Visitor Industry Powerhouse

The whole world loves beautiful Kaua'i, and one of the reasons is Sue Kanoho, who heads the Island's visitors bureau and has been instrumental in luring big Hollywood projects here. Amanda C. Gregg photo

She’s been head of the Kaua’i Visitors Bureau for nearly two decades. The former stunt woman from Laguna Beach, Calif., (who fell in love with a local boy in 1987 and never looked back) has walked the red carpet on behalf of Kaua’i at the Academy Awards and has lured some of Los Angeles’ biggest names to the Garden Island. Travel Agent magazine named her one of the “Most Powerful Women in Travel” six times, though her power isn’t limited to just her career: She also has a black belt in karate.

One would never guess it at first glance, but Kaua’i Visitor Bureau executive director Sue Kanoho, who grew up with only male siblings, was a self-proclaimed tomboy back in the day. And since tourism packs quite a punch when it comes to Kaua’i’s economy, perhaps it’s fitting that Kanoho got some of her best life and work lessons practicing kata as a teenager.

“I started martial arts at 16 years old,” she says, “and I loved it.”

Kanoho, who majored in psychology and minored in communications at Saddleback College and did a short stint at Cal State Fullerton, says she used to compete in kata on the West Coast.

The teachings she took away from that still play a vital role in her profession.

“Much of my martial arts training helps me today,” she says. “Performing in an arena all by yourself full of hundreds of people has helped me with my public speaking at work.”

Sue Kanoho with actress mitzi Gaynor at the ‘south Pacific’ 50th anniversary celebration at Princeville. Photo courtesy Sue Kanoho

Calling martial arts along with kahiko hula “springboards” that gave her a foundation of confidence, Kahono learned discipline and dedication from the competitions. Kata not only brought out her inner strength, but it helped her land one of her first dream jobs as a Hollywood stunt woman – a little-known fact that she is shy about discussing.

“Because of my martial arts background, I was hired as a stunt person a couple of times: Once for Charlie’s Angels with an alligator, doubling for Jamie Lee Curtis, and another TV show called 240-Robert (with Mark Harmon) interacting with lions.” Kanoho says the gift in these experiences was that she was able to “check it off her list of dreams.”

Working her dream job now representing Kaua’i, it makes sense that Kanoho was drawn to such activities, as she’s come to be quite the force for the island’s visitor industry. Directing Kaua’i Visitors Bureau for the past 14 years, Kanoho seems to live her motto: “Actions speak louder than words.” Those actions have meant advocating for visitor safety, serving on multiple boards and putting a culturally accurate spotlight on the island and its people.

The driving force behind the Kaua’i Water Safety Task Force, Kanoho has been meeting with guidebook creators and has helped put legislation on the floor (SB 1208 and HB 552) to hold travel publications liable for any subsequent injury or fatality to visitors taking illegal advice (like trespassing to reach Kipu Falls).

“For eight years we’ve been working on that concept,” Kanoho says. “If everybody could state in their guidebook: ‘Be advised, you’re trespassing, it is dangerous and people have died here,’ then maybe we wouldn’t see so many drownings each year.”

The whole world loves Kaua‘i: Kanoho with a Travel + Leisure award, “best island” magazine stories and Kaua‘i’s own doll Kanani. Amanda C. Gregg photo

Kanoho and others who felt strongly about the safety issue went out on a big limb with the “guidebook bill,” which Kaua’i’s state Rep. Jimmy Tokioka and Sen. Ronald Kouchi introduced.

Though the proposed legislation didn’t pass, it got discourse going: a success in Kanoho’s book. “What it did do was bring some of those to the table who weren’t willing to before, and it put a little more attention on the subject. Hopefully moving forward we can all work together a little bit better.”

Kanoho’s collaboration on putting the spotlight on dangerous, highly visited sites like Kipu Falls and Queen’s Bath also caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal, and made front page news April 22, 2011 (below the fold, but still).

Advocating for visitor safety doesn’t end with water, however. A key member of Mayor Bernard P. Carvalho’s Crime Task Force, Kanoho is the president (and co-creator) of the Visitor Aloha Society of Kaua’i. Dubbed VASK, the organization that began nearly a decade ago caters to visitors who have become victims of crime while on Kaua’i.

She also serves with the Kaua’i Planning and Action Alliance, the Chamber of Commerce and the Kaua’i Academy of Travel and Tourism. But work doesn’t really end with the job (or board) description for Kanoho. Going above and beyond seems to be commonplace for her – a good example is the recent Rebecca Thompson missing person case. (Thompson, who was confirmed dead Sept. 10, was found in a wooded area off Loop Road in Wailua). Kanoho not only acted as an advocate and liaison for the family, but through her work with the Kaua’i Health and Wellness Association, helped the family reach closure on the loss of their daughter.

On a sister city visit to Oshima, Japan, in 2006 with Beth Tokioka. Photos courtesy Sue Kanoho

“It was only when I came to Kaua’i that I really felt I could make a difference,” Kanoho says. “And that drove me to give 110 percent whenever I can.”

Despite how horrifying it must have been for Thompson’s family members, they were so grateful for what Kanoho had done that they donated $2,800 to KVB in an effort to thank her. In a reciprocal gesture, Kanoho used her contacts to find the photographer from the lu’au that Thompson attended while on-island, and had the picture sent to the family.

As for dealing with tragedies such as the Thompson case or the recent Ultralight fatality off Kaua’i’s North Shore, Kanoho says each circumstance brings new challenges.

“Each time we learn from these situations we see how we can do it better next time,” she says. “In all our projects at KVB, I always try to see what worked, what didn’t and what can be improved on next time.”

It was because of the crisis at Ka Loko Dam Reservoir in 2006 that KVB created the daily “update” button on the KVB home page.

“In the beginning of the breach, there was a lot of inaccurate information, and we became the clearing house for it, tied in with the Mayor’s Office,” Kanoho says. The Big Island followed suit after its Oct. 15, 2006, earthquake.

Though it may seem as if she never has time to enjoy her family, Kanoho finds time for her favorite things, like lying around in shorts and T-shirt watching a movie with firefighter husband Solomon Kanoho and updating the scrapbooks she keeps for the family, which includes their son, 20-year-old Justin, who graduated from Kamehameha Schools-Kapalama in 2008 and now attends Southern Oregon University.

With son Justin and husband Solomon, a firefighter

“We like to go to Kukui Grove Cinemas every few months to watch a movie – that’s our big night on the town … and OK, I might sneak in a little work too,” she says.

Perhaps it’s that “sneaking in work” that enabled her to also get a sweepstakes project going for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and for the movie The Descendants with George Clooney, as well as have enough time for blitzes in Los Angeles, Dallas and Phoenix over the next few months.

But Kanoho doesn’t take all the credit.

“I have a wonderful family. Thank God for my blessings of having such a supportive husband, and we have a wonderful son, and I have a great team at KVB. I am so blessed and fortunate: I have the most beautiful island in the whole wide world to represent.

“What more could a girl ask for?”