Remote work opportunities mean more North Bay visitors are mixing business with pleasure

Business travelers are not all the same. Road warriors sleep in hotels more than they do their own bed, some travel solo, others only in groups. Then there are those who mix business and pleasure.

It’s these “bleisure” travelers (business + leisure) who are beginning to make a stronger impact on the bottom line at hotels and ancillary businesses.

The pandemic led to the increase in this type of traveler with the ability to work from nearly anywhere. Add on the bottled-up desire for travel, and even more people are tacking on extra days after official business obligations are finished.

“The pandemic helped spawn a new wave of travelers called bleisure travelers. In a recent Morning Consult survey for AHLA, 56% of business travelers said they have extended a work trip for leisure purposes in the past year, and 86% of business travelers said they are interested in bleisure travel,“ said Chip Rogers, American Hotel & Lodging Association president and CEO.

Rogers added, “Bleisure travelers have different needs and expectations than traditional business travelers, and hotels are adapting to meet those needs. Perhaps the most important amenity for doing so is robust and secure internet services. This is key to accommodating telework. Other offerings vary from property to property, and examples might include more experience packages, changes in food offerings, or shuttle service to popular destinations.”

North Bay impacts

Mike Lennon, general manager of Calistoga Spa Hot Springs, said, “The question I get most is, ‘Can I trust your Wi-Fi?’”

His “yes” means that person can work and play at his Calistoga property. The Wi-Fi was upgraded during the pandemic specifically to cater to the bleisure traveler.

“We just had a Silicon Valley executive who took the opportunity to bring his family up while he could work. He was appreciative we could help him with that,” Lennon said.

Help comes by letting people use the conference room for a video call or other private business matter.

“We do see people traveling with family still doing business because we see them with laptops open and it looks like they are having conference calls,” Lennon said.

Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa’s sales team reports “approximately 70% of the resort’s meeting groups take advantage of either pre- or post-bleisure stays.”

“I think it’s a combination of a couple things. There is a lot of pent-up demand for travel. If a company is hosting a trip and you can work remotely or take time off or if you are only required to be in the office two or three days a week, you can easily work at a resort, especially if the company already paid to get you to and from the destination,” said Fairmont spokeswoman Michelle Heston.

An attraction for guests at this Sonoma property is that the discounted group rate can be extended to individuals who come early or stay longer.

Business travel expected to rebound

Business travelers are expected to take more trips in the next six months as respondents highlight growing benefits from face-to-face meetings despite lingering cost constraints and company travel policies.

Even though business travel spending is steadily increasing, budgets remain lower than 2019 levels for all types of business travel.

More executives in the fourth quarter considered business travel essential (81%), compared with earlier quarters.

Source: U.S. Travel Association

Corporate travel is close to pre-pandemic levels, according to Heston.

While leisure travel was the quickest to rebound since the pandemic, business travel is inconsistent at properties. Part of this has to do with companies reevaluating how they are spending money, the tech layoffs south of here, and the economy that teeters on a recession and suffers from inflation.

Even so, business travel is still a thing in the North Bay.

“In business groups, we are seeing a combination of business and leisure. And we are seeing shorter duration of business groups. It used to be three or four days, now it’s two or three days,” said Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley. “Folks are definitely extending their stay, either coming in early or staying longer after the meetings.”

For the Napa Valley Marriott Hotel and Spa, business travel only accounted for about 8% of bookings so far in 2023.

“This year’s results are in line with what we did in 2019, which was the last normal business cycle we’ve seen since there was so much noise in 2020 and 2021, with last year being an abnormal revenge travel year where results were robust and inflated due to pent up demand from the pandemic,” said Jeremy Spaulding, director of sales and marketing for the Napa hotel. “For our hotel, the bleisure is down.”

While Monica Hubert, general manager at Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa, doesn't have hard numbers, she knows the bleisure traveler is a growing segment of her room nights.

She, too, points to remote work being the reason for the increase.

Pure business travel is about 27% of her hotel’s bottom line.

The Sheraton Sonoma Wine Country in Petaluma is also putting up people who are combining fun and work.

“People are extending trips. More people are able to work remotely, so we are seeing more bleisure travel,” General Manager Max Childs told the Journal.

It’s not just the business traveler at his property who counts as a bleisure traveler.

“We enjoy when San Francisco has big conventions and they come to Wine Country to extend their stay,” Childs said.

Marin County has long been a beneficiary of the spillover from San Francisco business travelers.

“Bleisure travel has always been a focus for Marin since we aren’t a major city, and we gain room night compression from citywides in San Francisco. However, we are seeing trends that bleisure is doing quite well this year,” said Christine Bohlke with the Marin Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Trickle-down tourism

Group business travel is changing in that massive meetings in huge ballrooms are no longer the norm. Companies are planning group bike rides, wine tasting and other experiential events.

This gives attendees a broader sample of what an area is all about, thus planting the idea to stay and explore when the work part of the trip is over.

Heston at the Fairmont said all of Sonoma County is an easy sell to get people to stay longer. While the hotel works with tourism partners to cater to bleisure travelers, those businesses don’t have metrics to know how many bleisure travelers come through their doors.

“We would love that line of business and assume it happens, but I really can’t speak to it in definite terms,” Nathan Davis, general manager of the Napa Valley Wine Train, said of the bleisure traveler.

About half the train riders have stayed overnight, but Davis doesn’t know if they are in town for leisure, business or bleisure.

He knows some people find out about the wine train from business travel through group outings and then return with families — perhaps making that a subcategory of bleisure travel.

Napa Valley Balloons, which has launch locations in Napa and Sonoma counties, does corporate team-building excursions, but can’t quantify the individuals who might be the bleisure traveler.

“I wish we were tracking that detail,” Trever Wierda in reservations and marketing said.

Gallagher with Visit Napa Valley pointed out, “A wider cross-section of our hospitality partners benefit if it’s a combo of that business, leisure travel.”

This trade group was after the bleisure traveler pre-pandemic and continues this day with the Crush That Meeting concept that touts what to do in the area besides marking up whiteboards and using flip charts.

“Our goal is to keep that business here in the valley as long as we can,” Gallagher said.

Kathryn Reed is a journalist who has spent most of her career covering issues in Northern California. She has published four books, with the most recent being Sleeping with Strangers: An Airbnb Host’s Life in Lake Tahoe and Mexico. She may be reached at kr@kathrynreed. com, or follower her at kathrynreed.com, Twitter @Kathryn0925, or Instagram @kathrynreed0925.

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