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The transformation at Turtle Bay

Lessons learned from developing Whistler are implemented in Hawaii
TURTLE TEMPATION Replay Resorts used its Whistler experience to transform the Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu's North Shore. Photo SUBMITTED by Cameron Brooks

Halfway down a road near the top of one of the world's most famous coastlines is a small booth. The windows are all boarded up — its presence alludes to both a literal and figurative example of the changes taking place further down that road.

The booth is where guards used to sit and turn people away if they were not guests of the hotel at Turtle Bay Resort. Nowadays, with the gate removed and the guard's perch uninhabited, the hut is one of the only reminders that just a few years ago, the attitude here toward guest and local interaction was vastly different to what it has become today.

At the root of that change is Replay Resorts — a company with deep ties to Whistler.

After going bankrupt in 2007, Turtle Bay Resort's owners enlisted the help of Replay Resorts to get the nearly 40-year-old resort thriving once again. Doing so would be no easy task — with the economic crisis shifting people's travel patterns, Replay had its work cut out for it. However, the members of Replay had earned their stripes in resort development with one of the greatest examples of putting a vision into reality, right here in Whistler, B.C.

Founded by Intrawest's Joe Houssian ,the executive team at Replay Resorts is mostly comprised of former Intrawest executives who, after selling the company, wanted to perpetuate the momentum as one of the world's premier resort development groups.

CEO Michael Coyle explained their business concept as a "three-legged stool" of operations, development and experience creation.

"We cut our teeth building Intrawest and spending a lot of time at Whistler," Coyle says. "We got an understanding there of what the customer wants, and how the customer is evolving and how connected that experience needs to be to the locals. The highest compliment you can pay a guest in a destination like this is to mistake them for a local."

For most of its 42-year history, Turtle Bay has been marketed as an exclusive enclave for wealthy vacation goers who generally did not leave the resort grounds during their stay. Two golf courses, tennis courts, a pool, beach access, and some food and drinks were the only activities needed to occupy the vacationer's time.

Despite being home to some of the most famous surf breaks in the world, the resort's incredible proximity to places like Sunset Beach, Pipeline, and Waimea Bay were seen as more of a nuisance than an asset. Although the beach was considered public access, security was quick and authoritative towards anyone with a surfboard in their hand outside the public right-of-way.

But for all the challenges the Replay team faces, they seem to be succeeding, step-by-step.

Just ask Rocky Canon, a Jack-of-all-trades who, among other roles, teaches surfing from the hotel's surf school. He has seen the hotel change hands many times over his lifetime.

"It was well known that locals were discouraged from coming here — even though the beaches were supposed to be public access. If you wanted to surf here or go in the water, you'd have to come up to the gate and almost argue or fight for your way to get in. And that's not how it's supposed to be. I think Replay had seen that such a wall had been built up between the resort and the community that they had to chip away at it, and slowly but surely, I've been seeing that wall get smaller and smaller every day."

One of the main people entrusted with the turnaround is Skip Taylor — that's a name that should ring a bell for many in the Sea to Sky corridor, as he was one of the original founders of Crankworx. This world-renowned, culture-shifting event is now one of the busiest moneymaking periods for the entire year for the resort. Taylor has been hired by Replay to be part of the "Experience Creation" aspect of the resort.

"We are taking our learning from the mountain-resort world and bringing it here to the North Shore," says Taylor.

"We don't want tourists here, we want people who want to feel the ways of the place. Whether you are a surfer, or whether you want to just watch them, we want you here. Nowadays we are a very atypical beach resort — we are embracing the community and the culture of the waterman."

While some might dismiss Replay's goals as mere hopeful marketing jargon, the proof is apparent when you walk around the resort.

A newly minted relationship with Surfer magazine has created a partnership that includes the bar being branded as Surfer, the Bar, with weekly "Talk Story" events showcasing some North Shore legends live, as well as online to a worldwide webcast audience.

The Surfer Poll Awards, often referred to as "the Academy Awards of Surfing," have taken place at the resort for the past three years. Pro surfers are often seen in the lobby, and even in the water — last year's surfing world champ Joel Parkinson and I were in a conversation about how good the "Disco's" break looked from the window of Surfer the Bar during the press conference for the Billabong Pipe Masters.

Aside from the surfing world, Turtle Bay has become a centre piece for many active events on the North Shore including the Stand Up Paddle World Tour, Wanderlust yoga and music festival, and the calendar is constantly filling up with local and international events alike. But events are only one aspect of how the resort is integrating with the community.

Turtle Bay sits at the edge of a national marine sanctuary, and is involved in ongoing efforts to highlight that habitat for both locals and guests. The resort has also created the North Shore Guide's Club with the intention of seamless access to some of the North Shore's greatest gems, guided by people who know it best.

On a deeper level, the resort wishes to utilize its land to promote sustainable agriculture in conjunction with the North Shore community land trust. The eventual goal is to provide all the property's food onsite, as well as hosting a farmers' market to help feed the community.

Whether in the water, or on the fertile land next to the mountainside, the evidence suggests that this time around, the resort hopes to be seen as a fixture of North Shore culture, and a hub where guests and the community can interact in all aspects of their daily lives.

At the end of the day, however, development is one of the most important facets of Replay's mission at Turtle Bay. The over 800-acre swath of undeveloped land, most of it only steps from the ocean, translates to big opportunity in the developer's eyes. Ongoing negotiations with the State of Hawaii have met with intense criticism from community members who already feel that the resort's footprint is large enough.

A recent draft negotiation has seen the state offering $40 million to the resort to preserve a large parcel of undeveloped land, while at the same time agreeing to ongoing development that could see hundreds of new homes, and up to two new hotels on site.

The controversial proposal still has many hurdles to overcome — something the team at Replay has extensive experience in from their multiple land deals in Whistler, on the Benchlands and in Creekside.

"We tried our hardest (in Whistler)," says Coyle. "I know that while there were a lot of great things that we did, I know that everything wasn't perfect. And I think that we are getting older, and wiser and we've learned from some of those mistakes."

Time will tell if Replay's culture shift (and nearly $50 million investment from the financiers) will pay off to earn the North Shore community's trust and support of future development.

But for the local community the transformation has already seen some success. The surf industry too appears to be a winner, as it now has an active home during its six-week pro contest season —the resort has become a hub for people to stay, do business, and let loose.

But, like any situation involving land and money, Turtle Bay's redevelopment has its proponents and opponents. Convincing those opponents that the inevitable development will be conducive to the relaxed-paced island culture will prove to be one of Replay's largest hurdles to overcome.

As Turtle Bay's Canon says: "Respect, patience, and a good sense of what 'Aloha' really means is important when coming to the North Shore."

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