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Hawaii Business Magazine’s 20 for the Next 20: People to Watch 2012

20 emerging leaders in local businesses, nonprofits, government, education and law

(page 8 of 21)

Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Rafter

BENJAMIN RAFTER  age 40

President and CEO, Aqua Hotels & Resorts

In 2008, Benjamin Rafter went on a two-week trek to the Everest base camp in Nepal with his good friend Mike Paulin, owner and chairman of Aqua Hotels & Resorts.

During their journey, they came up with a vision for what Aqua could be and how they could bring new ideas to Hawaii’s hotel industry.  “(Paulin) figuratively handed me the keys and said, ‘Let’s do this together,’ ” Rafter says about the moment he was asked to lead Hawaii’s first boutique hotel chain.

Rafter grew up in Seattle and, after graduating from the University of Washington, went to work in the corporate offices of Westin Hotels & Resorts in his hometown. A self-described gearhead with a keen interest in the Internet, Rafter helped expand the chain’s online presence. “Even in high school, I was never afraid of new ideas and new things,” he says.

In the mid-’90s, he and two partners created the real-time auction site LiveBid, which had a few high-profile auctions, including the Batmobile and Titanic artifacts. After Amazon bought the site, he helped lead Cambridge Technology Partners’ Innovation Center and NewCo Solutions, then got back into the travel industry as CEO of Get2Hawaii, a Honolulu-based, dynamic packaging-technology company and online aggregator of travel inventory. He then took the helm at JetAway/Travelworm, a Las Vegas-based online travel retailer.

That’s when he became friends with Paulin, who eventually lured him to Aqua.

“On the surface, it was a terrible time,” Rafter says. “My first day was in November 2008, right as the industry collapsed due to the global financial crisis. Interestingly, the problems created with the economic collapse actually fueled our growth and ideas.”

Paulin agrees. “Our company nearly doubled in the last three years during a time when people were telling us it was the worst economy since the Depression,” he says.  Today, Aqua has 14 boutique and budget hotels and resorts on Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Molokai and Lanai.

“Look at how fast the world changes,” Rafter says. “But it’s still largely a blank canvas for us at Aqua. Over five, 10, 20 years, we can really change how the world thinks of hotels and hospitality.”

— CET

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