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Marketing , Tourism – July 8, 2019

Hawai‘i Island Identity Crisis

Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau, says one of the branding challenges faced by Hawai‘i Island is that the state Department of Transportation and other state agencies still call it the Big Island. | Photo: Megan Spelman

The dream of a Hawai‘i vacation is often nurtured by a steady stream of messaging from the Hawai‘i Visitors and Convention Bureau and its island chapters.

Their job, in a nutshell, is to ensure steady growth in the tourism industry. And while the O‘ahu, Kaua‘i and Maui bureaus have their own obstacles, it can be argued that the Island of Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau faces unique challenges far more difficult to overcome. 

With active volcanoes and an island with the same name as the state, Hawai‘i Island has been tackling identity issues for decades – and last year’s eruption, followed by the disappearance of the lava flows, has the bureau pivoting yet again.

Locals know the island as the Big Island, but that’s not its official name. When King Kamehameha the Great conquered the Islands, he named his kingdom after his home island, the biggest island in the chain, the island of Hawai‘i. But as travel increased between Islands, it inherited the “Big Island” nickname from locals as a way to separate the name from the state. For its popularity, the island chapter adopted the name Big Island Visitors Bureau about 30 years ago. However, it has since realized that wasn’t the best idea.

“We found that when we started saying, ‘Hey, have you ever been to the Big Island?’ or ‘Are you planning to go to the Big Island?’ the response was, ‘No, it’s really too busy for me’ or ‘It’s just another big city with coconut trees,’ and we’re like, ‘No, that’s not who we are,’ then we would lose them,” says Ross Birch, executive director of the now renamed Island of Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau.

“We’ve discovered that the Big Island reference was actually promoting O‘ahu, because everyone who hasn’t been here assumes that the largest island must be where your governmental hub is and must be where the largest airport is and where your biggest center is, so geographically people were uneducated to that point.”

Island of Hawai‘i tour operators, such as Hawai‘i Forest & Trail, understand the challenge. “There’s a level of confusion between Big Island and Hawai‘i Island,” says Jason Cohn, VP of sales and marketing for Hawai‘i Forest & Trail. “People generally aren’t very aware of geography outside of places where they live. I was born and raised here, but when I went to college on the Mainland, I’d notice there was a lot of confusion.”

”We put a lot of resources into marketing active red lava, and now that there is none, it’s really forcing the visitor industry as a whole to do some soul searching (on) how we present this place.” – Jason Cohn, VP of Sales and Marketing, Hawai‘i Forest & Trail

Over time, the bureau tied the name of the island into its language, shifting from “Hawai‘i’s Big Island” to “Hawai‘i, the Big Island” and finally “Hawai‘i Island.” In 2016, it officially changed its name to the Island of Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau, and it plans to stick with the name and hopes it resonates with locals and businesses.

Birch believes the branding must be a concerted effort, and that all businesses should come together to use that same branding to help prevent confusion. One of the biggest challenges is getting the Department of Transportation and other state agencies to follow suit. “If our official agency calls us the Big Island, that pretty much means that’s the official name, and it’s quite not,” he says. “It’s a little disheartening.”

Says Cohn: “It’s tough for us as a tour company. We want to be accurate and use proper terminology but, in the era (of) search engine optimization, we also have to be cognizant of what people are searching for. So, for us, we have to refer to ‘Hawai‘i Island’ and ‘Big Island’ on our website just so that we can cast a wider net in terms of SEO.”

Birch agrees that referencing the Island of Hawai‘i on a website, and not just the Big Island, would help reach people who have never been to Hawai‘i. “Part of this whole branding process, also, is our little way for our island to get a little bit more exposure above and beyond other islands, because the more we refer to ‘Hawai‘i,’ the more we come up in general (SEO) inquiries statewide.”

The other issue the Island of Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau must decide is how and what to market about the island to visitors, and it’s making a serious effort to turn the focus away from lava. Though it was safe to visit the island during the height of last year’s eruptions, sensationalized stories of doom and gloom snowballed around the world, visitors canceled their trips and, Birch says, there was nothing the bureau could do at that point but wait for the cycle to finish.

“(The volcano is) the double-edged sword we live with. Yes, that’s mainly the one attribute that’s here and no other island, but at the same time, we have so many other things,” Birch says. “We’ve been trying to diversify as much as possible, but it’s always been a challenge to find what people will resonate with and remember about our island.”

Waipi‘o Valley, Mauna Kea’s summit, snorkeling, farm tours, waterfall hikes and manta ray dives are just some of the other places and things visitors can go to or do on the island, but it will take help from the county government to accommodate the numbers of people who could visit some of these places. Birch calls this another double-edged sword, until the infrastructure is created.

“For so long, we put a lot of resources into marketing active red lava, and now that there is none, it’s really forcing the visitor industry as a whole to do some soul searching (on) how we present this place because it’s so much more than a few active volcanoes,” says Cohn. “It’s really the most incredible place on Earth for so many reasons. So we need to do a better job of promoting the whole island. That goes for hotels, activity companies, the bureau, all of us together.”

The effectiveness of these efforts won’t be known for some time. The good news for the Island of Hawai‘i, though, is that once first-time visitors travel there, there’s a really good chance they’ll be back: The island has the highest return rate of any other in the state.

Talk Story: Chris Tatum, President and CEO, Hawa...
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