Despite its longtime leadership on issues such as anti-discrimination laws, civil unions and marriage equality, Hawaii has been shy about using that street cred to leverage more same-sex destination wedding tourism.
The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau — the private, nonprofit marketing organization for the tourism industry — released an emotional video on Monday featuring the surprise wedding of Christian Alarid and Shayne Barnes, an Oahu couple whose family and friends traveled to Honolulu to see the two men tie the knot. The video and teasers for it quickly went viral, with more than 6.5 million total views on social media by Tuesday afternoon.
Now known as the Alarids, the two had gotten engaged last June. They had been planning a 2016 wedding and had agreed to be models in an HVCB wedding photo shoot last August on the Big Island, after which HVCB staffers had a brainstorm. What if the bureau surprised the couple by organizing a picture-perfect surprise ceremony in Honolulu? HVCB Chief Marketing Officer Jay Talwar didn’t need much convincing.
“They’re a great couple to work with,” said HVCB Digital Strategist Michael Ni, the creative force behind the video, who joined Talwar in discussing the project with Civil Beat on Tuesday. “Super romantic and friendly, and they just exude love.”
The video starts with the couple joining a photographer and videographer on Nov. 12 at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Spalding House for what Shayne thinks is just another HVCB photo session. But as the session ends, Christian, 24, who had been let in on the surprise earlier, sits down with Shayne. “This isn’t a shoot, it’s the real thing,” he says. “And today’s the day. Are you willing to marry me?”
Snippets from the next seven hours’ frenzy of activity, including family members flying in from the mainland, Shayne painstakingly writing his vows and a limousine ride to the Kahala Resort and Hotel make up much of the rest of the six-minute video.
“I was excited and happy – so many emotions went through me at one time,” said Shayne, 27. “There was just one surprise after the other. I didn’t know there could be so many surprises.”
Along the way, it’s disclosed that both are military serviceman: Christian serves in the Air Force and will enter the Air Force ROTC program next fall at the University of Hawaii, while Shayne recently completed his service in the Marines and is now a full-time student at Hawaii Pacific University. “I’m glad it wasn’t the main focus, but I’m glad it shows we do our part, did our service and give back,” said Christian.
The piece culminates in a beautiful beachfront ceremony, the peaks of Koko Head rising in the background as the sun sets over Kahala.
The video went up on social media sites Monday morning and quickly drew massive attention. “We’ve seen a lot of positive feedback from commenters,” said Ni. “For the most part, everyone is loving the story and the video.”
It’s no accident that the piece was released when it was, two years to the month since marriage equality became legal in Hawaii. LGBT community leaders working in and around the tourism industry in Hawaii have been pressuring industry decision-makers to prioritize marketing to gay travelers. Destinations such as Key West, New Orleans and San Francisco have long done so, reaping significant financial benefits in the process.
According to attendees at HVCB’s annual members meeting in 2014, there was interest in making gays and lesbians part of the organization’s marketing focus: As what HVCB describes as “avid travelers,” they are part of a market segment that values travel above other leisure expenditures.
Still, the bureau didn’t commit any additional budget to market weddings to lesbian, gay, transgendered or bisexual visitors. When marriage equality became a national reality earlier this year and other cities and states began marketing themselves as same-sex wedding destinations, some industry observers could see opportunity slipping away from Hawaii in a sector — destination weddings — where the state enjoys distinct advantages.
Hawaii’s marriage equality law went into effect Dec. 2, 2013. From that date through the end of June, 38,254 total marriages were conducted in Hawaii. Of those, 4,028 — or 10.5 percent — were among same-sex couples. With an average of 131 gay and lesbian couples marrying in Hawaii each month this year, the actual total of same-sex marriages for the past two years through this month may be closer to 4,900.
An analysis published earlier this year by the financial website NerdWallet estimated the annual economic impact of gay and lesbian marriages on Hawaii at $26.6 million, part of a national $2.5 billion economic footprint from marriage equality.
“It’s true that we’ve been behind the curve in LGBT marketing. That’s no secret to anyone,” said Daniel Chun, a former HCVB staffer who is now regional manager for Hawaii sales and community marketing for Alaska Airlines, which participated in the project by flying in family members for the ceremony. “The fact that they went in this direction is a very bold step for HVCB. And it’s one the LGBT traveler will definitely notice.”
For HVCB marketing chief Talwar, the Alarid video fit perfectly within the state’s current tourism marketing campaign, “Let Hawaii Happen,” an effort that focuses on the authentic Hawaii experience.
“As I saw the rough cuts of the video and the fine-tuning along the way, it always felt real, and was always emotional every time you watched it,” he said. “Our team did a great job first in capturing this and now in allowing it to be shared on social media.”
With 12 partner businesses, including a wedding planner, florist and limousine service, and HVCB staff, more than 50 people were involved in pulling off the surprise event, according to Ni. Adding in family members and other guests, about 100 people in all took part in the special day.
The two haven’t had a honeymoon yet, but thanks to the generosity of one of their uncles, they’ll be making their special trip next May to Machu Pichu in the Andes Mountains of Peru.
Visiting family in Southern California this week, the Alarids were pleasantly shocked by the attention the videos were getting from viewers around the country and beyond, and proud to be making a difference in how others see what’s possible in Hawaii. “In a way, this is kind of making history,” said Shayne.
As thousands of commenters were making clear on social media platforms around the Internet, the video was providing inspiration for many, as well.
“I am in tears … of joy … for both of you … it gives me hope that my son will find his soul mate,” wrote one. “May many blessings be blown in the wind your way for a bright future together.”