Honolulu-based Aqua-Aston Hospitality has been operating in Hawaii since 1948, and introduced the Aloha State to residential-style condos in addition to its traditional hotel offerings.
Now, Aqua-Aston features more than 25 hotels and resorts in Hawaii and Orlando, operates Adero in Scottsdale, Ariz. (which opened in 2020), and is set to make its grand debut in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula with Botanika, which opens May 1 as a member of Hilton’s Curio Collection.
We caught up with Theresa van Greunen, associate vice president of communications for Aqua-Aston Hospitality, to find out what’s new with the company, from hotel openings to the latest booking trends.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
These past two years have been some of the most difficult for our industry. How has Aqua-Aston weathered the storm?
Like all hospitality companies, the No. 1 thing we had to do is be flexible. First, we reviewed all of our cleaning standards, and how to keep our guests and our associates safe as much as we can. We introduced a new cleaning protocol called “Next Level Clean,” and new technology [including] sanitizing tools, electrostatic sprayers using medical-grade disinfectants, UV light for keycards and the removal of paper goods from the hotel rooms themselves.
We introduced social distancing and we limited capacity in places like fitness facilities. All of our associates wear masks when they're working, and we installed plexiglass at the front desk and adjusted our housekeeping schedule. At a time when we had limited resources … everyone had to wear a lot of hats.
We also had to become very communicative with our guests to help them understand what to expect, especially here in Hawaii, where we have four different counties with different mayors. Things were a little bit different on each island, and then a little different for the state compared to other states. So, we introduced a section on our website that is updated regularly with the current travel requirements and what our guests need to know.
Here in Hawaii, where we have four different counties with different mayors. Things were a little bit different on each island … we introduced a section on our website that is updated regularly with the current travel requirements and what our guests need to know.
Have you reviewed your cancellation policy at all?
We reviewed our cancellation policy, and Aqua-Aston has one of the most flexible cancellation policies in Hawaii. Seventy-two hours before your trip, you can cancel with no penalty. Of course, if you book a non-refundable [reservation], there are terms and conditions around that. But most of our guests can exercise that flexibility. If they want to reschedule, or they want to just cancel, they can go ahead and do that. [The policy] is all published on the website.
Since COVID-19 began, there has been some debate about the ethical implications of traveling during the pandemic — especially to Hawaii, where there have been times the Governor has asked tourists not to come. What’s the landscape there now?
That's a complicated, multifaceted question. I think that when the Governor asked people not to come, it was out of concern for our community at the height of the pandemic. Hawaii, as a state, has a very sensitive, delicate hospital capacity. It doesn’t take a lot for hospitals to become overwhelmed, and we couldn't afford [that] as a community. I think that news about “don’t come to Hawaii” started with the Governor asking people not to travel at a time when it really wasn't safe to travel.
And then I think that the issue is a little bit deeper, as well. There may have been an undercurrent among locals that [Hawaii was] experiencing overtourism. So, there were definitely stories before the pandemic, that Hawaii was maybe having too many visitors. And that's why the Hawaii Tourism Authority has invested a lot of resources and time in developing their tourism management plans.
They have published those plans on their website, so you can get a lot of information there, but it really has a heavy focus on tourism management and taking a fresh approach to tourism. The goal is more to educate visitors that Hawaii isn't just a beach destination. It has a unique culture. It has a unique history. And I think that's something we've been communicating for a long time, because if you don't come for the culture, the history or the unique lifestyle here, then you might as well go to another beach destination.
What are the latest booking trends for Aqua-Aston properties?
We have noticed a lot of traffic coming from the mainland U.S., especially from the West Coast. And also from first-time travelers to Hawaii. This could be because of travel restrictions that are in place with other destinations, or maybe people are just not comfortable traveling over a border. We've also noticed the booking window is shorter. I think we've also seen the length of stay become longer. People want to come and get their money's worth, and make it worth their while.
Sustainability is top of mind for travelers — and their travel advisors. What is Aqua-Aston Hospitality doing to address the demand for eco-conscious offerings?
We live in an island in the middle of the ocean and do not have any recycling facilities in the state of Hawaii, so it's not easy for us to recycle. Think of all the plastic bottles of water that get shipped here on a boat. Think of the carbon footprint that [process] creates, and then people drink the bottled water and they throw the plastic in the recycle bin, and they figure that it's just going to be recycled.
But the truth is that we just don’t know if that plastic will end up getting recycled once it leaves here. Those are [considerations] that are unique to being on an island like Hawaii. So, some of our properties have filtration [and] bottle-filling stations just to make it easy for guests to make a more sustainable choice. And then there are other [initiatives], like our reef-safe sunscreen initiative to raise awareness that certain sunscreens actually harm coral reefs, and that's an important natural resource for Hawaii.
Single-use plastic [is an issue], too. As hoteliers, we're all used to the tiny shampoo bottles. And we've been working on implementing a change for the last few years. We are in the process now of transitioning to bulk bath amenities. It's still hygienic; it's a closed container, but it's a bigger container with a pump, and it's really going to help us eliminate a lot of single-use plastic from our operations.
Are there any new developments for Aqua-Aston that travel advisors should know about?
At Adero in particular, we’re gearing up for the summer and we have a new buyout offer. Everyone's been putting off face-to-face interactions, whether it's a family reunion, a wedding, a celebration, an anniversary or a corporate breakaway event.
The resort typically has lower occupancy during the warmer months, but they're offering a buyout deal [from June to August 2022] where you can basically have the resort to yourself. It will come with the overnight accommodations, food and beverages, and [guests] can upgrade their package and customize it. The starting price is $30,000 for two nights and 60 rooms. We also just rolled out a new stargazing app that our guests can take advantage of when they're on property. That helps them to see what they're looking at in the sky and know what constellation it is, and we have telescopes that we can provide our guests. (Note: Adero is located in a certified Dark Sky Community.)
We also have a new property opening May 1, 2022, called Botanika in Costa Rica. We have been working with its sister property — Crocodile Bay Resort — for a few years now, but Botanika is a newbuild on the adjacent land. There are new guest accommodations, a new check-in experience, new spa and fitness [areas] and a new conference center. We have a science center that we are planning to use to host visiting scientists. There will be a large focus on creating nature and conservation experiences for guests. It will be a Curio Collection property from Hilton, and we are accepting reservations starting June 1, 2022.
Our properties are more boutique. They don't have giant resort settings. There will be a pool or a spa or a gym, but it feels more exclusive, like you are staying in your vacation home.
What are some selling points for Aqua-Aston that advisors should know?
We have a very flexible reservation policy. And our Hawaii properties are split between the typical hotel [experience] and the condo resort offering. So, guests who are traveling with families, especially in the upcoming summer season, can take advantage of kitchen facilities that are provided in the unit. It’s basically a condo, so it's a residential-style experience. With health in mind, people might not want the mega-resort experience. Our properties are more boutique. They don't have giant resort settings. There will be a pool or a spa or a gym, but it feels more exclusive, like you are staying in your vacation home.
We also have a few properties that have been recently renovated, including Aqua Palms in Waikiki. Additional recently renovated properties are Aston Waikiki Circle Hotel and Luana Waikiki Hotel & Suites.
Speaking of the “residential-style experiences,” vacation rentals are becoming increasingly popular. How would you compare your condos to vacation rentals?
We actually run the properties. We have a hotel setup: We run the front desk; there’s someone to check you in; you have someone to call if you have a question or a problem; we have on-site maintenance and housekeeping; and we have a dedicated general manager. That’s what’s lacking in the vacation rental world. You’re taking a risk, you’re on your own, and your host may or may not be in the state. That’s our selling point, and we’ve been operating that model since 1948. ... It’s still a vacation experience, but we have what people like about vacation rentals.