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Sonoma County Tourism trims costs, looks forward to reviving travel

Progress continues in shaking off the pandemic’s economic cold shower effect on tourism, but keeping it going will require the ability to “constantly, flex and engage,” said a top Sonoma County tourism executive.

All of the work, however, requires the ability to “constantly monitor, flex and engage,” Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, said during the agency’s annual meeting, held virtually on Sept. 29.

“As the landscape in which we operate becomes more complex, it also provides us with opportunities to connect with the people in organizations who we haven't collaborated with in the past,” said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism. “For example, we're thrilled to be part of the North Bay Leadership Council and the Sonoma County Transportation Authority Citizen Advisory Committee … helping ensure that SCT is at the table for conversations that impact this destination as a place to live, do business and invite travelers, which is more important than ever.”

During a virtual presentation of the agency’s annual report, Vecchio and her staff recapped its performance for fiscal 2020-2021 and addressed its budget breakdown for 2021-2022. The agency’s fiscal year ends June 30.

Sonoma County Tourism closed out fiscal 2020-2021 having made a number of changes to trim costs from its $5.3 million budget, including cutting staff, stopping advertising and promotions, and canceling contracts with its domestic public relations agency and with international tourism agencies that promote the region, as Vecchio told the Business Journal.

During the meeting, Lori Angstadt, Sonoma County Tourism’s vice president of finance and operations, reviewed expenses for last fiscal year.

The agency saved $110,000 by downsizing the amount of space it leases at its existing location on Airport Boulevard,  Angstadt said,  and working remotely helped cut costs on office needs and equipment.

Administrative expenses decreased 20% below what was budgeted. Business development, which is focused on corporate meetings and retreats, as well as weddings, saw the biggest budget decrease, at 25.9%, because of the delay in travel and businesses reopening, Angstadt said.

As the lockdown began to lift, the agency restarted its marketing and public relations work, resulting in a 7.8% increase in spending.

“New ads, videos and photo shoots were developed in the spring to build both our current recovery campaign and give us a better library of images for future campaigns,” Angstadt said.

Community engagement expenses increased by 12.6%, with spending going toward efforts to promote safe and responsible travel for those still choosing to visit. In April, Sonoma County Toursim  entered into a partnership with Sonoma County Regional Parks and its national organization,  Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. The partnership elevates further the agency’s commitment to destination stewardship, or the promotion of sustainable travel, Vecchio said.

For the current fiscal year, Sonoma County Tourism has an estimated budget of $6.8 million. The budget, while higher than the $5.3 million last year, is starting to climb upwards toward its pre-pandemic budget of $8 million in fiscal 2019-2020.

The majority of the agency’s funding comes from a 2% assessment on applicable lodging rooms within the Sonoma County Tourism Business Improvement Area.

The breakdown for fiscal 2021-2022 is as follows: 19.6% for administrative expenses, 49.8% for marketing and public relations, 21.5% for business development and 9.1% for community engagement.

“We will continue to re-forecast our revenue expenses throughout the year as things change and more information becomes available,” Angstadt said.

During the annual meeting, the agency gave out its first-ever Stars of the Industry awards, honoring the region’s hospitality workforce in four categories: Front of the House, Heart of the House, Customer Engagement and Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability. The winners, respectively, were Bianca Nicastro from Aperture Cellars, Tiffany Rodriguez from Costeaux French Bakery,  Safari West, and Benziger Family Winery.

“After enduring such a tough year, it was our way of saying thank you to these stellar industry professionals,” Vecchio said.

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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