Aston Hotels parent company Interval Leisure Group acquired Aqua Hospitality in 2013, and in August the combined company was rebranded as Aqua-Aston Hospitality. The company manages over 50 properties across five brands: Aqua, Aston, Instinct, Lite and Maui Condo & Home.
Destinations Editor Eric Moya spoke with Elizabeth Churchill, chief revenue officer of Aqua-Aston Hospitality, about what agents can expect from the rebranding and consolidation.
Q: What have you heard from agents about the recent rebranding?
A: Overall the feedback has been that they're happy that a solution has finally come to fruition, that we are now actually Aqua-Aston Hospitality, so it ties the two entities together. I think they're waiting for that next step now that this integration has been completed: What are we going to build for them that really helps educate them?
Q: With Aston's acquisition of Aqua in 2013, what were some ways in which the company wanted to strengthen its relationship with travel agents?
A: I think overall both Aqua and Aston have been fairly strong brands in the travel agent market, Aston obviously more so because it has been around much longer. And so agents have always been really dedicated to that brand and very committed to the Hawaii marketplace overall. So Aston has always been synonymous with Hawaii.
Aqua is more of the new kid on the block and came in and looked at the marketplace from a different perspective: tried to keep it simplified, do cash-back bonuses, things that would keep agents engaged and working both directly as well as with their traditional wholesale partners to book business into Aqua. So what we did during the integration is take a look at best practices from both sides of the business and then try to look at what we could do better as an enterprise.
We [now] have the Cash Booking Bonus for both sides. It was something that was in place on the Aqua side previously but wasn't available at all the Aston properties. So we're looking at streamlining, making it simpler for agents and continuing to provide the service standards that we always have and really work closely with them.
Q: What about other opportunities to streamline?
A: Obviously there are a lot of things behind the scenes that agents aren't aware of that make their lives simpler: processes like commission payouts and being able to create an easier way for agents to get paid in a timely manner.
From the Aston side it's been all about education: letting the agents know what's going on at all the properties, really getting that brand awareness out there.
A Luxury Sunset Ocean View Suite at the Aqua Ilikai Hotel & Luxury Suites in Honolulu.
We've always had a very strong travel trade presence. We can use our advertising dollars, which we have done in the past, to drive them to a new travel agent portal website, where they can learn about the different brands.
And I think it's going to be imperative going forward that agents have a clear understanding of what these five brands mean. They're really aware of Aston. They're aware of Aqua, but not as much as Aston. And then you have Lite Hotels, our budget properties, which they probably aren't that aware of, as well as our Instinct brand, which really is our distinctive, standalone hotel collection. They may understand properties within that brand, like [Instinct's] Volcano House, which obviously is world-renowned [and a] Unesco World Heritage site.
Then we have Maui Condo & Home … and that's going to be a new channel of distribution for both consumers as well as travel agents: to be able to book by unit vs. booking by [room] category.
We have salespeople on the mainland, and they've done an incredible job getting out there and being at a lot of agent functions and trade shows. And so it's really important for [agents] to reach out when they see these salespeople and ask questions and provide feedback, because we're very open to it.
Q: You mentioned the agent portal earlier; could you offer an update on development of the Aqua-Aston agent site?
A: Right now we only have an Aqua site that hasn't been updated in some time, so we're taking our time to figure what we want to do as an enterprise that includes all five brands.
Initially when we created the agent portal, we didn't want it to be so involved where people had to go through a huge learning process, but we had different training tools and education so they could graduate and they could get a certificate. And then by doing that you book the room nights at certain properties, then you would get free room nights, etc.
Some of these plans have kind of morphed into the Cash Booking Bonus, which simplified everything for the time being, until we can relaunch a bigger program that we think will really speak to what agents want.
So I think that we'll be looking at a program or a website that encompasses education as well as lets them know what's in it for them: "If I go through here and start to understand what these five brands mean, what am I going to get out of it?"
We really need to take the time and dedicate the resources to upgrading and creating a new site that's going to work for all of the brands. We'll probably be looking at a launch in 2016. We certainly don't want to build it based on what we think agents want; we want to build it based on what they definitely do want.
Q: Could you talk about what role fams play in your strategy moving forward?
A: We have always found that no matter what, as soon as we're able to get agents to see the properties, then they understand what these brands mean. We've always participated with the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau on their fams. And then island-specific, if Oahu's visitors bureau does a fam for agents, or Maui or Kauai or the Big Island, when they're doing fams we always make sure to participate.
So you can talk about it all you want or put it in an ad, but until they're here and actually experience what these different products mean, what these different brands mean, it's hard for them to envision. And so I think moving forward we would really, really like to see more fams and site inspections.
When they get to Hawaii, we really want to open our doors to them.