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