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Embracing Change: From Tech CEO to Hotel CEO.
By Ron Callari
Friday, 21st October 2011
 
With the tech industry moving at lightning speed, Aqua Hotels & Resorts in Hawaii are now benefitting from the expertise that their new President & CEO brings to the table.

For more than fifteen years, Ben Rafter (right) has been directing successful e-commerce and technology companies such as JetAway/Travelworm, Get2Hawaii and Innerlinx (renamed Livbid), a real-time auction model, which was eventually sold to Amazon.com.

4Hoteliers Image LibraryReturning to the industry where his career first began with Westin Hotels & Resorts, at Aqua, Ben is an active participant in advancing tech industry best practices for the hospitality industry. In this role, he's also been charged with the task of developing and executing the company's global growth strategy.

For us at Flip.to, a tech firm that's been developing innovative marketing and social media solutions for the travel industry, we felt Ben was a great source of feedback as to how the two industries can learn from each other and benefit from a symbiotic relationship. Here is a recent interview we conducted with Ben in this regard.

Your career kicked off in the hospitality industry and you've been back in it for the past 10 years or so. In between, you co-founded a technology startup and stayed in that industry for several years. What's the differences between the two- hospitality versus tech?

The hospitality industry uses fairly advanced technologies, so I'll differentiate the tech industry from technology itself. In that regard, hospitality and tech are almost polar opposites of each other. The speed of change in tech is measured in minutes, whereas the changes in hotels themselves – not necessarily the distribution channels – are measured in decades. Tech is low-employee, high margin, high efficiency.

Hotels are low margin and inherently inefficient. All of that said, hospitality is an exciting, lifestyle industry that all other industries can learn from: the guest and employee interaction is rich and it's easy to see how products and ideas impact people. The most interesting part for me has been finding the happy medium of enriching the guest experience and learning from hospitality industry team members while applying some of the traditional elements of tech.

What are the best takeaways from your tech experience that you've transferred over to your role as CEO of Aqua?

Embrace change. People in tech aren't afraid of change because it's a constant. Beyond that, it's reinforcement of what works in all industries: diversify your team, hire people smarter than you and share the successes.

As an employee-owned hotel company, has Aqua fared better than its competition during the current downturn in the economy?

Aqua has almost tripled in size since the downturn started. A lot of the growth is because all of us are in it together as owners of the company. We maximized work opportunity for team members during the downturn and, in return, everyone pitched in, made some shared sacrifices and ensured the guest experience was great.

As we start to emerge from the downturn we're certainly better positioned and all of the team members now own a bigger piece of the rock. I'm not aware of any other hotel company that can say the same.

Has the Aqua Lite brand assisted in appealing to a wider market audience during this time period? What are some of the attributes that distinguish this product?

The experience should be localized. Most people aren't coming to Hawaii to experience the same, vanilla hotel that exists throughout the mainland. Second, service shouldn't be sacrificed just because a hotel is 2 ½ stars. We have guests from two star to five star coming to Hawaii and for all of them the visit represents a significant event.

With Flip.to launching a new component to convert anonymous website visitors into potential future guests, what other marketing initiatives has Aqua deployed in achieving a return on investment online?

We'll try just about everything. Clearly integrating into our guests' networks and ensuring our products are relevant is important to us. Flip.to has been a good partner here. It's worth pointing out that a lot of our attention right now is actually on the measurement side.

Too many hotel companies launch initiatives and then have no way to qualify or quantify them. We're investing in technology and people to do so. I would like to see some of the quants that have been disassociated from the finance industry jump into hospitality. There's a lot of potential and hospitality is much more fun.

The massive 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan in March impacted the entire Pacific. How were Hawaii and Aqua affected?

Hawaii's recovery was accelerating throughout the first quarter of 2011. We were actually having a party to reward all of our managers the very night the earthquake happened. We now see slower but still steady growth in Hawaii for a few years before we are get back to the pre-recession years. Japan itself is proving more resilient than we thought and at this point we're watching air lift, oil prices and the US economy at least as closely.

On a lighter note, after someone has stayed at one of the Aqua Resorts for their time in the sun, what's your top pick for a cold vacation?

I can't sit still for more than thirty minutes, so I'd pick a mountain somewhere in the Himalayas. Unfortunately, climbing an 8000 meter peak takes too long for most of us, including me. Perhaps trekking the Dolomites or through one of our national parks in the Winter when the crowds are down.

Ron is the VP of Business Development for Flip.to ( http://flip.to ), a marketing solution for the travel industry that helps convert guests into advocates and provides brands with a distribution channel extending advertising reach via social networks.

With over 25 years of travel industry experience, Ron has held sales and marketing posts internationally with Marriott Hotels & Resorts. As a well-known social media strategist, Ron was a selected member for a 2011 Chinese Tourism Mission, has been interviewed by BBC radio, writes a weekly social media marketing column for several websites and is the author of a graphic novel about Facebook.
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