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After slow start, tourism group sets out to build support

NAPA – Armed with a new president and chief executive officer, the rejuvenation of the valley's tourism council appears to finally be making progress, garnering support for the first time from cities countywide.

In October last year, the Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau announced a reorganization meant to increase its effect on destination marketing. The group rebranded itself the Napa Destination Council, and hope for progress was stimulated by a new powerhouse board of directors including vintner Jack Cakebread and celebrity chef and local entrepreneur Michael Chiarello.

The council's biggest challenge would be closing a long-existing fissure between the group and up-valley cities, which expressed doubts about the bureau.  As part of the changes, the group dropped its membership structure to try and appear more inclusive but at the same time created another setback, eliminating its primary funding stream.

City of Napa constituents also expressed disappointment with the related decision to close the bureau's downtown visitors center.

Very little seemed to come out of the council immediately following the October announcement, and, at the same time, the recession caused occupancy rates in Napa to fall by nearly 22 percent in the first months of 2009.

Subsequently, city leaders in St. Helena, Calistoga, Yountville and others pursued individual marketing efforts.

"There is no question that in the past the council had very limited support," said past Destination Council board chair and Charter Oak Bank President and Chief Executive Officer Brian Kelly.

Mr. Kelly said the council did focus its efforts during the first months on crafting a strategic plan that began with the addition of permanent President and CEO Clay Gregory and the launch of a comprehensive public relations effort.

"We were thrilled to bring in someone like Clay that has such extensive credibility and connections in the community," said board member and Auberge Resorts Principal George Goeggel.

"I think he will bring incredible integrity to the process and help make up for past mistakes and hopefully build some bridges."

Mr. Gregory assumed the role July 29 after a search including about 153 candidates. The wine industry veteran is a past president of the Napa Valley Vintners Association and former executive with Jackson Family Wines. He also worked in various positions with the Robert Mondavi Co. over 14 years and served as president and board member of the Oakville Winegrowers and Stags Leap Winegrowers.

Now at the close of his first month of work, Mr. Gregory said he has identified four strategic objectives, beginning with the implementation of the public relations contract. The council is currently funded through about $440,000 in short-term grants from the city of Napa and the county, which equates to about 1.5 percent of the county's total transient-occupancy tax revenue.

"We need to show our hotel, winery, restaurant and other visitor constituents that what we are producing is having an effect and could have more of an effect with their support in spirit and in finances," he said.

At the same time, the council would like to set up a business-improvement district similar to the bureau's funding model in Sonoma, which adds a hotel tax to pay for destination marketing. Mr. Gregory said a sustainable funding model is needed in order to ensure a lasting effect, but the structure could take another year to finalize. Also, in order to implement this kind of plan, businesses, likely hotels, would have to vote to tax themselves.

Mr. Gregory said the council will also focus efforts on better communication with constituents and possibly garnering more financial support. Last week the executive sat down with business and government leaders from each city with the goal of updating them on the council's progress.

"Over the years, it has been unclear to businesses and government and the media exactly what the council was doing," he said.

"Now we are going forward with a much more consistent and clear vision, and I think the county will finally get the marketing it deserves."

The fourth initiative will involve setting performance benchmarks and conducting regular self assessments.