The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach general manager Douglas Chang gets ready for the luxury property’s O`ahu debut.
Douglas Kahikina Chang, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach, embraces hospitality because it allows him to share the values of his Native Hawaiian culture in a meaningful way that transforms the visitor experience.
But the 55-year-old tourism veteran still remembers when Native Hawaiians and hospitality were in conflict. Early in his 30-year-plus career, Chang says Native Hawaiian hospitality workers often lived in mutually exclusive worlds.
“If you were Native Hawaiian and you worked in tourism in the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn’t something that you proudly proclaimed,” Chang says. “Most of us were entertainers and the role that we played in hospitality wasn’t culturally connected. In some hotels, you couldn’t even use your Hawaiian name on your name tag.”
Fortunately, Chang says he grew up on O`ahu in a visitor industry family at a time when the pendulum was just beginning to swing toward cultural rediscovery. A Kamehameha Schools graduate from the class of 1978, Chang was in high school as the Hokule`a set sail on its historic 1976 voyage. He also danced with the men of Waimapuna, the halau that took the Merrie Monarch grand championship in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
From his family, he learned to be at ease with many different cultures and to embrace the opportunities that tourism brought to the isles. Chang’s great-grandfather Edena Choy Chang came from China to cook for the plantations in Honoka`a, the largest town on the Big Island’s Hamakua Coast. He married a local girl, Priscilla Liana Chang.
“My grandfather was half-Chinese and Hawaiian, my grandmother was almost pure Hawaiian,” Chang says. “My father, Donald Chang, grew up to be a branch manager for Pan American World Airways.
My mother, Marcia Chang, was a school teacher, who was born on the East Coast, but came to Hawai`i on the Lurline when her father was recruited to work at the jeweler Grossman Moody Ltd.”
While Chang’s family was of moderate means, his father’s airline career allowed the family to experience luxury travel and tourism destinations beyond Hawai`i.
“It was the glory days of Pan Am and we always traveled first class,” Chang says. “There was formal white glove service. Since we were the children of employees, we were held to a higher standard. We had to wear coats just to get on the plane.”
Travels with Pan Am took Chang throughout the U.S. West and East Coasts, and to exotic locales like Japan, Hong Kong, Tahiti and Samoa.
“I was one of five kids. If Dad did not work for the airline, we couldn’t have even traveled to those places in economy class,” Chang says. “The experience instilled a desire in my to do whatever I needed to do to be able to afford this lifestyle.”
Chang says he began working as a dishwasher at Kahuku Sugar Mill at 14 and in his later teens took his first visitor industry job as a lei greeter.
“It was a magical time. The jumbo jets had just begun flying to Hawai`i,” he says.
After high school, Chang attended University of Hawai`i at Manoa, where he took international studies classes with the hope of capitalizing on a growing Japanese investment market. He put himself through school working at a private dining club at Century Center under mentor Ken Kono, a classically trained maître d.
“He pushed and pushed for perfection with flair. I learned to have a constant hunger for excellence,” Chang says.
To this day, employees report that Chang’s favorite expression is, “Luxury is in the details, folks.” No doubt, it was this kind of thinking that launched Chang’s hospitality career. An excellent start at Century Center parlayed the way to a job as restaurant manager at Hanalei Bay Resort.
“I quickly moved through the ranks and I never did finish college,” Chang says. “Before my mid 20s, I was the director of food and beverage. By 28, I was the resort’s general manager.”
A chance meeting with renowned Hawaiian activist George Kanahele inspired Chang to use his career to build a bridge between Native Hawaiian culture and hospitality. The late Kanahele believed in connecting tourists to a Hawaiian sense of place. He founded Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association in 1997, which worked to end conflict and bridge the gap between the values of tourism and Native Hawaiians.
“I attended one of George’s conferences and it really sparked something in me,” Chang says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I have a responsibility as a Native Hawaiian, but also an amazing opportunity to do what I love.'”
From there, Chang went on to leadership roles at Kaua`i Marriott Resort & Beach Club, Hotel Hana-Maui, The Ritz-Carlton Club and Residences, The Kapalua Bay, Ritz-Carlton-St.Louis and most recently The Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach. In each instance, he has foraged his own brand of hospitality by embracing the culture of the company and of his native Hawai`i.
“I am fascinated with Mr. Chang’s vision of embracing The Ritz-Carlton culture and enlivening what we stand for as a brand. It parallels to his Native Hawaiian culture,” says Melissa Lee, executive chef at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis.
Lee says Chang mentored her and shared his Native Hawaiian culture with guests and employees in the Midwest. He enchanted them with Hawaiian floral arrangements. His wife, Akiko, often would dress Hawaiian style and sing and play the ‘ukulele. Once, Lee says, the couple even came to the hotel at 4 a.m. to create musubi as a gift for 350 ladies and gentlemen.
“Mr. Chang is the most genuine leader I have had the honor to work with,” she says. “Mr. Chang still inspires me every single day to create life’s most meaningful journeys. His legacy and what I learned will always be with me.”