Longtime advocacy a key selling point for Aqua Hospitality

By Shane Nelson
GayHawaiiWeddingFew Hawaii hoteliers have pursued lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) travelers longer or with more enthusiasm than Aqua Hospitality, a Waikiki-based company that now manages 24 properties across the Aloha State.

According to Elizabeth Churchill, Aqua's senior vice president of sales and marketing, diversity has been paramount at the locally owned Hawaii company since its founding in 2001.

"We've always promoted diversity, not only within our own organization but within our guest demographic," she said. "So it just made sense that we target the LGBT market for all of our properties."

The management firm was also one of a limited few spending marketing dollars to attract potential LGBT travelers to Hawaii, buying print and online advertising at a number of national media outlets, while supporting the state's local gay and lesbian community by sponsoring a range of LGBT events.

"Aqua was doing all of that long before 2008 when the recession hit, and a lot of other hotel chains kind of jumped on the bandwagon, realizing that was something of a recession-proof market," said Neal Miller, owner of the Neal Miller Travel Co. in Atlanta, which has been selling vacations to LGBT clients for 16 years.

Lotus Honolulu"Aqua is extremely gay- and lesbian-friendly," said Miller, a Waikiki resident for nearly five years before eventually opening his Atlanta agency. "And they are very supportive locally in Hawaii."

Recognized advocates

Aqua's connection to the LGBT market now goes beyond its targeted consumer advertising and sponsorship of gay and lesbian community events, however, as the company has developed into an outspoken advocate for marriage equality across the state of Hawaii.

Miller said Aqua's years of advocacy for gay rights is a key selling point for many of his LGBT clients.

"It's very important to them that they're spending their money on products that are supportive of the LGBT community," he explained. "And with Aqua's history, you know it wasn't just a change in the financial markets that motivated them to go after a chunk of change from LGBT travelers."

Appealing products, expertise

Aqua Hospitality split its portfolio into three separate brands in January: a Monogram Hotel Collection of luxury properties, the Aqua Hotels & Resorts group of midlevel hotels and a Lite Hotels budget category. Within the three collections, Churchill said it's the smaller, boutique properties that appeal most to LGBT travelers.

Modern Honolulu"They're interested in a more intimate environment where they are treated with a lot of respect," she said, noting that the high-end, 42-room Lotus Honolulu in east Waikiki is often a good fit for gay and lesbian travelers. "But every guest wants to feel special. It doesn't matter who you are."

For those especially interested in urban energy, the chic Modern Honolulu hotel is home to a top Oahu restaurant, Morimoto Waikiki, and one of Hawaii's trendiest nightclubs, Addiction.

"The Modern is a really good fit for what I consider my South Beach type of client because of its location and all the different types of entertainment venues there," Miller said.

Another Aqua property generating a lot of buzz is the Park Shore Waikiki, which recently underwent a substantial renovation and is only a few hundred feet from one of Waikiki's most well-known gay bars, Hula's Bar and Lei stand, and just a couple blocks west of the destination's most popular gay beach, Queen's Surf.

And according to Churchill, Aqua was the first hotel management company in Hawaii to complete TAG Approved certification, which is a national LGBT-friendly classification, at each of its hotels.

"There's never an eyebrow raised when two guys check in for a king bed," Miller said of Aqua's properties. "It's not that any of the hotels in Waikiki I've experienced have a problem with that, but there are some with diversity training that goes a lot further than others, and Aqua in my opinion is at the top of that list."
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