Kona Stories and Tips

The Two Faces of Condotels

"Condotel" is a word that has been cropping up more and more in the last few years as an alternative to hotels while vacationing. I learned firsthand that Hawaii is rife with them. Originally touted as an alternative to luxury hotels and resorts, the term has come to mean any hotel-to-condo conversion that caters to vacationers.

What is a condotel?

When an aging hotel is losing money, a developer comes along and buys it up, paying for upgrades and room conversions. Usually, an on-site property management company is then hired to run a front desk and handle maintenance and room booking for unit owners. The rooms are sold as "condos," sometimes with a retrofitted kitchen or kitchenette, and sometimes with the same amenities you would find in any mid-range hotel room. But because units are individually owned, room quality can vary from scary to luxurious. Although the original idea was to compete with high-end hotels and offer frequent guests an inexpensive way to own a vacation home, it was quickly latched onto by developers who bought up smaller properties, did a shabby renovation, and turned the units over quickly.

According the 2/12/05 edition of the Honolulu Advertiser, 90% of condotel units are sold to investors, not vacationers.

An unwitting traveler may also be in for a surprise when they rent a "condo" expecting exactly that--a small vacation apartment equipped with the basic amenities of home that will make their stay more comfortable than being in a hotel. Unfortunately, a condotel unit may or may not bear a resemblance to a traditional condo. The condotel unit we stayed in, for example, came with what was described as a kitchenette. I have seen kitchenettes and even lived with a few, and this was no kitchenette. It has a microwave, refrigerator, and coffee maker, just as you would expect to find in any mid-range hotel. Fortunately, I had done my research, so I knew in advance it wasn't really set up for cooking, but I heard other guests complaining to the office staff that the term "kitchenette" was misleading. I agree.

Another pitfall is that room quality can vary between units, because often individual owners are not held to quality standards by the property management firm. When I booked this over the phone, the lady told me she had a 2- star room with an ocean view, or a 4-star room with a garden view, for the same price ($89 per night). The rating system was explained to me this way: Since each unit is individually owned, the property management firm had no control over things like how often a unit is painted, what kind of furnishings it would have, etc. Each room is equipped with a microwave, fridge, coffee maker, cable TV, and phone. Everything else could vary by owner.

In order to give guests options, the units are rated from one to four stars, four being the best. Now, really, how much difference could there be between two and four stars? I figured that perhaps the furnishings would be older, or maybe it would need carpet, but I preferred a room with an ocean view, so I opted for the two-star room. Upon arrival, we were given room 148.

Boy, was I wrong about that rating system. Room 148 was a dump--no doubt about it. The furniture consisted of a beat-up dresser that looked like someone pulled it out of a thrift store dumpster, a 30-year-old rattan couch that smelled like mold and pee, and a bed. The sheets were clean--I checked.

The worst part, though, was the smell. I can only explain it by saying that if you put a wet bath towel in a hamper and sealed it up in front of a sunny window, after a week it wouldn't even come close to smelling as bad as this room did. My husband's eyes literally started watering, and he had to go sit outside.

I went to the office and explained, politely, that although I knew we weren't getting a fancy room, the smell really was horrible, and was there any chance we could move? The staff was very apologetic, and fortunately, there was another room available with a garden view and four-star rating. So we moved to room 205.

What a difference--it was like night and day. This room had lovely furnishings with a homey touch, a couch that didn't reek, fairly new paint and carpet, and a ceiling fan to circulate the air and keep the mold smells at bay. It was a nice place to spend the week at a reasonable price.

We were lucky. If they had had no other rooms available, we would have been stuck in that first dump they put us in.

We weren't the only ones who had this experience. The week before, a friend checked into another condotel unit up the street that had been reserved for a week. It was as bad, if not worse, than Room 148, and the office staff refused to give him another room. He checked out and went across the street to the King Kamehmeha Hotel at twice the price.

What does a traveler need to know?

When booking a condotel unit, try to deal directly with the property management company, or better yet, the owner, and not a third party. Ask which unit you will be in and if pictures are available. Many have pictures of individual units online now. Make sure the room amenities are clearly spelled out: What are the kitchen facilities in that unit? Are dishes provided? How about dishwashing supplies, toilet paper, and maid service? Are there laundry facilities on the property? Pool or other amenities? Make sure everything is clearly defined in advance, and I cannot stress enough that pictures will tell the story.

Don't be discouraged--condotels are a great budget alternative. We paid $89 per night in area where the rooms start at $200. We knew in advance what to expect in the way of a kitchen, and once we moved out of the room from hell, we had a really wonderful stay. But forewarned is forearmed--don't get taken in by a slick sales staff, ask tons of questions, and insist on pictures of everything.

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