A new president and CEO at Hawaii-based Aqua Hotels & Resorts, who expects the boutique chain to double the number of hotels within two years, started work today.
The new executive is Ben Rafter, most recently president and chief executive officer of Las Vegas-based TravelWorm, an online travel company that focuses on casino and west coast resort destinations.
Aqua now manages 12 hotels in Waikiki. It’s known for strategies that emphasize service — apples and bottled water at the front desk, free local newspapers and Internet — rather than beachfront resorts with cookie-cutter amenities.
“I really like to think of myself as a start-up and technology guy who stumbled into the hospitality industry,” Rafter said in a telephone interview.
Rafter will work on Aqua’s planned expansion. “We certainly want to double in size within the next couple of years,” Rafter said, most likely starting with properties on Maui and the Big Island and also in California, and globally to Australia and New Zealand.
And what about the challenges of the hotel industry in a faltering economy when people are likely to postpone travel? “Certainly the next 6 to 12 months are going to be difficult,” Rafter said, but the state has gone through slumps before and always managed to bounce back.
“Downturns will help Hawaii emerge stronger,” Rafter said. “We view it as a great time to expand in Hawaii.”
Rafter started in the hotel business in Seattle working for Westin Hotels & Resorts after earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington. Because of an early interest in the Internet, he helped expand the hotel’s online presence.
He also spent four years in Hawaii with Get2Hawaii, another online company. “We powered the packaging sites of Hawaiian Air and Aloha and several other hotels and airlines,” he said.
Rafter is 30 years younger than the man he succeeds, veteran Hawaii hotelier Mike Paulin, who founded the Waikiki-based hotel chain in 2001.
Paulin will shift roles but stay on as owner and chairman of Aqua. To get to know one another better, they met up along with their wives to do something they all enjoy, trekking. The hiking trip took them on a two-week visit that Paulin described in an e-mail, “Mt. Everest Base Camp at 19,000 ft. in cold, icy Nepal.”
Both agree they have more in common than a love of the outdoors.
“Ben is well equipped to deal with the challenges of Hawaii’s ever-changing and competitive marketplace,” Paulin said.
Paulin said they see potential to take Aqua’s reputation for service and cultural authenticity to a broader international market. “The hardest thing is to keep that sort of uniqueness,” Rafter said.
Some hotel chains work to replicate the exact same experience in a hotel no matter where it is. Rafter thinks that works better for business travelers than folks on vacation when people want to experience the feel of a place.
How will he work with the company’s personable founder still on the job? “I get to work more hours, and Mike gets to take more vacation,” Rafter joked. But after 50 years in Hawaii, Paulin has expertise in working with owners of the properties the company manages, as well as the workers.
It’s another step forward for Aqua, Paulin said, which this year turned over a big chunk of the company to 500 workers “as the only employee-owned hotel company in Hawaii.”
Rafter starts today with a business trip to Los Angeles while Paulin spent a week in Tibet, then went to Beijing but will head for business meetings himself in Shanghai and Tokyo before the two meet back in Waikiki.