‘Coastal Va.’ backers seek end to identity crisis

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NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - One of the most populous regions of Virginia has long-suffered from an identity crisis that the area’s tourism industry is hoping to finally end by embracing a new brand name with a better sense of place.

For the past 30 years, an expansive region that includes Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Hampton and Williamsburg has used the moniker “Hampton Roads” that’s named after an obscure body of water. But an alliance of tourism officials wants to market a new name.

“It just doesn’t carry with it the identity that you need as a major metropolitan region,” said Jim Ricketts, director of the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“You end up having to explain it. You say Hampton Roads and there’s this sort of blank stare.”

The group has started using the name “Coastal Virginia” as alliance members try to sell an even larger area that includes the Eastern Shore of Virginia to meeting planners and tour promoters. The Coastal Virginia Tourism Alliance includes the region’s commercial airports and visitors bureaus, among others. Their experience has shown that Hampton Roads isn’t well known outside of the region except in the case of mariners and history buffs who know it is where the Civil War Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac was fought.

But not everybody is on board with creating yet another name for the region, which has a slew of businesses, government organizations and a convention center already adorned with the Hampton Roads name.

With an alliance budget of about $20,000, there hasn’t been a mass marketing campaign since the movement began in about 2012, and it hasn’t generated cost estimates for a national branding campaign. The name quietly began appearing on tourism websites and materials over the past two years that has generated some local media coverage.

It is quickly growing momentum, though, and becoming more commonplace in everyday use. In a major cultural shift, the mayor of the state’s largest city, Virginia Beach, repeatedly used the term Coastal Virginia to describe the region in his State of the City address on Thursday instead of Hampton Roads.

It’s a term that’s also catching on with hoteliers, arts organizations and others who aren’t apart of the alliance but depend on outsiders for revenue.

“Hampton Roads outside this area really has recognition problems,” said Linwood Branch, the owner of a Days Inn hotel at the oceanfront. “I believe Coastal Virginia is something that people could figure out pretty easily.”

Still, there’s more to a regional identity than what works well with tourists, say those heavily involved with advocating for the region.

“You can do a coin flip. Half the people like Tidewater, half the people like Hampton Roads. Now you can flip it again and half the people like Coastal Virginia and half the people like Hampton Roads. So you’re never going to satisfy everyone,” said Dan Bell, president of the regional think tank Future of Hampton Roads.

Bell applauds the tourism industry for finding something that works for it, but said there’s more to a regional name than just what tourists will like. He noted that of the region’s three economic pillars - tourism, the military and the port - tourism is the smallest. He believes a large marketing campaign is needed to get Hampton Roads more recognition outside of Virginia, although it’s unclear exactly who would pay for it or how much it might cost.

The region is unique because it doesn’t have a single, dominant city that defines it. The state’s largest city is in the region, but Virginia Beach is largely suburban in nature. Municipal egos have also prevented the area from rallying behind a single city name to define the region, which has about 1.7 million people and more than a dozen cities and counties.

“I have no doubt that past bitter rivalries among our communities made the choice of Hampton Roads very politically savvy as a way to foster support for regional cooperation,” said Jim Babcock, the former CEO of the First Virginia Bank of Hampton Roads and longtime regional advocate, said in an email to The Associated Press.

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