Optimism and an OHA Mālama Loan

Sponsored by Office of Hawaiian Affairs

HONOLULU (HI Now) - When Justin Naka’ahiki was growing up, his parents would always remind him about the valuable resources available to Native Hawaiians and encouraged him to take advantage of those opportunities.

The shy boy living on Hawaiian homestead land in the little town of Kekaha on the island of Kaua’i took his parents’ advice to heart. Thanks to the support of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Mālama Loans program for Native Hawaiian business owners, Naka’ahiki now owns his own company, Destination Marketing Hawai’i.

The small-town guy now in the big leagues. He runs a company with a vast network that connects Hawai’i to English-speaking audiences around the globe with compelling pre-arrival messages for various groups coming to our islands. One of his latest events was a major conference held in Hawai’i for 300 of the world’s travel industry leaders. Naka’ahiki is the ideal go-between. He capably represents Hawai’i to businesses throughout the world and represents the interests of businesses seeking support of Hawai’i. But success didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a long journey that has been full of doors. Fortunately, Naka’ahiki has entered all of the right doors and made all of his choices work. He’s the consummate example of someone who knows how to turn every situation into an opportunity.

After graduating from Waimea High School, Naka’ahiki received a marketing degree from the University of Hawai’i-Mānoa and hit the ground running. He worked in various account service roles at a Honolulu advertising agency and this led to a successful career in marketing in tourism and the travel industry. His 20-year career included a decade leading the marketing efforts for Aqua-Aston Hospitality. “I made a switch in my career just two months before the Great Recession,” Naka’ahiki recalls. The self-described optimist didn’t let the daunting challenges of a visitor decline and the challenging economic climate at the time derail him. He stayed with it. Little did he know that the tenacity and unshakable confidence he developed would one day be helpful for another challenge he would face in the future. In 2018, Naka’ahiki left the hotel industry with a wealth of connections and contacts, and joined Destination Marketing Hawai’i. The company’s owner, a single mom with three young boys, who had started the company in 1998, wanted Naka’ahiki to learn all about the business so that he could one day acquire and operate the business. Naka’ahiki had known the owner for years through his professional network. He enjoyed her mentorship and the freedom to take on big projects.

Then the unthinkable happened. Right after the ownership transfer occurred in 2020, the pandemic started. Suddenly, the visitor industry went into a tailspin. With the extended lockdown, visitors were no longer coming to Hawai’i.

“I saw colleagues who had been in the business for 20 to 30 years leave the industry,” Naka’ahiki said. Rather than fall into despair; however, Naka’ahiki saw the downtime as an opportunity for administrative housekeeping — getting all the paperwork in order within his newly acquired company.

“Since I was now my own boss, it was a time to reassess everything,” he said.

He also turned to OHA and federal funding sources to help his company get through the pandemic. Naka’ahiki said he learned about OHA’s loan program “through friends of friends and through cousins of cousins” and knew he would be in good hands. The financing came at a critical time to create a solid foundation for the company. Robert Crowell, a loan processor with OHA’s Native Hawaiian Revolving Loan Fund program, said OHA was able to provide Naka’ahiki with funds to revamp Destination Marketing Hawai’i’s portfolio of products and services, as well asprovide funding to keep Naka’ahiki’s assistant on staff. By 2021, Destination Marketing Hawai’i was ready to move forward.

The pandemic was also a time for introspection. Many Hawai’i residents had an opportunity to experience uncrowded beaches for the first time and understood need the protect and preserve Hawai’i’s natural beauty. Hawai’i Stewardship of our islands, destination management, and attracting the right types of visitors — instead of high volumes of visitors — became the topic of everyday conversations and high-level policy discussions.

Naka’ahiki not only looked at changes within his own company, but also changes in the way Hawai’i was being marketed and promoted.

Visit OHA’s Mālama Loans program for more information about loan application at loans.oha.org/business/malama-business