The U Experience, a company launched by two recent Princeton graduates, invited college students taking online courses at their respective universities to apply for a spot in a Waikiki hotel, but quickly announced that they are postponing their business venture due to pushback about the disregard of health and safety concerns.
For $15,000, college students could live in the hotel-turned-dormitory and enjoy a host of amenities targeted toward college-aged students for the coming Fall semester.
U Experience co-founder Lane Russell said in an interview with CNN’s Michael Smerconish that the company had “gotten explicit support from the communities and government.”
“They haven’t gotten my approval,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said at a press conference Monday. Caldwell said he first learned about the idea last week during a conference call with “the visitor industry.”
Hawaiʻi Gov. David Ige was not familiar with the business venture, Ige’s communications director Cindy McMillan told Ka Leo Monday. According to City Councilman Tommy Waters, whose district includes Waikīkī, the company contacted neither his office nor the Waikīkī Neighborhood Board.
Students would have been tested before they get to “campus,” Russell said in the CNN interview. The U Experience did not respond to a request for comments on Monday. The company’s website describes Russell as “a 2018 Princeton University graduate in Economics and an Ivy League champion in Track and Field.” His business partner, a fellow Princeton graduate and track athlete, is Adam Bragg.
Hawaiʻiʻs Department of Health has reported nine consecutive days of triple digit COVID-19 cases as of Aug. 11, something Hawaiʻi did not see even during the first wave of the pandemic’s arrival to the islands. This week Hawaii became the state with the country’s fastest-growing infection rate, according to an analysis by Honolulu Civil Beat.
Thirty-four deaths have been confirmed by the DOH and while that number might seem exceptionally low compared to the rest of the country, it has been steadily increasing since the recent resurgence of cases.
“We should be very concerned about these commercial efforts that are being proposed without community buy-in, communication with government officials, or solid plans to ensure that our community is kept safe,” Waters said in a statement.
Local people took to social media this week to protest the idea. Company co-founder Adam Bragg posted a photo of a Business Insider article on the venture. One Instagram user commented “Hawaii won't lay down silently boys, hold on tight." A number of other commenters likened the idea to colonialism.
More than 9,000 people signed an online petition by Monday night in opposition to the U Experience venture and a similar project on Maui.
U Experience’s website tantalizes potential applicants with options the company claims to offer: “You’ll wonder whether to take a date to on-campus sushi, go for a day hike up Diamond Head, or button up for a weekend guest lecture series.”
State officials last week ordered all state parks, including Diamond Head State Monument, to close in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. Most beaches and city-owned parks also closed.
Locals and tourists alike cannot access Oʻahu beaches for at least another month, but the company’s website invited students to “compete together with rec sports coordinated on the beach just meters away from the campus front door.” It’s unclear how the company plans to host students on the beach during the city's closure.
In the CNN interview, Russell positioned his company as a response to the “mental health crisis” he said the nation faces in tandem with a coronavirus pandemic. The communal living will apparently alleviate students “thrust into an isolated environment in the months to come,” he said.
The petition and movement through social media has had its intended effects as U Experience released a statement Tuesday announcing the postponement of their novel business idea acknowledging the response from the communities who would be affected.
“We have heard you. While no law prevents us from doing so, we do not intend to move forward and ignore critical voices. Nor, do we intend to abandon Hawaii and those that support and have welcomed this venture. Neither of those two options represent our brand,” U Experience said.
While they acknowledged the “critical voices” concerning the disregard of Hawaiʻi’s health and safety, they refuted the idea that the company was started with opportunistic intent but rather a solution to higher education amid the pandemic.
“This is not an opportunistic venture in response to the pandemic: it is a much needed paradigm shift in higher education, and we need your support to make it happen,” U Experience said.
Most universities in the United States will offer online classes this semester due to the coronavirus pandemic, UH included.
The UH administration recently announced that due to the surge in cases, they strongly encourage students to take online courses unless their degree requires in-person attendance.
The advertisement of the opportunity to continue one′s studies remotely on a beach in the middle of the Pacific has been quickly extinguished. Residents of the islands have made themselves abundantly clear: Hawaiʻi is closed.