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California tourism industry tackles climate change

How hotels can go ‘green’

The state has a Green Lodging Program that certifies lodging facilities that can demonstrate water and energy conservation, waste minimization, recycling, environmentally friendly purchasing, program sustainability and pollution prevention.

To begin the certification process, hotel operators must submit an application and pay a $500 fee, which covers membership beginning from the time a hotel’s designation is issued.

Source: California Department of General Services’s Statewide Travel Program

Perhaps more than any sector of the North Bay and state’s economy, the tourism and hospitality industry and its ability to lure visitors is being severely tested by climate change.

“As an industry, we must acknowledge the climate threat to tourism and live up to California’s well-deserved reputation as the best steward of the environment by encouraging responsible travel and adopting green practices,” Caroline Beteta, CEO of Visit California, said in a Nov. 4 statement. “The opportunity to act has never been greater.”

Beteta’s message is not hyperbole. In 2019, before the pandemic, the state’s tourism industry contributed $145 billion to California’s economy, capping a decade of annual revenue growth. But that growth stalled in 2020, dropping by 55%.

The state’s tourism officials are examining how evidence of climate change – such as season after season of wildfires and drought – colors the way potential visitors see wine country.

Marketing campaigns are shifting toward messaging that assures travelers the tourism industry is addressing how to protect the environment and the steps it’s taking to effect change.

To Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, the obvious choice is to highlight the agricultural connection the area already has.

“The guiding light for us is the agricultural preserve that was created in 1968 in Napa Valley,” Gallagher said, “where we knew that the best use of our land was to keep it thriving in a vineyard and agricultural capacity, and that we needed to protect it accordingly.”

That guiding light over the years has led to plans to build on ways agriculture has capitalized on the positive image of protecting the environment. One way that’s already being done is through the Napa Green certification program for vineyards and wineries.

Founded in 2004 under the umbrella of the Napa Valley Vintners, Napa Green has since become a standalone nonprofit.

Napa Green’s certification program is on the cusp of being extended to the hospitality sector, said Gallagher, who sits on the organization’s board of directors.

It will start with hotels.

“We intend to move forward with that this spring with a pilot program, where we will look at different sizes and classes of lodging properties all throughout the valley,” Gallagher said. “We’ll have one pilot participant (each) in Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, in the city of Napa and in American Canyon, as well as the unincorporated county.”

The concept and its details are in the early development stage, she said, but the goal is to create a certification program that is ongoing, rather than one and done.

“It’s going to be a challenging process to get through the first round of certification,” Gallagher said. “For hotel properties that get there, to maintain that status going forward, they're going to have to show continuous improvement and strive to do better year after year.”

If the effort proves successful within the lodging sector, Napa Green will then take the next step toward rolling out a certification program for other tourism-facing businesses, including restaurants, events and attractions, and transportation companies, Gallagher said.

‘NO LONGER A NUMBERS GAME’

Two years ago, Sonoma County Tourism announced it had hired an outside consulting firm to help develop a master plan — an initiative that was temporarily quashed when the pandemic hit, but is now set to resume early next year, according to Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO.

The work involves shifting Sonoma County Tourism’s focus from promoting the wine country destination as an ideal getaway, to emphasizing the need to preserve the region’s natural resources. It’s a messaging effort targeted toward visitors with the same mindset, Vecchio said.

“It was no longer going to be a numbers game, no longer about just touting the number of people who came into Sonoma County,” she said.

And there’s another motivation for SCT’s sustainability work.

“We're always concerned about the next generation and how we're going to continue to be a viable destination for (them),” Vecchio said. “I started to look at how younger travelers were considering travel destinations, how important it is for corporate social responsibility and other kinds of giveback initiatives.”

Visit California, too, is broadcasting the importance of reaching the next generation in order to keep the state’s tourism industry viable, according to Beteta.

“Before the pandemic, 54% of Generation Z travelers said the environmental impact of traveling is an important factor when deciding where to book travel,” Beteta said, citing Booking.com.

How hotels can go ‘green’

The state has a Green Lodging Program that certifies lodging facilities that can demonstrate water and energy conservation, waste minimization, recycling, environmentally friendly purchasing, program sustainability and pollution prevention.

To begin the certification process, hotel operators must submit an application and pay a $500 fee, which covers membership beginning from the time a hotel’s designation is issued.

Source: California Department of General Services’s Statewide Travel Program

She pointed to another Booking.com survey that was conducted in June when California’s lockdown restrictions were lifted. “(It) found 83% of consumers believe sustainable travel is vital, while 61% said the pandemic had increased their interest in traveling sustainably.”

GO GREEN IN MARIN

Mindful of its own obligation to highlight the importance of green initiatives, the Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2013 created a section on its website called Green Travel Marin, according to Gina Marr-Hiemstra, vice president, Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Work on the sustainable tourism project began in 2011 with the objective to increase the number of certified-green lodging properties in Marin County, said Marr-Hiemstra, who embarked on the project with Christine Bohlke, sales and marketing director of the Marin CVB.

“We both became actively involved in environmental organizations for educational purposes, as well as industry-related associations, including San Rafael Chamber Green Committee, Environmental Forum of Marin and Green Meetings Industry Council,” Marr-Hiemstra said.

Green Travel Marin has become the county’s go-to site for finding certified-green lodging properties, meeting and event venues, agritourism and farm-to-table experiences, and environmental programs and resources that support sustainability practices in Marin County.

Early next year, Green Travel Marin will be updated with information about where visitors can find electric-charging vehicle stations among the county’s hotels, shopping centers and other places that attract visitors, Marr-Hiemstra said.

Like other such ventures in the North Bay, Marr-Hiemstra said that the organization in 2020 had started to revisit what sustainable tourism will look like in the county over the next many years. That work was stalled and will continue as the pandemic lifts.

As Visit California leads the way for pushing forward sustainability efforts, Vecchio said she appreciates Beteta’s overarching message.

“We are not going soft on the economy,” Vecchio said. “We are very definitely leaning into the economy. Sustainability is the way to do it.”

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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