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More business coverage of the North Bay fires: nbbj.news/2017fires

They’ll be back. The tourists, that is.

The fires in Sonoma and Napa have wiped out hotels, businesses, vineyards, and delayed hotel openings, but visitors to the region are standing by.

“Sonoma County Tourism has been flooded with well wishes and requests from around the country on how people can help Sonoma County recover,” said Tim Zahner, interim CEO, Sonoma County Tourism.

Just last week a group booked 2,600 nights for an upcoming event in Sonoma.

“They are booking because they want to support us,” Zahner said. “It’s a confidence booster, a real shot in the arm.”

Clay Gregory, CEO of Visit Napa Valley, said the organization has heard from people all over the world.

“That’s the great character of Napa Valley. People love it and want to see it do well,” he said.

Hospitality is the largest private industry in Sonoma and Napa Counties. More than 7 million visitors come to Sonoma each year, and last year 3.5 million came to Napa Valley. The tourism industry generates more than $1.9 billion annually in both counties, and government revenue in the form of taxes from tourism is more than $158 million per year in Sonoma, and $80.4 million in Napa last year.

More than 20,000 jobs in Sonoma are related to the industry, and it supports an estimated 13,400 job in Napa.

Altogether, the fires burned more than 100,00 acres, but approximately 90 percent in Sonoma, and 86 percent of the area in Napa was not affected.

For Napa, the fire disaster is comparable to the 6.0 magnitude that hit in 2014, but it’s much more complicated from many angles, Gregory said. The damage from the earthquake was limited to the downtown area, and only one winery, Trefethen, suffered damage.

“This disaster has affected so many more people, with more damage, and loss of life,” he said. “With the earthquake we were comfortable after the second week reopening for business.”

Allowing visitors back after the fires will depend upon safety measures like clean air.

Bouncing back from the fires also presents a complex marketing challenge, Gregory said, requiring sensitivity and appreciation of the first responders, and acknowledging those who lost their lives, homes, and businesses.

“There will definitely be a more nuanced start to the marketing part of it,” he said.

Both Sonoma County Tourism and Visit Napa Valley quickly posted information and updates about the fires on their websites and in email blasts.

Both organizations also listed businesses, including wineries, that are open or closed, noting those closed may be due to employees unable to get to work or a power outage, and are not necessarily burned down.

Marketing also will take on the national news, which has exaggerated reports on damage from the fires, Zahner said.

“In the moment it’s hard to combat. The images are strong,” he said.

The first step is to acknowledge what happened, and get word out through social media The first target is the Bay area, where people know the geography, he said.

“Continue to support Sonoma County wineries, breweries, cheese makers, farmers, and local artisans. Purchases of items that were bottled in, made in, grown in, brewed in or otherwise came from Sonoma County help local families recover economically,” Zahner urged in a recent press release. “When the time is right, we’re going to need you more than ever to visit and help Sonoma County’s hospitality community get back to work. Our 20,000-plus tourism jobs are among small, locally owned businesses. We want to see you and welcome you to the Sonoma County we all love.”

More business coverage of the North Bay fires: nbbj.news/2017fires

Taking care of community

In the hospitality industry as a whole, when natural disasters happen, travel organizations like Visit California, San Francisco Travel and Visit San Diego, work together to help each other recover Zahner said, with marketing and referral support.

Within Napa and Sonoma, in the week after the fires started, hospitality businesses transitioned from welcoming tourists to welcoming evacuees, first responders, and PG & E workers.

A handful of hotels, like The Napa Inn offered free rooms to evacuees, and others, like the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa, were offering discounted rates to evacuees Gregory said.

Restaurants were also offering free meals, like Amy’s Drive Thru in Rohnert Park.

The Double Tree by Hilton in Rohnert park became a one-stop shop for evacuees, supplying them with donated clothes and toiletries, Zahner said.

From the outside, people are impressed the way the community is coming together, Gregory said, “In spirit helping each other and the folks on the ground. There are signs everywhere thanking the first responders. I even overheard a firefighter tell his wife, after observing the outpouring, they should move to Napa Valley.”

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.