Taking Care Of Business

The outside of Kīlauea Lodge.

Despite the months-long closure of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, members of the Volcano Village business community have found ways to combat the economic downturn and keep tourists and residents coming.

When the most-visited destination in the state of Hawai‘i closes for months on end due to volcanic activity, what happens to nearby businesses that depend on visitors for their very survival?

Enter “Experience Volcano,” a marketing campaign launched this summer by the galleries, shops, restaurants, retailers, B&Bs and vacation accommodation owners of Volcano Village.

Normally located in the park, Volcano Art Center Gallery has found at temporary home at the Ni‘aulani Campus in Volcano Village;

After the dramatic downturn in tourism following the unprecedented months-long closure of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, the Volcano Village business community has been taking matters into its own hands, reminding visitors and residents alike that Volcano Village is a great getaway destination in its own right, park or no park.

“When the park first closed, it was hard for us who live and work here,” says Laura Rodrigues, retail manager for Kīlauea Kreations in Volcano Village. “We took an 80-percent hit in the early days because the mainland was freaking out. When the park closed, visitors didn’t think they had any reason to come here. We are a tourist town; it is what it is. Instead of feeling helpless, we became proactive. We wanted to do something to get business back.”

The exterior of Lava Rock Cafe.

Although there has been a slow uptick in weekend visitors to the shop in the last few weeks, Rodrigues says things won’t get back to normal until the park opens in its entirety. Park superintendent Cindy Orlando just announced the goal of possibly reopening small portions of the park by Sept. 22, so long as the current pause in earthquakes and summit explosive/collapse events continues.

“We have the difficult task ahead of us of identifying what we can safely open. Our first step will be bringing staff back into the park, while getting assessments done,” says Orlando, before adding, “National Public Lands Day is a goal and not definitive.”

Glassblower Mike Mortara of 2400° Fahrenheit in Volcano Village, says the business community is “a great place to chill.

Nonetheless, the newly launched experiencevolcano. com website, along with brochures and maps, give local merchants the opportunity to truly tout the not-so-obvious array of village attractions. Indeed, the plethora of sightseeing activities in Volcano Village can fill a multi-day or weeklong itinerary, everything from hiking, biking and casual strolls, to gallery hopping, wine tasting, golfing, fine dining and romantic getaway stays in cozy vacation cottages or at a world-class lodge.

One of the only places on the Big Island that offers miles of flat, quiet streets for bike-riding, Volcano Village also boasts hiking trails, including the Old Growth Forest Loop Trail behind Ni‘aulani Campus, temporary home of Volcano Art Center.

“We have free guided tours every Monday at 9:30 a.m. and self-guided tours any other time,” explains Emily Weiss, gallery manager. “We typically have a park ranger on-site to answer visitors’ questions since the park closed.”

Laura Rodrigues, retail manager for Kīlauea Kreations in Volcano Village.

Weiss notes that even during the worst of the downturn, international visitors have been more prevalent than mainland visitors. She believes the initial reporting by national news outlets about the Kīlauea eruption scared off a lot of potential visitors from the mainland. For Volcano Village native Pua Norris, innkeeper at Volcano Village Lodge, however, the most exciting time to visit Volcano Village was during the eruption.

“Some of our current guests have been telling us they feel like they missed out by not being here when the summit events were taking place,” she shares. “It was such a historic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in the energy of what was going on up here. We didn’t feel every single earthquake, but the ones we did feel were like waves on an ocean. It was an amazing time to be here, and it’s something that all of us will be talking about for a very long time.”

The exterior of Volcano Winery.

Norris notes that Volcano Village has always been a great home base for visitors staying on the east side, thanks to its relative proximity to Hilo, Pāhoa, Pāhala and other nearby attractions. For art lovers, Volcano Village is a must-see artists’ enclave. Hawaiian culture thrives here as well. The cultural events that normally take place in the park are now being held in the village.

Meanwhile, the village restaurants and dining establishments are catering to local residents by offering happy hours and live entertainment. Kīlauea Lodge just announced a daily happy hour from 2 to 5 p.m., featuring drink specials and appetizers. During the eruption, Lava Rock Café took advantage of the downtime and renovated its interiors, adding a cocktail bar and stage while opening up the entire space to make it even more inviting than it already was.

A tourist couple places an order at Volcano Winery.

“We always had entertainment here, but we needed a stage,” says Julene Tripp-Villaruz, restaurant manager of Lava Rock Café. “We’ve been getting great feedback on our remodel from everybody who comes in. Our spirits are lifted when visitors and residents want to support us. We’ve been making lemonade out of the lemons we’ve been dealt because of the eruption.”

Popular with visitors and locals, Volcano Winery offers 20 percent kama‘āina discounts on bottles. Patrons can also bring their own food and enjoy a picnic on the outdoor patio, according to Lani Delapenia, manager and wine club coordinator.

“We weren’t closed even one day since the eruption, although we lost half our revenue when it was happening,” she says. “We invite residents to support our local businesses. All of our employees are local and live in the area or in Lower Puna. Our wine-maker has been here 19 years.

“This is a beautiful area to enjoy Volcano,” adds Delapenia. “If you want to have your own picnic here, we have glasses, chillers, estate ice tea and cheese platters. You can bring your own pūpū and lunch. Our tastings are only $8 for eight 1-ounce pours. We want residents to come in and support the only local winery on the island, as well as all the other great businesses here in Volcano Village.”