Before the COVID-19 pandemic altered life as we know it in Hawaii, the small, old-fashioned town of Hanapepe on Kauai came alive on Friday nights with a vibrant weekly fair that packed hundreds of vacationers and residents into a maze of music, crafts and street food.

That hasn’t happened since March 13.

Now, many Hanapepe businesses, especially the numerous art galleries that have made the town a must-visit destination for tourists, are barely surviving.

Many art galleries and stores in Kauai’s Old Town Hanapepe depend on sales generated from a weekly street fair that has been canceled since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat

With tourism nearly nonexistent, many shops are open by appointment only. Some businesses are unable to pay their monthly rent. At Amy-Lauren’s Gallery, the economic downturn has led the owner to sell some paintings at half-price just to drum up sales.

“I would be pretty comfortable saying that the art galleries get about 90% of their revenue from tourists coming through, and obviously they aren’t coming through anymore,” said Daniel Ouellet, coordinator of Hanapepe Art Night. “We don’t want Hanapepe to become a ghost town. We don’t want Kauai to become a ghost island. So our goal is to make sure that local businesses can be able to make money and survive.”

As the coronavirus pandemic pushes in-person events everywhere onto virtual platforms, Hanapepe businesses that relied on sales generated from the temporarily defunct Hanapepe Art Night are being asked to engage with new technology so people can participate in a reimagined online version of the event from the safety of their home computer.

Virtual Hanapepe Art Night is expected to launch sometime in October with the support of $115,000 in federal CARES Act money awarded to the Hanapepe Economic Alliance to start up the project.

But in this sleepy, little town where a haircut costs $10, shirt and shoes are optional at every establishment and there are typically more roosters in the road than car traffic, the idea of digitizing the street fair is a radical departure from the rugged, old-fashioned charm the town holds dear.

“I honestly would have rather seen that money split up amongst the businesses to help us pay rent.” — Ed Justus, owner of Talk Story

Some Hanapepe businesses do not have websites that allow for online shopping. Others are not accustomed to keeping regular business hours. And, with nearly every business owner in town consumed with trying to prevent their shop from permanently closing, some shop owners are reluctant to experiment with a virtual event platform that may or may not earn them any revenue.

“I honestly would have rather seen that money split up amongst the businesses to help us pay rent,” said Ed Justus, owner of Talk Story, Kauai’s only bookstore.

“Instead they are basically using it so that somebody can go online to experience a virtual Friday night event through their computer,” he said. “Quite honestly, I really don’t see that I’m going to get thousands of dollars worth of business out of that. If they really want to help us get through this, that money should be used to help us pay our rents so we can stick around.”

Ed Justus, owner of Talk Story, said revenue at Kauai’s only book store is down about 90%. Justus said his landlord is deferring his monthly rent — but he’ll have to pay the missed payments eventually. 

With the book store’s profits down by 90%, Justus said the landlord for his business has agreed to temporarily defer his monthly payments. But Justus said lots of other businesses in town haven’t been so lucky.

What’s more, the pandemic has turned Talk Story’s business model on its head. Online sales now account for about 80% of the trickle of money Justus is generating, a complete reversal from the shop’s pre-pandemic norm.

This shift, though, is the kind of opportunity that proponents of the virtual event say they hope business owners build on.

Even after the virus comes under control, some experts predict that many major events going forward will continue to offer an online component. Getting a leg up on the trend could, in the long-run, help Hanapepe businesses get ahead.

“My internet sales were 4% before COVID and now they are essentially what’s keeping us afloat,” said Joanna Carolan, whose ceramics showroom Banana Patch Studio is now open by appointment only.

“Things right now are difficult and I think it does make it hard to be creative when you’re frightened of how you’re going to pay your bills,” she said. “But this is the best option we have and to make it benefit everyone it is going to need to be a collaborative effort.”

Renee Palmer, project manager for Virtual Hanapepe Art Night, said she’s studying success stories, such as the traveling, multi-city Renegade Craft Fair. In the post-pandemic era, Renegade showcases its vendors in virtual stores equipped with a livestream that allows them to interact with shoppers.

A model closer to home that Palmer is looking to for inspiration is the popular “Made in Hawaii” craft fair, which pivoted to a digital-only event last month with the launch of an online marketplace featuring products by more than 200 local vendors. Beyond shopping, event participants could access online cooking demonstrations, musical performances and exhibitor spotlight videos.

Until tourism restarts, Joanna Carolan is opening her ceramics showroom Banana Patch Studio by appointment only. The store isn’t generating enough profit from in-person sales to keep the doors open. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat

The vision for the Hanapepe event is so far taking the shape of an online portal where participants — namely, people on the mainland who are longing to experience the town’s rugged charm as the virus prevents them from traveling to Kauai for a vacation — can “visit” stores by clicking through 360-degree videos of their interiors.

Businesses with preexisting online marketplaces may be able to offer participants a click-to-shop feature. But many Hanapepe businesses aren’t presently set up to take advantage of it.

The planned virtual event would also offer participants access to drone footage of the town, as well as access to live and prerecorded workshops, cooking demonstrations and music performances.

“Hanapepe is this weird, funky place, but it’s a place that people come to when they’re on vacation because they want to see and experience it,” Palmer said. “So I think a lot of the people who are missing Kauai right now are also missing Hanapepe right now. And my hope is that if people hear that we are going to be bringing a little bit of that flavor and the personalities and the shops and the art that you can’t get anywhere else to the internet, then the audience will come.”

There’s a laundry list of challenges, however.

It will require a massive marketing campaign to publicize the new virtual event series to mainlanders. There are major time zone differences. And some longtime Hanapepe business owners are not comfortable with the new technology required to make the event successful. Others aren’t convinced all the effort to do so will amount to new business.

Even if businesses do figure out how to use the virtual event to connect with their tried and true customers, there’s no guarantee that eyeballs will translate to sales. Some customers may no longer be able to afford art, gifts and home decor from Hawaii in a virus-ravaged economy.

“People have always found it difficult to shop online from businesses in Hawaii because the shipping costs are so high,” Carolan said. “But you know, as I tell people, it’s cheaper than an airplane ticket and a 14-day quarantine.”

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