By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
Honolulu --- Belfast ex-pat Noel Trainor reckons he knows half the people on the island of Hawaii's most populated island, Oahu.
At my estimate, a half-hour into our interview at a Honolulu shopping center, when he's been interrupted three times by smiling friends, I suspect it's probably closer to two-thirds.
Which is what you might expect from a dynamo who spent the best part of the last two decades heading up the most prestigious hotel in Honolulu's spectacular Waikiki district.
For if tourism is God in the sun-kissed Pacific Ocean archipelago, then the loquacious father-of-two is one
of its high-priests.
But it all began the hard way for Trainor when, barely the age of an altar boy, he was hired at Belfast's famous International Hotel (later a British Army barracks) as a busboy. From there, he was poached by leading hotelier Billy Hastings for his five-star Culloden Hotel before being put in charge at the Hastings-owned Ballygally Castle on the Antrim coast.
"From the first moment I was able to meet and greet customers, it was like a clarion call for me," he says.
"I knew this was what I wanted to do."
Spells in the global cauldrons of hotel training, Switzerland and Bermuda, followed from 1972-79. "I wasn't afraid of hard work and as hotel jobs offered free board, I never thought twice about moving halfway around the world to take up an opportunity," he says.
So when the call came to Hawaii, 8,000 miles away from home, Trainor didn't hesitate.
"On my first night in Hawaii, I walked up and down Waikiki Beach and just couldn't believe a place like this actually existed."
A short period managing a high-end restaurant in Honolulu led to a key post in a new hotel on the idyllic island of Hawaii, commonly referred to as the Big Island, so-called because it's bigger than the other islands of Hawaii combined.
"I loved dealing with customers and learned the importance of customer recognition, whether it be by name or eye contact
or remembering someone's name," he says.
"When it comes to customer service, the Irish can't help themselves. We come from a culture which treasures conversation and story-telling which is so important when dealing with customers."
Trainor returned to the state capital in 1984 as food and beverage director of the 2,500-room Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel.
"For a wee boy from Ardoyne, it was scary being responsible for all the restaurants, all the kitchens, all the coffee shops and all the catered events, including large-scale productions, banquets catering for 3,500 guests.
"But I stuck to our core values of quality, great service and value for money to ensure we kept our customers satisfied. I was tenacious back then working 14-hours a day but as the years went on, I realized more and more just how important employees are.
"I suppose I started out a general and transcended into a coach."
The fifth of seven children, "always afraid to fail," he found himself driven to achieve more. In 1991, when he was offered the most sought-after job in Hawaii's biggest hotel, manager of the newly-built, 22-acre Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort and Spa on Waikiki beach, he jumped at the chance.
"Our proposition was 'Return to Paradise,' with the emphasis firmly on authentic Hawaiian music and dance. It was a phenomenal time. I was in at the beginning of a project and was able to sit in and learn so much about every different aspect of what started out as a 2,500-bedroom hotel and transformed into a resort with 3,400 bedrooms including all Suite Resort Time Share.
"I loved the action, every moment of it, and found that I was very good with customers, especially with the dissatisfied customer.
"In those cases, I went out of my way to apologize for those things which had made them unhappy and explained what we were going to do to correct our mistakes and compensate them. My philosophy was that we were there in the service of others which is an honorable profession."
Trainor took the same approach to the hotel unions, listening to their concerns and responding sympathetically. "Sometimes you have to give more than you get, in business and in life, if you want respect and loyalty," he says.
His tenure at the helm of the Hilton came to an end with the private equity buy-out of the hotel chain by Blackstone in 2007.
Still restless and exuding energy, Trainor now heads up some of Hawaii's biggest not-for-profits while
running his own tourism consultancy, one which boasts a logo marrying Celtic and Hawaiian design.
"For me, the detail always has meaning, I see a value in my Irish heritage. After all, everyone wants to be
At the Hilton, Trainor created a special bread which became a signature item, a cross between a barnbrack
and soda bread based on a recipe from his (late) mother.
"People stop me all the time and say, 'we miss your Irish soda bread since you left the Hilton,'" he
And his love for Irish culture has given him a deep understanding of the importance of the native Hawaiian heritage.
"I am supporting efforts to set up a culinary school in Hawaii which, with world-class facilities, would draw on the very best of local culture. For Hawaiians, their culture is like a religion. It's what makes this place special and unique.
"If you've a hotel in Waterford rather than Watford, you'd like people to see the difference when they visit. And it's
the same with the Hawaiian Hilton Village, we wanted our guests to realize immediately that they were in a magical place, Hawaii, and say, 'wow, this is great.'"
As founder of the Hawaiian Foodbank Coalition, Trainor is also putting his management skills to work for those who "are unwell, have family problems and are down on their luck". One million pounds of food per month is provided to the homeless who are attracted to Hawaii's shorefront by its tropical climes and famously tolerant authorities.
Though he has been in Hawaii now for 29 years, Noel still sees Belfast - eleven time zones away - as his home. Truth be told, he has the face of an Irish man too: he's probably the only white person in the state who doesn't have a suntan. He returns to the land of his birth regularly, most recently earlier this year, and is fascinated by the pace of change in the once war-torn city.
He loves to show off Ireland of the welcomes to his family: his native Hawaiian wife Lisa and daughters, Leimoni Noel (20) and Leimana Shannon (13).
"When people ask me where I'm from, I say Ireland," he says, showing the interviewer another link with home which he carries in his pocket: a pendant of Mary Pilgrims of Two Hearts and a Miraculous Medal.
"When I tell my kids that I grew up having so much fun playing piggy on a stick with a coat hanger and the rim of a wheel, they find it hard, in this video age, to believe me.
"But these are the things which make you. And I've no doubt it's my Belfast upbringing which, over a long career, helped me communicate with others and earn their trust while keeping my feet firmly on the ground."
For more background on Noel Trainor, go to www.trainorhawaii.com.