Hope is to create unified voice to promote industry; 'we employ a lot of people'

NAPA -- A group of hospitality professionals and event planners in Napa are forming a not-for-profit promotional organization.

The formation of the Wine Country Events and Wedding Professionals comes amid multiple challenges to the industry, including from the weak economy and what many perceive as a less-than-desirable outcome from the recent debate to alter components of the county’s Winery Definition Ordinance.

“I would say that’s kind of what sparked the idea, but we started to think, ‘Why didn’t we do this a long time ago?’” said Jenne Hohn, who is helping to form the organization and who runs an event-planning business in Napa and Sonoma, Jenne Hohn Events.

The group so far consists of about 15 businesses, without advertising yet, and is hoping to expand its ranks and be operational by November, according to Ms. Hohn.

Ms. Hohn, along with many in the hospitality and event-planning industry, was a chief proponent of loosening marketing restrictions imposed on wineries by the WDO. But the county board of supervisors in May adopted only slight changes to the rules.

One possible revision that was being considered – but that was ultimately rejected – was to relax restrictions on wineries to hold more weddings and other events as a means of luring a more diverse cross-section of visitors – thus stimulating an entire industry at a time of need.

Of the modified WDO, Ms. Hohn said, “Unfortunately it put tighter restrictions on special events," especially weddings, she said.  "They do allow more corporate business meetings. To some people that’s a loosening of the text. From my perspective, it’s tightening the rules.”

In response to the WDO ruling as well as the difficult economy, event and wedding professionals “decided to create a unified voice for the events-based hospitality industry by creating a marketing association,” Ms. Hohn said.

John Merritt, vice president of Elaine Bell Catering in Napa and Sonoma, is among the early supporters of the new organization. While the WDO provided some impetus for the formation, he said the benefits of working collaboratively should be explored in their own right.

“We think it’s important for people in the event business to join together to better explain what kind of contribution we can make,” he said. “Like any industry, if we can speak with one voice, that helps the community better understand what contributions we make. We employ a lot of people in the industry in Napa and Sonoma. The overall well-being of the industry is the primary thing.”

The new organization will include caterers, hostels, bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals, wineries and restaurants, among many others, according to Ms. Hohn. “Any and all event disciplines are welcome,” she said.

Ms. Hohn said the new organization will be driven by member dues and, as a not-for-profit, it will only seek cost recovery. It will be modeled on similar organizations in other wine destinations, notably the Monterey Bay Wedding and Event Professionals. Ms. Hohn said information is being shared with the Monterey group, and cross promotions will occur.

The new Napa organization will also focus its efforts in Sonoma County, where restrictions are less severe, as well as collaborate with the Napa Chamber of Commerce and the Napa Valley Destination Council. The latter recently won approval for a tourism improvement district that will implement a 2 percent assessment on visitor rooms, which will fund destination marketing.

Wine Country Events and Professionals is in the process of forming a legal association and obtaining liability insurance. It is also seeking attorneys and accountants willing to assist with the process, Ms. Hohn said.

Several major industry groups – including the Napa Valley Vintners Association, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, the Napa County Farm Bureau and the Winegrowers of Napa Valley – viewed the altered WDO as the best possible compromise between a broad array of interests.

“I think we would have liked it to have been different,” Mr. Merritt said, adding the new group hopes to contribute to the debate over what are appropriate uses of the county's wine and other assets.

“We want the growers and the vintners to know .... we pour enormous quantities of wine every year, and our clients have a very high interest in wine – that’s why they come here,” he said.