Coastal Virginia: Out of the Cornfield
by Scott D. Miller
Before I accepted the presidency of Virginia Wesleyan College in 2015, I gave little thought to what folks call this water-heavy region.
I was working as president of Bethany College in West Virginia. In studying for my new job, I learned the college actually straddled the line between two cities: Norfolk and Virginia Beach. I also began hearing a lot of references to “Hampton Roads” – a location that didn’t show up on any highway map I’d ever seen.
Eventually I realized the term was a historic description for the body of water – I vaguely remembered it from studying Civil War history, the clash of the ironclads and all that – and the greater metro area that extended down into North Carolina.
Who knew? I didn’t.
And it suddenly occurred to me that prospective students might not either. So I asked some of my Bethany students, several of them interns at a Pittsburgh-based marketing firm, to look into the effectiveness of using the term “Hampton Roads” in advertising.
My goal as Virginia Wesleyan’s fourth president was to expand enrollment and enhance the visibility of the college, which was founded in 1961 in a cornfield outside Norfolk. I wanted to make sure that our institutional marketing wouldn’t be left out on the farm.
The students found that “Hampton Roads” had little recognition outside the immediate area. For prospective students from Philadelphia, New York, Boston, even Washington, the name wouldn’t mean a thing.
The interns also rejected “Tidewater Virginia,” an equally historic, traditional, romantic-sounding designation. The problem was it wouldn’t impress online millennials.
Campus marketing had changed significantly from the early days of my career. Gone were the colorful admission books filled with photos of students lounging on campus quads, studying earnestly and tossing Frisbees between exams. Now college is more than a regimented curriculum; it’s a lifestyle, a happening destination, a place you wanted to brag about to your high school classmates. And according to my research group, “Hampton Roads” wasn’t sexy.
“Try ‘Coastal Virginia,’ ” they said.
I saw the logic. Virginia Wesleyan was only about 15 minutes from the Oceanfront. The school’s biggest major was biology. Heck, its mascot was a big blue fish named Bob Marlin. To an incoming student from Buffalo or Boston, “Coastal Virginia” would sound pretty irresistible.
After I arrived we overhauled our website, replacing staid landlocked images with surfboards; a shot of our research vessel jointly operated with the Virginia Aquarium, the Ocean Explorer; and Bob Marlin heading off to the water. We put a king-size lifeguard’s chair in the lobby of our administration building. We played up our Chesapeake Bay heritage and our very serious commitment, amid all the fun, to the study and preservation of our environmentally sensitive home.
With the change from “Hampton Roads” to “Coastal Virginia,” we could announce instantly where we were – indeed, who we were – to any prospective student or parent, anywhere.|
“Hampton Roads” still has a presence on our campus. We’ve welcomed the Volunteer Hampton Roads organization to a suite of offices, and broken ground for a joint partnership facility with the YMCA of South Hampton Roads.
But “Coastal Virginia” has won us over by driving our brand out of the cornfield and down to the shore. As we write the next chapter of our college in the rich and historic region of Hampton Roads, I recommend the switch as a highly effective marketing tactic.
From mascot Bob Marlin, it gets a big fins-up.
Hampton Roads: Corporately Colloquial
by Dale Bowen
Every so often it will come up in conversation: Someone will ask why we call this area Hampton Roads and I’ll have to explain the complicated story of how – and why – we worked so hard to define this region with that name.
See, as a marketing professional for The Virginian-Pilot back in the 1970s, I saw, as did a lot of other people in the business community, that this area was losing out economically to other, easily recognizable, markets.
At the time it operated as two different statistical areas: the Southside and the Peninsula. And guess what? Neither one ranked in the top 50 metropolitan statistical areas, which meant that when it came to corporations or other businesses looking to market somewhere, we were consistently overlooked.
So how do you fix that? The most obvious move was to merge our two markets. That alone would move us solidly into the top 50 and put us immediately in the running for all the benefits that go with that ranking.
Of course, the effort to merge was easier said than done. It took a six-year uphill battle to get the powers that be, especially on the Peninsula, to understand what the merger would mean for the region, how it would be politically advantageous and provide tangible benefits on both sides of the water.
Hundreds of meetings were held and presentations made to local business leaders, politicians, the entire congressional delegation, General Assembly legislators, civic organizations, and staffers with the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.
Eventually, the Peninsula delegation would not go along with the merger unless the area was named “Hampton Roads.” So that’s what we ended up proposing to the OMB. An application for that change was submitted in the early 1980s, which eventually led the OMB to officially merge the two markets in 1984. But there was a twist. The OMB instead changed the name to “Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Newport News” in order to keep consistency with its policy to name such areas after the three largest cities in the region.
Today, that designation stands, except Virginia Beach is now the area’s most populous city, and therefore it comes first in the marketing designation – Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Newport News.
Despite this, the moniker we pitched has caught on. Maybe because calling the area the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport
News region was too much of a mouthful. Or maybe it was because a lot of people liked calling this area Hampton Roads. It felt right. Connected. Professional. Plus, people from across the country had no idea what, or where, Tidewater was.
So now when you hear people talking, they are more likely than not to call this area Hampton Roads. And I’d say that over the past nearly 30 years, that change has resulted in many tangible and intangible benefits, the single most important being that it gave the region its scope and size and made it competitive with other markets across the country.
This designation doesn’t affect just big business. It also trickles down to the smallest retailers, and it impacts the type of culture we have in the area – from the opera to the types of shows that visit our region, just to name a couple.
So say it loud and proud. Hampton Roads!
Tidewater: More evocative than indicative
by Mary Architzel Westbrook
Several years ago, I was writing a collection of short stories set around Norfolk when I found myself struggling to find a way to identify this area, beyond naming individual cities.
“Hampton Roads” is a name rooted in Colonial history, but it felt wrong. It brought to mind congested highways, not safe harbors. I wanted something gauzier and, frankly, prettier, for my characters.
A fellow writer suggested I try “Tidewater,” pointing me to A Tidewater Morning by Newport News native William Styron.
I quickly embraced the name. It was lyrical. It made me think of marshes and creeks, the Chesapeake Bay and pink sunsets.
I eventually gave up on the short stories, but I kept using Tidewater, often to others’ confusion.
On vacation in New York or California, at a conference in Vermont, people would ask me where I’m from, and I’d say,
“Tidewater, Virginia,” only to be met with blank stares.
“Norfolk,” I’d finally sigh. “It’s southeast of Richmond, not far from North Carolina.”
That explanation, with city names, intercardinal directions and a state line reference, proved tiresome. I switched to Hampton Roads, which more people seemed to recognize.
“Big Navy base there?” they’d say. “A few of them, actually,” I’d reply. It’s unfulfilling, though, to feel resigned to a name, rather than inspired by it. After all, my husband and I have built entire trips around the name of a place: Tierra del Fuego! Who wouldn’t want to visit the Land of Fire?
When I say Hampton Roads, it rarely conjures a visual – if anything, it still makes me think of asphalt and concrete. Over the years, I’ve followed efforts to rebrand the region as Seven Cities, Coastal Virginia, CoVa. That final option leaves me coldest of all.
“RVA” may work well as a means to market Richmond, but “CoVa” always sounds to me like a health plan, or a medical condition you’d avoid.
Tidewater isn’t perfect either. It would never make it through a focus group or marketing firm: The name could be too easily confused with other tidal areas in Virginia. Maybe that’s the reason I hold out hope it will catch on.
Tidewater is organic. It’s part of who we are. Tidewater is also the name that best captures my favorite moments in the area: kayak trips, campouts, beach days and early morning walks around estuaries and creek beds, my kids covered in sand, chasing tiny crabs.
It speaks to our history, including our pre-Colonial days, and our challenges. In recent months, my husband and I have been poring over flood maps as we search for a new home in the area, a rite of passage familiar to anyone who wants to put down (soggy) roots here.
I think back sometimes on my abandoned stories, buried deep now in a desk drawer. They were flawed and messy, not unlike this region I call home. Still, I chose to use Tidewater in them because the name evoked something I wanted to be part of, something I wanted to create.
That’s what a good place name should do: Pique curiosity. Hint at a larger story. Pull from something real. Paint a picture of what’s possible.