Springboard Hospitality, a locally owned hotel management company, is growing its portfolio, rebranding, and investing in new technology even in the midst of the global pandemic.
Over the past six months, Springboard has added three new hotel properties,including Ohia Studio Suites in Waikiki, with several more additions underway. Other recent additions have been in Anchorage, Alaska; Los Angeles and Portland, Ore., and leisure destinations like Sedona, Ariz.; Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif.; and Jackson, Wyo. The company is now operating in 10 states and has 35 properties, seven of them in Hawaii.
Until about two weeks ago, the company was called OLS Hotels &Resorts. Led by Hawaii-based tech entrepreneur Ben Rafter, the company changed its name to Springboard.
“When COVID hit we made the somewhat painful decision of saying let’s use what is a disaster for the industry,” Rafter said. “Instead of reducing the corporate team everyone sacrificed a little bit and we accelerated our goals, including the launch of Springboard. We’re not entrenched and we’re trying to grow through this crisis. We want to get our hotel workers back to work.”
The company’s decision to keep its entire leadership team intact is rare in the COVID-19 world, where the difficulties experienced by the hospitality industry have become legend. According to a State of the Hotel Industry Analysis released Aug. 31 by the American Hotel &Lodging Association, six months into the pandemic four out of 10 hotel employees were not working. The report says that occupancy at 65% of U.S. hotels was at or below 50% and it was even lower for hotels in the hardest-hit urban areas. Most hotels still aren’t breaking even.
Rafter, who sits on the Hawaii Tourism Authority board, is well aware of the statistics and the reality, which he has seen at his own properties. Still, he’s no stranger to emerging from disasters. Rafter came to Hawaii in 2008 and joined Aqua right after the mortgage-industry crisis.
“We used that as a chance to grow Aqua from about five properties on Oahu to 29 across six islands,” he said. “The severity of this pandemic is much worse, but that tech start-up mentality that I come from thinks that now is the time to be investing in people and trying to be as aggressive as possible because normalcy will return.”
Rafter said the company has the ability to take on new business and is ready to assist properties that may be experiencing distress from the pandemic or just need a sharper focus to get through the changing times.
COVID-19 has decimated Hawaii tourism, which saw visitor arrivals to the state drop by 98% in July and 65% for the first seven months of the year.
“Hawaii right now is performing like the extreme urban environments like San Francisco,” he said. “But I see Hawaii coming back before San Francisco, which is heavily dependent on the tech corporations that aren’t going to bring officers and large groups back soon. There’s pent-up demand for people to come to a Hawaii, which historically has been viewed as a safe place.”
Rafter said he doesn’t see Hawaii’s visitor industry returning to the more than 10 million visitors that it welcomed in 2019 soon. But he does think the state can get back to 6 million or 7 million visitors in the next 18 months.
“That’s the trough of the Great Recession. It’s not a great place to be, but it’s a starting point,” Rafter said.
Rafter said the company’s name change further differentiates the company from its beginning in 1988 as the U.S. mainland partner to Outrigger Hotels Hawaii — a partnership that ended amicably in 2012. Rafter and a small group of local investors purchased OLS Hotels &Resorts in 2018, when the company had just 18 properties.
Under Rafter, the company opened a second office in Honolulu so that it could focus more on the Hawaii region.
Rafter’s properties typically have 150 rooms or less.
“We’ve got 30 years of operational excellence, and on top of that we are now able to offer even better analytics,” Rafter said. “We can figure out that a traveler is on the second visit and we can start serving up content that’s more relevant to them and makes for a better stay. If it’s a serious foodie, we can help them make reservations for the top restaurants before they even get here. “
Rafter said the tech changes also benefit Hawaii because the same tools that help hotel properties connect better with their guests and manage their own revenue also might be used to better manage tourism and visitor spending.
“We could communicate with people in real time in their native languages. We could be moving people around instead of the free-for-all that we have today,” Rafter said. “If places are crowded, we can offer other suggestions. We can offer up other experiences than just the beach.”