If you're developing marketing programs and informational materials aimed at helping travel agents, it makes sense to consult folks who have firsthand experience.

Aston Hotels & Resorts has certainly adopted that philosophy, and it turns out Shari Chang, Aston's senior vice president of sales, marketing and revenue management, spent a significant stretch of time booking clients on Hawaii vacations.

"I was a travel agent early in my career, so it's always been my goal to do whatever I need to do to support travel agents," Chang said. "I know what it was like being on the other side and not having the information and tools available to you at times. Probably the largest portion of our business is generated from travel agents, whether they come directly to Aston or go through their preferred suppliers, so they're extremely important to us."

Not long after returning to Aston four years ago, Chang decided it was time for a dramatic overhaul of the company's property reference guide, and she made sure travel agents played a fundamental role in the book's revamp.

"We've been putting the reference guide out for years and years, but when I came back I really wanted to make sure that we weren't just doing it to do it and that we got the travel agent's input," Chang explained. "About three-and-a-half years ago, we started meeting with travel agents to specifically ask for their input on the design and what other information they wanted from it, and we've refined it every year since then and have made sure that it has the information that they want."

Aston Aloha Beach Hotel poolMaking sure the entire reference guide was available on Aston's travel agent website was another important part of the upgrade, but Chang said Aston won't quit sending out hard copies anytime soon.

"They're very expensive to print, but we do it because agents really like to keep them at their desk," she said. "We just completed another marketing blitz of 2,000 retail agencies at the end of August and beginning of September, and every one we went into had our reference guide, which was terrific."

Chang said having agents experience properties firsthand is another priority for the company, and while Aston participates with many of its supplier partners year-round to host travel professionals, they also have two familiarization programs of their own designed to make it easier for agents to visit Hawaii.

Now offering room rates beginning at $79 a night at properties on Oahu, Maui and Kauai, Aston has "eduVacation" rates exclusively for agents at many of its properties across the islands and also offers its "Fam-tastic" first-night-free promotion for specific locations throughout the year.

"One of the things we've found is that nowadays, agents often can't take the time off for a fam trip traveling with others, but they do sometimes have an opportunity to just pop over and check things out themselves," Chang said. "So we built the eduVacation and Fam-tastic programs to encourage them to come over and stay at our properties and see what's new and get up to date on what we have to offer."

Popular programs and products

Designed to make tracking bookings and commissions simple, Aston's Stars Online loyalty program offers travel agents who regularly book the company's products a chance to earn points toward free stays, gift cards and cash-back incentives.

"It's a great program because there's not a lot of work involved in it," Chang said. "Once [agents] log on and note their bookings, the tracking is all done on our side. ...And through the free nights and gift card options, there's a lot of flexibility for them when it comes to redeeming points. "

Unlike some incentive programs, Aston credits agents for bookings made through wholesalers, as well.

"Agents really love it because they can double dip," Chang said. "If their preferred supplier has their own incentive program, they can still count their bookings with their wholesalers in our Stars Online program and earn whatever they get from the supplier as well as what they get from us."

Agents also seem to appreciate Aston products, and with 25 properties across the Hawaiian Islands -- along with newly acquired locations in Sun Valley, Idaho; Lake Las Vegas, Nev.; and Lake Tahoe, Calif. -- the company accommodates a range of markets.

"For our normal client, unless they're super high-end and looking for one of the Four Seasons or something like that, Aston is one of the first options that comes to mind for us to sell in Hawaii," said JoAnne Olsen, a travel agent with All About Travel in Newbury, Calif. "We know the client is going to be happy; very seldom do we get any kind of complaints, and it's a good middle-of-the-road to upper-end product you almost can't go wrong with."

Olsen also said that Aston's condo options have routinely led a number of her cost-conscious clients to choose Hawaii over competing destinations, thanks to the prospect of saving money through purchasing groceries and preparing meals in the condo's kitchen rather than eating out all the time.

"Especially if they have a family and they're taking kids," Olsen added. "It definitely sways them when they think, 'Oh yeah, I've got a washer and dryer, a full kitchen' as opposed to a family of four sleeping on two queen-size beds in a room with nothing else."

According to Chang, Aston's success, and that of Hawaii as a destination, is heavily reliant on just that sort of insight from travel agents.

"The thing that makes Hawaii unique as compared with some of the mainland destinations is that Hawaii is considered a more complex destination," she said. "Therefore, consumers feel much more comfortable working with a travel agent when they're booking a vacation to Hawaii because of all their expertise and their knowledge about the destination."

For more, including information about Aston's webinar training, visit www.astonhotels.com.

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