[Although Bitsy Kelley is no longer part of the Outrigger organization after it was sold to KSL Resorts, this interview still shows Bitsy's passion and commitment to Hawaii, the environment, and the hospitality industry.]
Instead of just doing a question/answer interview format, I decided to write an essay that highlights the many topics covered in my interview with Bitsy Kelley who graciously spent an hour with me on my recent trip to Oahu to attend the Waikiki SPAMJam.
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There is light within Bitsy Kelley. She is effervescent. There is a constant smile in her eyes. She is warm, friendly, and gracious, and above all, she is passionate.
Whether she is speaking about her family, Outrigger Resorts, food, or travel, the passion (and quite frankly joy) is ever-present. Unexpectedly, there don’t seem to be any compartments in her life, everything blends. She works hard, plays hard, and enjoys life. Balance is very important to her.
I feel a little bit inspired and a lot blessed to have had an opportunity to speak with Bitsy and get to know her a little better.
Bitsy is the third generation of Kelley’s helping to run Outrigger hotels. Her grandparents, Roy and Estelle Kelley built the Outrigger and raised their family – Bitsy’s father and two sisters in Oahu. And in turn, her parents raised her and her four siblings on the islands as well.
The Outrigger Resort was their home and their playground and all the kids worked in the hotel. From folding laundry to washing dishes, they did everything and learned about the business from the ground up.
Later when Bitsy’s father took over the helm he continued to grow the business and expand it to other islands in Hawaii. Bitsy's father, Chairman Emeritus Richard Kelley, still participates in the business, particularly when it involves, the global travel industry such as his recent trip with Bitsy to the World Travel & Tourism Council’s annual Global Summit, something he covered in his weekly blog series! (He's a blogger!)
As the third generation began leading the company, expansion continued East of tropical areas and there are Outrigger Resort properties in Thailand, Fiji, Bali, Guam, and Mauritius (see full list here) with properties coming to Vietnam and the Maldives.
Family is woven into every fiber of history in every generation. No law says you have to work in the company business. Instead, Bitsy’s father encouraged all his children to pursue their interests passionately. The one thing he stressed was education and all the Kelly children have undergraduate and advanced degrees.
Bitsy left the islands for a decade to pursue her education and her interests. She worked in media and communications, which included stints in TV and radio. She had her own outdoor adventures show based out of the Portland area and advocated for family activities.
Eventually, the call of family and the desire to be closer to her grandchildren brought her back to Oahu. The role of the family is a principal driver in the Kelly clan. In fact, all of Kelly’s siblings live right next to each other on the beach. They respect individual family time, but also spend a lot of time together.
Many mornings she will look out her window while enjoying a cup of coffee and will see her brother out surfing and she will often grab her board and join her.
Bitsy indicated that the success of the Kelly family has been that they have figured out how to work together. She said, “There is the family business and then there is the business of the family.” Open communication and transparency have allowed her family and the Outrigger family business to thrive for three generations with eyes to the fourth.
This earnest sincerity is an underlying current that flows underneath the Outrigger brand. The culture is centered around Ke ‘Ano Wa'a, the combination of HOST + GUEST + PLACE. Their single-handed focus is to integrate and celebrate the local culture wherever their properties exist.
And sometimes where it doesn’t.
For example, when Outrigger Resorts opened in Guam, the Guamanian culture was nearly extinct. So working together with local leaders they began re-educating and revitalizing customs, cuisine, and culture. They put artwork on the property and introduced local dishes to the menu,
There is a symbiosis that exists between host, visitor, and place that allows culture to thrive. And that is where the Outrigger likes to be.
Given Bitsy’s preference for what I call “the circle of life,” you can see why she would be so passionate about this topic. To say she is a foodie is putting it mildly. Bitsy strongly believes in knowing where her food comes from. She truly celebrates and embraces the land.
She has farmed on the mainland and is a hunter who not only knows how to cook what she hunts but prepares it from start to finish.
She is an avid home cook who takes advantage of nature’s bounty to create delicious meals, including BBQ’ing. When she doesn’t know how to do something – say canning, she will study YouTube videos for hours until she gets it and then dives headfirst into trying it out for herself.
It is her passion for food and local culture that sparked the idea that eventually convinced Hormel to move their SPAMJam festival to Waikiki. While cooking breakfasts for the Outrigger housekeepers to celebrate Housekeeping Week, she had the epiphany that if there was to be a SPAM festival anywhere in the world, it needed to be in Hawaii. And through persistence and might, it happened! [Read about my experience at SPAMJam.]
It is that same foodie nature that had her asking the chef of Outrigger’s Mauritius property if she could go back to the kitchen and learn how to make some of the delicious meals he had been making her during a site visit. (Here is also a great interview with Chef Baastian from Rosie Gohres)
And when I asked her about her favorite food-related vacation she talked about a family vacation on a peniche along the canals of France where she lived off of cheese and charcuterie and wine…a woman after my own Francophile heart.
All this to say that Bitsy Kelly is one cool chick.
Bitsy comes from a long line of inspirational women. Her grandmother was an equal partner with her grandfather in running the business. Her grandmother on her mother’s side was a nurse and heavily involved in the community in Santa Rosa, California. Her mother who died when Bitsy was quite young was a pilot. She had licenses to fly every type of flying machine possible and was a real go-getter.
Instead of being a burden, it is a source of strength. The pride in her heritage, both in their family and on her island, seeps through everything Bitsy does and in every word she speaks.
Not only do Outrigger Resorts want to make the islands they host exceptional local experiences, but they want to make the world a better place. Through Bitsy, I learned about an upcoming conference of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) focused on global environmental issues.
It is the first time in its 60-year history that the United States has invited the organization to meet on American soil and Oahu was selected as the host city. Bitsy is very keen on participating in the convention and promises its future.
If I wasn’t convinced by my pleasant stay at the Outrigger Waikiki, after spending time with Bitsy and observing her throughout my weekend, I am convinced that the Kelley family is genuinely interested in preserving local culture, local cuisine, and local customs wherever their properties exist and nothing could be more important in the hospitality industry than that.
Ke ‘Ano Wa'a could definitely be a new religion. And Bitsy Kelley the new movement’s leader!
This interview took place during my sponsored weekend with Outrigger Resorts. Thank you, Bitsy and Outrigger Resorts for inviting me to Oahu to experience the Waikiki SPAMJam. And thanks to AlaskaAir for transporting to and from the islands.