 1990, “must create a sense of experience. People want more than a room and a bed. Today’s traveler is looking for revival, for newness, for the unexpected. The impact must be greater than the sum of the many parts.”
At Waikoloa, the “experience” Hemmeter sought to impart was created with a combination of art, elegance, and downright fun. Originally sketched on a cocktail napkin, plans included a lagoon where guests could swim with dolphins, a Disneyland-style monorail, boats traveling on a waterway to transport awe-struck guests to their rooms, a crashing waterfall under which one could walk, multiple swimming pools, public spaces filled with Polynesian and Asian art, and themed restaurants with authentic Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and other cuisines of the world.
Opening day dignitaries included “Hawaii” author James Michener, singers Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach, and business and social elites from around the state. It was one of 1988’s most lavish events.
“My dad was a dreamer,” says Hemmeter’s son, Christopher R. Hemmeter, who was given the task of procuring the art collection for the hotels. “I was just out of school, and my dad had this idea; he had seen some Chinese Imperial art when he was on a trip, and he wanted me to go to Asia to collect and commission works we could display around the resorts.”
From the artisans of Bali to the bronze foundries of Bangkok to the marble quarries of Yang Ping — a small village near the Mongolian border where green, black, rose, and white marble has been carved for more than 2000 years — the Hemmeters traveled, often negotiating prices with sign language.
“The scale of the art was often so big,” the younger Hemmeter recalls, “that it sometimes took a while to get our point across. The Chinese horses and carriage down by the meeting rooms at the Hilton, for example, is an oversized replica of a small sculpture my dad had seen. Can you imagine what it took to not only create that piece, but to transport it from Asia to Hawai`i?”
“He totally revolutionized the hotel industry here in Hawai`i,” said Larry Johnson, retired chief executive of the Bank of Hawaii, upon Hemmeter’s passing. “Until he started to build them, hotels were pretty generic — the rooms and lobbies all kind of looked alike. But he had waterfalls and birds and animals and unusual art. Coming to one of Hemmeter’s hotels, you didn’t just get a hotel but an experience.”
Some critics complained that although guests got an experience, it wasn’t an authentic Hawaiian experience. Jerry Hulse, then editor of the L.A. Times travel section, famously compared the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa to Disneyland. “What we have here is another Anaheim,” he wrote in 1990. “All that’s missing is Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, a paddle wheeler and the Matterhorn.”
Hemmeter, undeterred by such criticism, would always reply, “And look how successful Disneyland is.”
He would also frequently point to the flamingo pink Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikīkī Beach. “That also caused quite a stir when it first opened,” he’d say. “Critics said it wasn’t Hawaiian enough, and now it’s the iconic hotel in Waikīkī.”
Hemmeter left Hawai`i in 1990 to pursue development projects on the mainland, ultimately losing much of his wealth on a failed attempt to build a supersize casino in New Orleans.
In Hawai`i, though — having built the Hyatt Regency Waikīkī, the Hyatt Regency Maui, the Westin Maui, Kauai Lagoons, and the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa — his legacy stands as a visionary who contributed greatly to the tourism industry in the state. His resorts created thousands of jobs for the local communities, attracted affluent Japanese tourists, and helped fuel an economic boom in the islands.
As today’s guests of Hilton Waikoloa Village can attest, they are dramatic, magnificent structures that have all stood the test of time. When asked once about the largerthan- life scale of his dreams, he boasted, “Julius Caesar never saw anything like it.”