The Big Island Visitors Bureau promotes Hawaii Island’s unique attributes, from active volcanoes to black sand beaches. // © 2013 Thinkstock
Anyone who has played a fairway can understand how Ross Birch’s 23 years in golf operations helped set the ball rolling to his new job as executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau (BIVB). Savvy golf pros study their target carefully and figure out the best way to reach it before they even hit the ball, and Birch is taking the same comprehensive approach to his overall goal of creating greater awareness for Hawaii Island, nicknamed the Big Island.
Birch started his career as an apprentice golf professional at Waikoloa Resort, then advanced to sales manager and eventually head professional at the same resort for 16 years. After three years as director of golf sales and retail at Mauna Lani Resort, he spent two years as a business owner, consultant and coordinator for golf groups looking to travel to Hawaii to experience high-quality courses and resorts. In his most recent post as general manager of Makalei Golf Club, he oversaw all aspects of the club including marketing and operations of the 18-hole golf course and its facilities.
“I believe my experience as a salesperson in the resort atmosphere helped immensely to build relationships with hotel, activity and airline partners,” said Birch. “It also gave me the experience of traveling with the BIVB team to market Hawaii Island as a premiere golf destination.”
In addition, during his stint as a general manager, he learned how to think on his feet and to manage managers, in the same vein as the BIVB executive director. Birch, who took over the bureau’s top post in June 2013, brings a well-conceived list of priorities to the table. Among them, working with airlines to maintain and increase the number of seats to the island.
“One of the most exciting things to keep an eye on is the potential return of direct international flights,” he said. “This fall, we are anticipating approximately six Japan Airlines charter flights with direct access to Hawaii Island.”
Birch added that enhancing the arrival and departure experience at both the Kona and Hilo airports is imperative.
At the same time, Birch is intent on driving more demand for Hawaii Island through effective brand and tactical marketing programs with BIVB’s visitor industry partners, while continually highlighting the latest and greatest things that distinguish the destination.
“We are focusing our efforts on new visitors as well as visitors who have already experienced one or more of the other islands and who are looking to add to their exceptional Hawaii experiences,” he said.
Equally high on Birch’s list is travel agent outreach. He and his BIVB team plan to boost the number of qualified familiarization trips to Hawaii Island so that more agents can find out about the depth and range of the destination firsthand.
“In order for travel agents to sell our island successfully, they need to be well versed in all of our hospitality options,” Birch said. “As they take part in activities that are unique to the destination, they gain knowledge that ultimately influences future visitors.”
Then there’s what Birch referred to as the “identity crisis” for the destination, which for years has been referred to as the Big Island. However, its actual historical name is Hawaii, and this confusion in terms prompted BIVB to rebrand it in 2011 as Hawaii Island or Hawaii, the Big Island.
“Research showed us that when travelers heard the word ‘big’ they associated it with Hawaii’s main island of Oahu or the big city of Honolulu,” said Birch. “Our branding message is now tailored to focus on Hawaii first with Big Island as our nickname.”
“When looking at a geographical map, our true identity is Hawaii Island, and we need to work toward this as our marketing identity as well as our literal name,” Birch added. ”Of course, we have invested years in promoting it as the Big Island so it will take some time to completely see this conversion.”
But in tourism promotion as well as in golf, patience and perspective pay off. Clearly, Birch is in it for the long haul.