Hawaii Amid recession, Aqua Hotels undeterred from expansion By Shane Nelson / August 09, 2009 Share 1 -- Over the last six months, Aqua Hotels & Resorts has taken over management of four Hawaii-based properties, refurbished and rebranded a fifth and, perhaps most notably, expanded its operations beyond just Waikiki to include properties on three neighbor islands. The hotel management company received a great deal of local media attention thanks to a July 21 announcement naming Aqua as the new managers of Waikiki's iconic Ilikai Hotel, which was acquired by New York-based iStar Financial Inc. in a foreclosure auction held last spring. "The Ilikai is a landmark, and to have been a part of working with the employees, customers, iStar and others to keep such an iconic hotel open is a tremendous accomplishment," Ben Rafter, Aqua's president and CEO, told Travel Weekly. Three days after the Ilikai announcement, Aqua said it would be taking over management of the Kauai Beach Hotel, a second iStar property acquired through foreclosure auction by iStar Financial. Only two weeks earlier, the company had announced the completion of a $5 million refurbishment and rebranding of its Honolulu Prince Hotel, owned by Ramsfield Hospitality Finance of New York, as the 135-room Aqua Waikiki Pearl. On July 1, Aqua announced that it had been selected by Beechtree properties to rebrand the 53-room Hotel Molokai, the island's only hotel. And in January, the company took over management and rebranding efforts at what is now the Hotel Wailea in Maui. At the time, the four-star, upscale resort was Aqua's first property outside of Waikiki. "Most of these have been long-term deals that we've been working on, and some of them have taken upwards of a year," Rafter said. "Certainly we are trying to grow. ... We felt that with 2,000 rooms a night being occupied in Waikiki, the crossover demand for neighbor islands was substantial." Founded in 2001 by Hawaii hotelier Mike Paulin, Aqua Resorts & Hotels became the first employee-owned hotel company in Hawaii after it executed an employee stock ownership plan in 2008. In both 2007 and 2008, the company was No. 8 on Pacific Business News' list of 50 fastest-growing companies in the state, and today it manages 16 hotels across Hawaii. "We're the only hotel company that I know of currently in Hawaii that is growing," said Bill Henderson, Aqua's vice president of development. "There is a lot more of that low-hanging fruit out there potentially. ... There are a number of other properties in Hawaii now that are under foreclosure, and it may be there are some opportunities for us there." Rafter said he thinks that in some ways the economic challenges facing Hawaii's tourism and hotel industry have actually helped Aqua promote its value-oriented boutique philosophy. "When the market is doing extremely well, generally people aren't necessarily thinking about what their management company is doing for them," he explained. "Now that the market is a challenge for all of us, we feel that new ideas and new approaches are being rewarded, and what we're offering to owners is new ideas."