Business meetings are returning to Napa, Sonoma, Marin counties
When the state’s tourism marketing organization recently learned it would be funded for a second year of a campaign touting California as a desirable place to hold business meetings, the message was clear: Recovery is happening and gaining traction.
“Visit California’s first foray into the B2B meetings and events space has outperformed expectations in terms of brand awareness and increased bookings,” Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California , said last month in her CEO update. “Last fall, Visit California launched the ‘Meet What’s Possible’ platform to inspire and re-engage U.S. professional planners, who perceived the state as unready to host professional meetings and events due to pandemic restrictions.”
Beteta said the results of a survey of 500 meeting planners over the course of a year were encouraging. The findings showed 51% were aware of the “Meet What’s Possible” campaign. Of planners who had seen print ads for the campaign, 43% said they would consider booking an event in California, and that number rose to 69% if the planner met an industry professional in person.
Visit California projects business travelers — coming both from within and outside the country — will spend about $28.3 billion in 2022, compared to the $36.7 billion spent in 2019. The figures don’t account for all types of business groups and vary by destination. Visit California tracks the state as a whole.
In the North Bay, professionals steeped in hosting and planning business meetings have seen a significant rebound this year, but their enthusiasm also is tempered.
From the ground floor
“Between early spring and summer, I did about five corporate retreats” within Sonoma and Marin counties, said Moira Gubbins, a Mill Valley-based meetings and events specialist in the industry for more than 25 years.
Gubbins said there has been a common thread among the group meetings she’s arranged so far this year: They are proceeding with caution.
“We’ve been focusing on venues that have both indoor and outdoor spaces, and lots of nature,” she said. “And everyone has seemed pretty comfortable.”
Gubbins said her business clients tend to be upper-management leaders who have traditionally put value on group meetings. But that’s not necessarily the case with the younger workforce and those who have settled into working remotely, she said .
“I think we're being led by people who came up working in offices, standing around the watercooler, going out after work for drinks and bonding,” she said. “I did an event for a company that had hired some people online during the pandemic, and they had never met in-person.”
Many decided to no longer occupy physical offices, another result of the pandemic that has compelled companies to hold in-person meetings.
“They’re starting to realize they could spend the money that they would have been spending on leases and other perks,” Gubbins said, “and instead pull people together a couple of times a year to have a very impactful couple of days.”
Nearly back to previous mix of groups and leisure
Like Gubbins, Edward Roe, general manager at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa in Sonoma , is seeing many business groups choosing to move between indoor and outdoor activities.
“We had a group (that held) a convention, but they called it an ‘unconvention’ because they utilized a lot of our outdoor spaces for their breakout sessions,” Roe said. “They’re very relaxed in a fresh-air environment. We've seen a lot of that as the business is coming back.”
A year ago, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa’s business mix was 70% leisure visitors and 30% group meetings, as reported at the time.
That wasn’t normal.
Before the pandemic, the property’s business had been comprised of 50% groups and 50% leisure, Roe said.
“But now, we are back to a nearly 50/50 mix again,” he said.
He’s hopeful the Fairmont’s business will fully return next year, “but who knows what 2023 will bring?”
Napa Valley expects to top pre-pandemic events interest
Interest in holding corporate meetings in Napa has increased this year, according to Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley.
As of Aug. 30, the tourism agency had fielded nearly 800 inquiries from travel professionals, the majority coming from meeting and group planners — for groups between 50 and 100 people, she said.
“We are on track to receive more queries from meeting planners and deliver more leads to our hotel, winery and activity partners than in any previous year — pre- or post-pandemic,” she said. “This puts Visit Napa Valley on track to field more than 40% over 2019 — a high watermark.”