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.
Geographically, Hampton Roads itself is actually a harbor near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. No cities or counties in the area are called Hampton Roads, although there is a Hampton in the region and a Hampton Roads Convention Center. While Chesapeake is a city considered part of Hampton Roads, it is not on the Chesapeake Bay.
For generations, the communities on the south side of the harbor — Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk — referred to themselves as the Tidewater area. Those on the north side of the harbor — Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg and York County — referred to their area as the Virginia Peninsula. They were connected by the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.
In 1983, each city's Chamber of Commerce on the south side merged to create the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. About the same time, the area's business interests successfully rallied together to combine the regions into one metropolitan statistical area. Today, there are about 1.7 million people in the Hampton Roads area.
"We could've gone with Tidewater. That's the way this area was referred to from the time I was a kid here. But Tidewater was also considered too broad, because if you talk about Tidewater and look at a map, it really covers all the rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay," said Donna Morris, who was a part of the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce at the time.
While there are numerous regional planning and business groups with Hampton Roads in their names — and even a regional Hampton Roads flag — it was never fully embraced. Babcock contends two of the region's dominant tourism players were more concerned with their own self-interest than the region's as a whole.
"In the case of Virginia Beach and Williamsburg, the concern is reasonable: They don't want their well-established brand names inadvertently subsumed in a regional name," he wrote.
The Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance, which tries to lure businesses to move to the area on behalf of the region's local governments, doesn't actively try to generate name recognition for Hampton Roads. Its leadership has also had no discussions about changing its name, said its president, Darryl Gosnell.
Regardless of what local organizations think of Hampton Roads or the name Coastal Virginia, at least one state agency is already supportive of the Coastal Virginia marketing strategy.
"We embrace it because we think it's genius marketing. It says what it is and where it is," said Rita McClenny, president and CEO of Virginia Tourism Corporation.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis