The Hawaiian Vanilla Company Experience

Lisa Brochu, my wife and consulting partner in Heartfelt Associates, recently celebrated a birthday and suggested we have her birthday lunch at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company. In two decades of traveling to 24 countries and 50 U.S. states to train and consult on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences, we had somehow managed to miss visiting a vanilla farm, so it seemed the perfect opportunity.


Jim Reddekopp founded the Hawaiian Vanilla Company in 1998 following up on a dream to develop his own unique agritourism business. His in-laws were orchid enthusiasts and explained to him that the vanilla orchid is the only orchid that produces an edible fruit. He began his journey to create America’s first commercial vanilla company and admits today he might not have pursued this dream had he known the complexity and challenges ahead.


We live on the Kona or west side of the Big Island of Hawaii and have a small coffee farm where we also raise miniature horses. I teach tourism and destination planning at Palamanui Campus of Hawaii Community College and learning more about unique tourism experiences is always of value. Many of our students grow up on unique Big Island farming operations but don’t always realize the tourism opportunities available with most kinds of farming.


Jim Reddekopp prepares the appetizer table side.

They have a capacity of 24 people per day, but I booked two tickets easily over the Internet, choosing the combination of the Vanilla Luncheon and a guided tour of the vanilla farm, a total of $84 plus tax. The tour alone is $25. The farm is about three miles uphill from the main highway between Honokaa to Hilo at the village of Paauilo, almost a two-hour drive for us. We arrived about noon at the yellow building that houses their food service and Vanilla Shoppe. The building was once a coffee processing plant and later a meat processing operation, since this part of eastern Hawaii has had a rich history of changing agricultural fortunes from sugar cane to coffee to ranching.


The lunch began with Jim, the founder, cooking an appetizer at table side that consisted of a delicious shrimp with vanilla infused spice rub, sautéed in olive oil and served on a crisp bread with vanilla mango chutney. The entrée was a tasty vanilla citrus bourbon chicken sandwich topped with vanilla caramelized onions on a vanilla-flavored sweet bread bun with a choice of vanilla aioli or vanilla BBQ sauce, roasted spiced potatoes and an organic tossed salad with a vanilla raspberry balsamic vinegar dressing topped with spicy honey-peppered pecans. We tried the vanilla-flavored Jimmy Boy beverage, their own version of the Arnold Palmer combination of lemonade and iced tea. The meal was delicious and Jim shared the story of how vanilla accentuates flavors when activated by citrus, cream or alcohol. He also shared how to make your own vanilla extract by combining slit vanilla pods in a bottle with your favorite alcohol – vodka, whiskey, rum or whatever.


After lunch, Ian, Jim’s son, took us down the hill for a visit to the shade houses used to grow the vanilla orchid vines. Ian told the story of their learning journey very well. They credit Tom Kadooka, a Big Island orchid specialist with getting them started. Visits to Mexico farms that produce vanilla and Madagascar where the very best vanilla is produced added to their knowledge bases. Their approaches to growing and harvesting evolved over several years, but the current

Ian shared their unique story while showing us the growing vanilla vines.

system seems to be working well. Orchid vines take from two to five years to mature enough to produce flowers, depending on propagation methods. An orchid flower opens for only 4 hours and must be hand-pollinated in that period or no seed pod is produced. It is a very labor intensive farming activity, perhaps only second to the production of saffron. The pods have to grow for two months, be picked green and blanched, and then stored in a very specific environment and hand massaged to produce the best vanilla. The five Reddekopp children have grown up working to produce the unique crop and their good efforts show.


After the tour, we returned to the Vanilla Shoppe and snack bar. Cold water and a cup of vanilla ice cream completed the tour, along with a short video to reinforce what we’d just learned about the process of growing and harvesting vanilla, followed by a cup of vanilla flavored coffee (along with cream and vanilla sugar if desired). Jim answered questions and shared a favorite quote, “dreams come one size too big so you can grow into them.” They had a big dream twenty years ago and they have grown into it, producing more than 1,700 pounds of vanilla pods each year. They also produce more than 80 unique products using their vanilla as an ingredient. It would be challenging to go through the meal and tour and then leave without buying vanilla flavored items at their gift shop and so of course, we loaded up a basket of goodies to enjoy later, including the “make your own extract” kit of a bottle with three vanilla beans (add your own liquor).


You can stop by during daily hours for a quick snack and shop in their gift store.

The Reddekopp family added the tourism component to a very successful vanilla production farm to create year-round employment for their best employees. It’s a labor-intensive business and keeping a well-trained workforce makes it all better. For the Big Island it is a unique attraction and one more place for tourists and island residents to get a glimpse of a unique agri-business. We left the experience with new stories to tell and a new appreciation of the complex flavors enhanced by vanilla.


-Tim Merriman



Dolphin Swims on the Big Island

Sometimes there are no easy answers to complex problems. Dolphin swims on the Big Island have been around for several decades as a recreational activity. As visitors to the island we, like many others, enjoyed amazing experiences on dolphin swims with Dolphin

Family groups cruise by when you are near dolphins in the water.

Family groups cruise by when you are near dolphins in the water.

Journeys’ Captain Nancy Sweatt. She always provided a high quality and very ethical experience, emphasizing respect for the spinner dolphins and other marine life we would see.


A dolphin swim is one of the most connecting experiences I have ever had on land or in the water. Her boat, Dolphin TLC, would drop us off in an area where dolphins were sighted cruising in about 60 to 90 feet of water over light colored sand. We were instructed to wait for dolphins to come near on their own, and told not to pursue them or swim toward them. We watched, took photographs, and kept memories close to our hearts. These experiences caused us to do

It works well to just be there and wait. They come up to breathe, jump and spin, or just cruise by.

It works well to just be there and wait. They come up to breathe, jump and spin, or just cruise by.

more research on spinner dolphins and learn more about the controversies surrounding human interaction with them.


Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) spend their nights diving down as deep as 1,000 meters to feed on fish and squid. In the daytime they cruise to shallow bays (100 feet or less) usually over sand or an open bottom to rest. One side of their brain sleeps while the other keeps them cruising down near the bottom for several minutes with quick moves to the surface for a breath and then back to the bottom. They need this resting period each day to remain healthy and strong enough to head back out to deeper waters to feed.


Some come close to take a look at us as we study them.

Some come close to take a look at us as we study them.

When we first went out with Dolphin Journeys, ours was often the only boat around, with just six swimmers and a crew member in the water to encourage respectful behavior. In recent years the number of operators has grown to a dozen or more in Kailua-Kona area alone. Dolphins in four bays on Hawaii and one on Maui might have as many as sixteen boats near them and 60 to 100 swimmers in the water each morning. Some boats have crew members helping and other seem to just drop their clients in the water, picking them up if the dolphins leave the area or their schedule dictates time to go.


Watching dolphins from a boat is interesting but not nearly as powerful, as connecting as seeing them close while in the water. They approach boats and sometimes cruise along with them, seemingly for fun.

Watching dolphins from a boat is interesting but not nearly as powerful, as connecting as seeing them close while in the water. They approach boats and sometimes cruise along with them, seemingly for fun.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) has a policy and enforcement role related to marine mammals and they have set previous guidelines which include directions to not harass dolphins. Recently NOAA’s scientists have expressed concern about increased pressure on dolphins from swimmers, primarily associated with commercial boat tours but also in bays easily reached from the shore, such as Honaunau Bay.


A new proposal by NOAA will effectively ban dolphin swims from boats and in coastal waters throughout the islands. It will require swimmers to leave areas of a bay if dolphins come in to rest. NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office is holding six public hearings to get comments about the new regulations. I attended the first one at Konawaena High School and stayed for the first 3 hours of what likely turned out to be five or six hours of comments from 100 or more people with a total audience of 200 or more. As you might expect there were comments both directions – don’t change the regulations and implement the complete ban in coastal waters. Perhaps three-quarters at that meeting preferred the “no change” option.


My comments were from my unique perspective with more than four decades of working in interpretation of natural and cultural resources. Swimming near spinner dolphins is one of the most connecting experiences I have ever had. While there are definitely differences in species and circumstances, the situation reminds me of the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.



Mountain gorillas have come back from the brink of extinction in E. Africa. Tourism is a critical component for it pays for protection and helps people understand these poorly understood primate relatives of humans.

Researcher Dian Fosse opposed gorilla tourism. After her death, other biologists worked with government officials to develop gorilla tourism in hopes of saving habitat for and providing protection for gorillas. The mountain gorilla population was down to only 220 individuals. Largely due to the anti-poaching protection afforded by tourists with armed guides and guards, it has grown to more than 900 today. A strictly regulated number of tourists go out each day in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo with wild but habituated gorillas. Gorilla tourists often describe the experience as life changing. Swimming with dolphins has that feel also.


Who is helping people learn about dolphins and connect with these fascinating mammals since government agencies do not put ocean interpreters on the water with the public? More than 3,000 paid interpreters with National Park Service and 70,000 volunteers interpret 413 national parks, monuments and battlefields. A few dozen environmental educators and interpreters do similar duties in marine sanctuaries. For the most part, interpretation of dolphins and other marine mammals is left to private dolphin swim operators.


Spinner dolphins out swim us with little effort. When they come close, you feel privileged to get a good look. They are amazing.

Spinner dolphins out swim us with little effort. When they come close, we feel privileged to get a good look. They are amazing.

I think these activities should be allowed with some reasonable and enforceable regulations, but the proposed regulations do not seem reasonable or enforceable. NOAA law enforcement representative indicated fines could be as much as $100,000 and a year in jail – just for swimming near dolphins. NOAA lacks the staff to actually monitor these rules and if they did make arrests and get convictions, the public relations reactions could be more damaging than helpful.


Most of us who have been near them in the water have stories of dolphins coming over to inspect us, sometimes playfully, sometimes slowly, watching with care. Several who gave comments told anecdotes of dolphins seeking human help to untangle fishing line from their flippers or tails.


Largely missed in this conversation is the opportunity for citizen science. If the researchers at NOAA provided survey forms and training to boat operators and dolphin watchers from the shore, data could be collected that might answer some of the many unanswered questions about these unique creatures. Are spinner dolphin populations increasing, staying the same or in decline? What time of day do they arrive at each bay and what time do they leave? What exactly do they do while resting if undisturbed and how does that differ from when they interact with humans? It was interesting that everyone in the room shared a passion for helping dolphins. How do we harness that passion and commonality?


Can dolphin watchers, lovers, swimmers and advocates be allowed some accommodation to sharing the waters of Hawaii?


If ever we needed more inter-species understanding it is now and those who love dolphins would enjoy being involved in better protection and interpretation of them. NOAA is an agency of science and policy charged with protecting oceans and the atmosphere. We do appreciate what they do as an agency. We also need a grand effort to interpret oceans and connect people with these vital bodies of water and their inhabitants. Here is a great chance to collaborate, protect and interpret these fascinating animals.


– Tim Merriman



We’re Nuts about Hamakua Nut Factory’s Tour

mac1We have driven by the sign pointing up the hill in Kawaihae, Hawaii, many times. Hamakua Nut Factory Tour is just one block off of the main highway from Kailua-Kona to Hawi on the Big Island of Hawaii. Having a guest with us, we were looking for a macadamia nut factory tour and the time was right to finally check it out.


Hamakua is a district on the northeast of the island, but Hamakua Nut Factory is in Kohala, the northwest district, over an hour’s drive from the mac nut orchards of Hamakua. The factory’s owner located in Kohala because it is a dryer part of the island facilitating more rapid drying of the nuts for processing. Also, the factory is less than a mile from the Kawaihae harbor that container ships use, the least expensive way to export products from the island.


macnut5We entered the Visitor Center and immediately were greeted by staff inviting us to try their varied flavors of mac nuts, mac nut brittle and mac nut kettle corns. They invited us to wash down the samples with a variety of Ka’u and Kona coffees made available for tasting. The food sampling display was exceptional and I even tried the spam-flavored mac nuts; not my favorite but not unpleasant. The coffee was excellent and demonstrated that good coffee comes from Ka’u District as well as Kona.


Down the hall from the reception area is a self-guided tour that begins with one of the best videos of an ag-industrial process I’ve seen. In less than five minutes, it told the processing story from collecting nuts to drying, cracking and on to the Hamakua Nut Factory kitchens and packaging plants. When the video was over, we turned around to walk along the windows looking into the kitchens where workers wearing protective clothing prepared the nuts in a variety of ways. They made batches of flavored and candied nuts from the raw product and packed the product into attractive sales bags or boxes. Similar ones were displayed along the hallway where the tour took place. Returning to the reception area of the macnut4Visitor Center, we had picked up more than a few items to purchase. The friendly sales staff rang up our purchases (with a kama’aina/local person’s discount) and then it was time to get out on the road to visit Hawi and Kapa’au, with just one more quick visit to the sampling table on the way out the door.


The charm of this self-guided tour was as appealing as the guided tour at Mountain Thunder I wrote about last week, in a different way. The tour invites visitors to stroll through at their own speed and ask questions of staff. It was just the right level of attention from well-trained staff, who were helpful without being intrusive. A visit could take five minutes or two hours, as desired. We have seen mac nut tours with viewing windows in other places, but not with the tour, tasting macnut3room and sales area under one roof. This approach tied the process, products and sales together very neatly. Mac nut ice cream and specialized coffee drinks were also available in the Visitor Center.


Interpretation of ag-industrial processes certainly makes sense from an economic perspective. They sell products to almost everyone who stops to look and taste. Ag tourism or agriturismo, as it is called in Italy, can transform a hard working agricultural district into one with literally hundreds of ag businesses that sell products and also deliver engaging experiences. Tuscany in Italy has more than 400 agriturismo businesses in that one province. They help visitors learn about farming practices, wine and cheese making, and local culture and provide charming places to stay with wonderful food.


The Bergdahl family enjoyed the humorous postcard photo opportunity.

The Bergdahl family from California enjoyed the humorous postcard photo opportunity.

I grew up in agricultural country in Illinois and saw few tours or experience-based ag businesses. Many farms sold their apples or peaches from roadside stands but few ever made the effort to tell their story in a way that engaged visitors more deeply. Engaged guests stay longer, buy more and tell their friends. Kids on ag tours learn that nuts, fruit, vegetables and fiber come from important processes after growing and harvest of ag products. At a time when many of a child’s experiences with the world are virtual, these real experiences have great attention getting and holding power.


We enjoy the agricultural ambiance of the Big Island. And we’re loving the sophistication of some of the agricultural tour opportunities we’ve seen. I guess it’s fair to say that we’re nuts about these macadamia factory tours.


-Tim Merriman



Underpromise, Overdeliver

We were on the Big Island of Hawaii last year and tried out a night swim with manta rays with a local company. We suited up with full wet suits, listened to the safety talk and then the photographer/naturalist gave us a pep talk. “This is going to be the best outdoor experience of your life.” He had just set his company up for failure and,  sure enough, it failed. He promised the best experience we would ever have and no mantas showed that evening. We’ve had some pretty remarkable experiences, so a miserable evening of lying in dark, cold water without the distraction of mantas or other marine life just wasn’t doing it for us.

He could have started the talk with “This is an underwater experience of great subtlety. The lights will attract tiny animals, zooplankton, and they will attract fish and on a very good night, the manta rays will show up.” The big brag at the beginning of any outdoor experience may not always be in your best interest. Ecotourists, adventure travelers and very experienced naturalists have done a lot in their lives. Personally I have sat in a giant panda nursery in China with 11 sixty-pound giant panda babies, seen lions and cheetahs in Tanzania from four feet away in the safety of a safari vehicle, and caught vampire bats in the middle of the night in Belize while wading through the Macal River among Morelet’s crocodiles. A new “best experience” would have to be stupendous to beat those and other situations in which we’ve found ourselves.

We would eventually swim with the mantas in a more thoughtfully managed experience in Hawaii with a different operator that did not promise anything, but suggested we might have a good night if we were lucky. That night, only one manta showed up and this 16-foot female swept back and forth near us two dozen times. It was amazing. It required no big buildup. It was simply a great experience on its own merit. We went away very happy with a new memory to tuck into our great times file.

Some experience planners suggest that a big “Wow” is needed to enhance every situation. Actually it often backfires to build a community, resort or adventure experience around the “Wow.” Weather, animal behavior, or group dynamics can derail any experience without warning. Helping people have a realistic idea of what they will encounter works much better, because when something amazing occurs it is even more exciting.

People try out new places and experiences for lots of reasons. They may just want to take a photo or two, make some new friends, show their children a special place or say they have been there and done that. Helping them understand the place, the people, the animals or the story is much more likely to make a lasting connection. And they may make that connection even on the evening when the “Wow” doesn’t show up or is underwhelming if the overall experience is thoughtfully planned to work with or without the “Wow.”

We sometimes underestimate our audiences. They come to an experience with varied expectations. The “Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter” research conducted by John Falk and others segments an audience into experience seekers, facilitators, spiritual rechargers, professionals/hobbyists and explorers. It makes the point that our guests often already know a lot about the resource and they expect thoughtful, ethical behavior from our organization. Their specific expectations of the experience differ. But the one size fits all approach of promising a “Wow” assumes that they’re all interested in the same thing and so misses the mark for many of them.

Planning outdoor and community experiences is more than generating big “Wows.” It requires visitor experience planning (interpretive planning) that includes thoughtful analysis of the audience. The planning must consider every step of the experience from Decision to the Entry through the Connections (tour, program, etc.) phase to the Exit and finally the Commitment (what will they do – buy a video, tell their friends, come back again).

The Decision point and Entry is where we set up their expectations. Promises are dangerous, especially superlatives like the “BEST EXPERIENCE EVER.” We are far better off to underpromise and then overdeliver. Our audience wants a realistic idea of what to expect and when we deliver more than expected, they are delighted.

-Tim Merriman