Subscribe

Wine Country road trip: Napa, Sonoma seek nearby visitors as hotels reopen to tourists

Where Wine Country visitors will return from first

A destination’s drive market consists of potential visitors who generally live within a few hundred miles of a defined geographical area.

Visit Napa Valley focuses on areas within a 100-mile radius, including the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento.

Sonoma County Tourism defines its drive market as any location that is within a day’s drive of Sonoma County, generally within a 300-mile radius. Within that circle, its most marketable places are the San Francisco Bay Area, including Oakland and San Jose; the Monterey Peninsula and Salinas; Sacramento and Reno.

Both tourism agencies cite the Los Angeles drive market as their next focal point as further travel restrictions are lifted.

Sources: Visit Napa Valley and Sonoma County Tourism

Hotels are reopening, so where are the visitors?

Not far away, as it turns out.

“Our research on how the pandemic is changing traveler behavior shows that people will want more control over their travel experiences, so we expect they’ll prefer getting behind the wheel of a car versus booking air travel,” said Caroline Beteta, CEO of Visit California, a nonprofit organization tasked with driving domestic and, in more typical times, international visitation to the state.

With outreach on a global scale frozen for the foreseeable future, Visit California’s push for visitation at this time is focused on encouraging more California residents to visit the state by car, known as the “drive market.” The drive market already accounts for a strong segment of visitors. Beteta said travelers to the state last year mostly arrived by car.

Napa County and Sonoma County generally define their drive market between the greater San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento, though there are slight variances among the tourism agencies for the two regions. (See "Where Wine Country visitors will return from first“ below.)

Sonoma County

Sonoma County Tourism began reaching out to roadtrippers after the county gave clearance for hotels to reopen starting June 19.

“Beginning last week, we embarked on a multi-phased marketing program … that begins with a two-week (campaign) designed to drive initial excitement for the destination,” said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism.

SCT rolled out a program of daily giveaways last week, called “Life Opens Up on the RoadTRIPS.” Each day was themed around the county’s tourism assets, including wine, culinary and outdoor recreation. All trips include two-night accommodations for two people. The messaging, along with registration instructions, was pushed out on social media and on SCT’s website, SonomaCounty.com. Prize winners will be announced this week.

The campaign blast also includes paid social media posts and the kick-start of paid digital media, Vecchio said, noting the bulk of the tourism bureau’s marketing budget has been shifted toward the drive market. Sonoma County Tourism’s total budget for fiscal year 2019-2020 is $8 million.

Jaimie du Bois, marketing director for the Healdsburg Tourism Improvement District, said about 80% of the district’s budget normally goes toward marketing, but that percentage has been upped as they work to drive back business. She declined to provide figures.

Healdsburg’s hotels have been quiet during the lockdown, du Bois said, but even now that they can reopen, they’re moving at a slow pace to avoid overcrowding under new safety guidelines.

“If you go to New York or Las Vegas, you have these huge hotels where everyone's on top of each other and there's not necessarily the space to avoid interaction,” du Bois said. “The benefit of the Healdsburg properties is we are small and you don't necessarily have to run into people because we are so spread out.”

Reassuring potential visitors that it’s safe to pack up and hit the highway is a critical part of the marketing outreach.

“The most important message for any destination or property is a sense of safety and well-being,” Vecchio said. “All the lodging properties, as well as vacation rentals, have been very diligent about incorporating and communicating safety protocols. This is essential.”

Additionally, Vecchio noted the region’s rural, wide open spaces should bode well for attracting visitors to the region in the short-term.

A favorite stop for tourists is this sign in Napa Valley. (Bob McClenahan for Visit Napa Valley)
A favorite stop for tourists is this sign in Napa Valley. (Bob McClenahan for Visit Napa Valley)

Napa County

The same can be said for Napa County.

“Napa Valley is fortunate to provide a rural agrarian destination experience,” said Lisa Poppen, vice president, marketing and communications at Visit Napa Valley, whose budget for fiscal year 2019-2020 is $7.7 million. “Our wide-open spaces allow for natural social distancing and our year-round temperate climate is perfect for alfresco dining, wine tasting, hiking, paddle boarding, kayaking, golfing and more.”

Napa’s tourism agency touts its wide variety of lodging options “that provide safe and private retreats for an overnight visit,” Poppen said, noting some lodging properties offer self-contained cottages. “Motor lodges are also an affordable option and provide door-to-door self-parking and easily accessible rooms.”

Visit Napa Valley halted all advertising for three months, starting when the state went into lockdown and lasting until mid-June, Poppen said. The county gave the green light for its hotels to resume operations on June 12.

Where Wine Country visitors will return from first

A destination’s drive market consists of potential visitors who generally live within a few hundred miles of a defined geographical area.

Visit Napa Valley focuses on areas within a 100-mile radius, including the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento.

Sonoma County Tourism defines its drive market as any location that is within a day’s drive of Sonoma County, generally within a 300-mile radius. Within that circle, its most marketable places are the San Francisco Bay Area, including Oakland and San Jose; the Monterey Peninsula and Salinas; Sacramento and Reno.

Both tourism agencies cite the Los Angeles drive market as their next focal point as further travel restrictions are lifted.

Sources: Visit Napa Valley and Sonoma County Tourism

“With the loss of Tourism Improvement District funding by overnight hotel stays, overall budgets have been significantly impacted,” Poppen said. “Our current marketing campaign, ‘Better With Time,’ is a modest digital campaign running in the Sacramento and San Francisco DMA (direct marketing areas). Napa’s message to visitors is simple: ’We’re ready when you’re ready.’”

Sara Brooks, general manager at Napa River Inn, said leisure travelers have been coming back since the valley reopened, with occupancy at about 75%.

“We definitely have seen a high demand on weekends,” Brooks said. “While it's not quite as high as we would normally expect, it's still pretty good.” Weekdays, however, have been slow, she noted.

Brooks said much of the inn’s business typically comes from within 50 to 75 miles of the Valley, so there wasn’t a lot of shifting around that had to be done from a marketing standpoint.

“We removed the pieces that were advertising to out-of-state guests, and we shifted more money to the drive market,” she said. “We just changed our messaging a bit to remind people that, ‘Here is what we’re doing. It’s been deemed safe to travel and we’re ready.’”

Brooks also serves as vice chair on the city of Napa’s tourism improvement district, which collects a 2% assessment for lodging businesses within the city.

She said that, for the first time, the district redirected some of its city of Napa-specific marketing money to Visit Napa Valley.

“It’s probably about 15% of our total marketing digital spend, so basically we contributed to them to be able to do extra digital marketing,” she said. “It made sense because they need to be able to do their job and their budget has been impacted so significantly.”

Where to stay?

Lynn Mohrfeld, president and CEO of the California Hotel & Lodging Association, said that while brand hotels will reclaim frequent travelers who are comfortable with what they already know, he suspects smaller properties may have a bigger opportunity now. CHLA is a membership-based advocacy group out of Sacramento for hotel owners and operators.

“I think that a lot of people are looking for a little bit of experience and there's some pent-up demand to get away,” Mohrfeld said. “I don't know that a large or brand hotel is going to fill that need for the average traveler.”

That very well may give Napa and Sonoma counties’ quaint lodging properties an experiential edge.

Larry Willis, co-owner and innkeeper at The Gables Wine Country Inn, an eight-room bed-and-breakfast in Petaluma, is hopeful that B&Bs like his will come out on the winning end.

“I would like to think (visitors) are going to get a better experience. They're going to have fewer people to potentially come in contact with, and I think they can expect a higher quality of cleaning,” Willis said. “I think safety is certainly paramount even for the large chains, but it’s a little tougher to supervise when you’ve got 150 rooms versus eight or 10 or 20.”

Willis and his wife, Pam, opened their inn to visitors the weekend of June 6, a week before Sonoma County gave the go-ahead.

“We took some guests before the official opening … and that gave us a chance to get our processes and procedures down,” Willis said, noting that included keeping visitors at a safe distance during breakfast, proper cleaning and making sure they were wearing masks in public areas. “That was all good.”

Show Comment

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine