By Meghan Akim & Alyson Shim – Ilima Photos LLC.
Hawaii is a gathering place for people across the globe. Some people save up for years to make their perfect, destination vacation come true. It is a tropical paradise to many, but for some, the islands are home. As anyone who lives here can attest, it is a delicate place socially, economically, culturally, politically, and racially.
The last year has exasperated and magnified the issues facing Hawaii and forced so many locals and native Hawaiians to look within themselves to be the financial solution to (what seemed to be) a never-ending financial battle.
This is an inside look at life behind the curtains of paradise, and the story of our small, Hawaiian business’s fight for survival during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When most people think of Hawaii, they picture blue oceans, sipping on pina coladas, dolphins, and a woman swaying to music while wearing a grass skirt. Despite what many people believe, thatched roof huts are not commonplace. On Oahu, Honolulu serves as a bustling international metropolis. Its size may be small but it is a massive city with a large population in the workforce.
The majority of Hawaii’s economic structure is dependent on tourism. When airlines first slowed down, tourism plummeted, and a chain reaction began. Only after these changes did we realize our state’s reliance upon the hospitality and tourism industry. Nearly a quarter of the state’s economy comes from tourism, and the state saw the second highest rate of permanent business closures from the beginning off the pandemic.
Across all islands, the once lively and vibrant day-to-day hustle was brought to its knees by the pandemic. The main tourist strip of Waikiki had a few people walking down it versus the thousands of tourists we would see on any normal day. Beaches, for the first time since before our parents’ generations, were empty. With businesses unable to make any forward progress with the crippling but necessary restrictions, the islands were sentenced to wait anxiously for the opportunity to reopen.
The only option for many residents was to simply watch in silence, sadness, and frustration as our economy crumbled, and to hope for the best in an uncertain future. Some took on side projects, moved, sold off their belongings, took out loans, and had to get creative to make ends meet.
With the price of a gallon of milk costing more than a gallon of gas on a regular basis in this state, it was daunting to even visit the local grocery store.
Hawaii’s interconnectivity caused a chain reaction once the governor shut everything down. Businesses started to struggle. Such was the case for Ilima Photos, our small, family-run business. Specializing in school photography, schools were being conducted in homes and over zoom conference calls. Our school accounts were closed, not allowing outside visitors, or at half the normal capacity. As a school photography company that cannot operate unless schools are open, the instantaneous feeling was that our market was snatched up right before our eyes; not just the income, but the entire consumer base was erased from our business overnight.
If the pandemic only impacted tourism, we may have escaped with fewer injuries; however, in combination with schools moving online and lockdowns in effect, our business faced great uncertainty. While we were not directly impacted by the lack of tourism, the parents who purchase school photos for Picture Day were also struggling to make ends meet. People were not spending what they used to and if they were spending, consumers’ priorities were not on pictures.
We felt the devastation, and instantly knew that in order to survive we had to pivot. We had to look at the existing market and see how we could appeal to it.
As an image based business, we began to challenge ourselves to think of other ways to manage images. In the growing digital age, we decided to implement a system that was held entirely online.
The pictures would be taken in person but the entire process of ordering occurred online with a new database. Prior to the pandemic, we would go into schools to take pictures but since that was no longer available for many schools, we opened a studio in downtown Honolulu that students and parents could visit to get their school pictures taken.
Instead of focusing primarily on schools, we shifted our marketing to production and media. Our company has become an all-encompassing studio production to partner with contractors on different projects with the hopes of native Hawaiians having access to government contracts, both state and federal. We needed to diversify because we never want to be at the mercy of school closures again. While working with kids has been our niche for so long, the market needed to open to us to work with people of all ages and on different projects.
Another area of focus has been digital footprint removal and management. Most people today can be googled and a picture will pop up of them. Privacy is becoming more and more of a point of contention in the United States political arena. Many people, whether it be starting out their careers or have a family, may not want pictures of them at a college party in the future.
We are looking to manage and mitigate individual media content to potentially erase digital footprints that people no longer want on the internet.
Some additions to our business model in the last year have been providing and assisting small businesses with their online presence and taking headshots. We have had a greater focus on marketing than ever before. Even something as simple as a few quick and professional photos is enough to open up the doors for markets on Facebook and Instagram. Compared to mainland cities, Hawaii has an extraordinary amount of “mom and pop” stores intermingled in the fabric of the islands.
There is a growing gap between businesses that have embraced online presence and those that either did not see it as essential or could not invest into the marketing. For those that managed to survive the lockdowns, Ilima was seeking to aid in their struggle. After all, providing an image goes far beyond taking photos, it is a form of marketing. For older businesses Ilima was able to help bridge the technology gap and help businesses create an online presence.
At the end of this though, what would be of the original layout of the company?
We wrestled with the prospect of school photography in the future. Starting from the baseline of “Will it even exist?” With that as a safer bet as time goes on, we decided to move forward. The next question remains uncertain, how will school photography change, and how will it have to adapt to a new environment?
Will kids be taking their school pictures in the near future?
Quite possibly – but the concern about school pictures is no longer an issue. If schools were no longer having Picture Day, we are ensuring that it will only take a slice of our revenue stream. Diversifying and seeing what the current market needs for digital media, production, and management is how we have become resilient in this pandemic.