President, Waikiki Beach Services LLC
Selected to be part of the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) Enterprising Women of Color Business Center’s Small Business Marketing Bootcamp; business and financial counseling client
Traci Bush and her father Ted share an incredibly special bond through their mutual love of the water, particularly Hawaiʻi’s famous Waikīkī beach on the island of Oʻahu. It all began when Ted developed a strong passion for the beach and surfing as a young adult and decided to leave college to pursue working for Waikīkī Beach Services. He went on to become the youngest canoe captain in Waikīkī at just 21 years old and eventually took over the company, which is now the oldest beach service and surf school in Waikīkī.
While Traci spent several years on the continent for college and working at the Starbucks corporate offices, her love for Waikīkī was always calling to her, and in 2008, she begged her father for a job on the beach and was given the opportunity to work alongside him.
“At first, I did a lot of the grunt work to earn a spot on the team and was eventually entrusted with running one of our beach stands. In 2010, we were offered a chance to bid for the beach services at the Royal Hawaiian hotel and I helped my dad put together our presentation. We ended up getting the contract, which was really exciting and a very big deal for us,” Traci recalled. “It was my first time working with my dad on a proposal and meeting the executives at the hotel and ownership level—it was really just my first time being involved in that side of the business at all. A few years after, we were invited to bid for work at the Sheraton Waikīkī, and the contract got bigger to include the beach services and the pool department. Instead of being a small surf school, we became a full-service beach and pool operation and grew rapidly from 15 to 80 employees over the course of a few years.”
As the company expanded, Traci’s father relied on her expertise in large organizations and project management, while he was the “Mr. Aloha” figure who provided the emotional connection to employees, customers, and clients. Today, Waikīkī Beach Services offers a variety of lessons, equipment rentals, and other services to guests of the Royal Hawaiian and Sheraton Waikīkī hotels, while also operating a retail store in the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian hotel.
Succession plans for Traci to take the helm of the company were unexpectedly accelerated in 2020 when Ted needed to step back from the company to focus on his health. “It took time to earn the respect of everyone in this new leadership role. It took putting in blood, sweat and tears and working shoulder-to-shoulder with my team to get to where we are today,” Traci said. “We still operate in a very male-centric industry, and it took small, consistent steps to gain everyone’s buy-in and trust.”
Waikīkī is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Hawaiʻi, attracting visitors from the continent and abroad, and there are many companies vying for their piece of the pie. Traci points to the culture of Waikīkī Beach Services for the company’s prosperity. “For us, it’s not about the bottom line or the profit; it’s about this being a way of life for us,” she explained. “Waikīkī is so special and important to us, and I think that’s what sets us apart from other operators that might be able to do what we do—it’s our love and passion for that small part of Oʻahu. Over the years, we’ve made it our mission to continue the beach boy tradition of teaching visitors about our love and passion for surfing and canoe surfing—especially for the outrigger canoe, which is an integral part of the Hawaiian and Polynesian community.”
Moreover, the synergy between Ted, Traci, their team, customers, and the community has created a positive work environment that’s reflected in the work everyone does. “It’s a very good feeling when I get the feedback that my staff is excited, happy to be there, and stoked to share what they do,” Traci said. “You can’t always say that in every job or business.”
Traci also credits her father for exemplifying many of the company’s values that she and her team continue to expand upon. “He is the quintessential Waikīkī beach boy—a canoe captain who charged big waves, treated everyone with respect, and would give everything away for free if he could,” she said, noting that even while not at the helm of the company, he still goes to the beach every morning to watch the waves and surfers.
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Traci received many updates from the U.S. Small Business Administration and followed a trail that led her to the MBDA Enterprising Women of Color Business Center. She has since signed up for various classes, participated in the Small Business Marketing Bootcamp, and received business and financial counseling. “I wish I had known about you guys earlier,” she said. “It’s been a tremendous resource and I’ve recommended the Center to other women business owners. It can be lonely, frustrating, and isolating to be a business owner and a female on top of that. The classes have been invaluable, I’ve been able to reach out to other women, commiserate and laugh with them, and build relationships.”
Just before the pandemic hit, Traci and her father had been busy working on a nonprofit organization called Friends of Waikīkī Beach, which aims to recognize and honor the stewards of the iconic area. As business recovery settles, she plans to focus her time and energy on that work, as well as getting involved with other nonprofits to work with youth education.
To her fellow woman entrepreneurs and small business owners, Traci offers the following advice: “Don’t be afraid to reach out. Ask for help. Use your resources. That was my biggest lesson in all of this. If I had known this was here or reached out earlier, I wouldn’t have those moments of, ‘Oh god, what am I doing? I feel so lost.’ It’s hard to raise your hand and say, ‘I don’t know.’ There are so many resources out there that want to step in and help or be an ear to listen. So many others are going through the same thing and you wouldn’t know unless you put yourself out there.”