Sitting in Aqua Hospitality’s Lotus Honolulu overlooking Diamond Head, Ben Rafter explains what differentiates his hotels from the much-bigger properties dotting adjacent Waikiki Beach—those with more recognizable names such as Hilton, Marriott, and Westin. And that’s the ability to deliver an authentic Hawaiian experience.
“You may want to stay at the Sheraton, you may want to stay at the Hyatt, and that’s great,” says Rafter, president and CEO of the Hawaii-based management company since 2008. “[But] we have localized the experience for people who say … ‘I want a company that may be a little less formal than the corporate rules of a large brand and a little more focused on what’s happening here in Hawaii.’”
Rafter shatters the mold of the large brands with the approach he takes to bringing hotels under the Aqua Hospitality umbrella. On Lanai, the company has the modest Hotel Lanai, which only has 11 guest-rooms. Its two competitors on the island are both Four Seasons resorts.
The 40-something executive, a self-proclaimed “gearhead,” is the driving force behind some stellar growth for Aqua. In January, the company said it was adding five hotels, with a total of more than 850 rooms, to its management portfolio and investing roughly $60 million into renovations.
The additions bring Aqua’s property count to 29. Twenty-seven of those are in Hawaii, where Aqua operates more hotels than anyone else. It’s also the only company to run properties on all six of the islands to which tourists travel: the Big Island of Hawaii, Lanai, Kauai, Maui, Molokai, and Oahu, on which many of Aqua’s properties are located in popular Waikiki. Two of the five latest acquisitions, however, are on faraway Guam.
A good chunk of the $60 million for refurbishments will be spent on an aging, tattered property on the Big Island. Many corporate bosses would probably crinkle their noses after getting a whiff of the 383-room Hilo Naniloa Hotel.
“Hilo’s a difficult market. It’s beautiful, but it rains a lot and there’s not a lot of good hotel product,” Rafter explains. “We’ve believed for years that if you put one great, interesting hotel in Hilo, not only will the community respond extremely favorably, [but] we can bring back a lot of the traffic and travel to Hilo. So to be able to work on that opportunity, to us, is probably more special than it would be to somebody who’s not intimately familiar with Hawaii.
“All properties mean something, but ones [such as the Naniloa] mean something in a way that is not revenue generating,” he continues. “We’re giving back to the community.”
In April, Rafter added president of Aston Hotels & Resorts to his list of job titles. Aqua and Aston share parent company Vacation Holdings Hawaii, a subsidiary of Interval Leisure Group.
Customer service always will be a No. 1 priority for both Aqua and Aston, but data analysis is a close second. “We have tremendous breadth across both companies now in terms of what’s happening in Hawaii and hopefully using that to be able to project where the state and the market are going,” Rafter notes. “I think we’re going to have better insight into what’s happening moving forward, and that carries into revenue management. It carries into projecting, modeling, and budgeting.”
Rafter believes there’s potential for further growth not only in Hawaii and Guam but on the U.S. mainland, too.
“Aqua’s skill set is not designed to run a convention center hotel in Kansas City. We’re not looking for that,” he muses. “But we think our highly localized service works in a lot of the West Coast markets.
“The one thing that holds true above all is that we have to believe that we’re going to create a better return on investment for whoever is backing us,” he concludes.