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California Wine Country hotels see early fruit of reopening to tourists, but pandemic recovery slow

Hotel occupancy rates for August continued to edge higher in Napa, Sonoma, Marin and Solano counties than the previous four months of the pandemic, according to figures released Sept. 18 by data analytics firm STR.

Linsey Gallagher, CEO of Visit Napa Valley (Robert McClenahan Photo)
Linsey Gallagher, CEO of Visit Napa Valley (Robert McClenahan Photo)

It’s good news that people are slowly venturing out for overnight or weekend stays, most notably in Sonoma and Napa counties. However, Wine Country tourism numbers aren’t expected to return to pre-pandemic levels at least until 2022, said Linsey Gallager, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley.

In looking at last month’s hotel occupancy figures, Gallagher said she saw improvement.

“Visitors, particularly from nearby drive-in areas, are making last-minute booking decisions based on real-time conditions,” Gallagher said. “We are hopeful this continues throughout Harvest Season, but without long-haul travel and group businesses, leisure transient demand will likely not make up the shortfall in the near term.”

The hotel occupancy rate in Napa County last month was 49%, down 39.2% from a year earlier. Average daily rate was $290.09 down 24.5%, while revenue was $21.7 million, down 55% from August 2019.

"In response to Visit Napa Valley marketing efforts and pent-up regional demand, we have seen moderate and responsible hotel occupancy growth since June, reaching 55% the first two weeks in September, compared to the usual 80% occupancy rate in the summer months,” Gallagher said. “During this time, hotels continued to reopen and room rate also recovered, coming close to 2019 numbers in July.”

Gallagher added that with the recent wildfires, Napa Valley’s hotels in August provided discounted rooms for evacuees and first responders, which also depressed room rates.

In Sonoma County, the occupancy rate was 64.3%, down 20.4% from August 2019. The county’s average daily rate was $148.48, down 25%, while revenue was $20 million, down 41%.

Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO, Sonoma County Tourism
Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO, Sonoma County Tourism

“From a sheer occupancy and RevPAR (revenue per available room) standpoint, we are seeing good increases month over month, so that’s somewhat promising,” said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism. She said that between February and April, there was about an 80% drop in revenue per available room. “We still have a long way to go to get back to pre-COVID numbers and it’s very difficult to know when we’ll be back to that level.”

Tim Zahner, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, said one of the impacts that will be painful to hotels for some time to come is that large gatherings aren’t allowed. And that means no business meetings, which would traditionally fill Sunday through Thursday, he said.

Tim Zahner, executive director, Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau
Tim Zahner, executive director, Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau

But, he noted that what tourism agencies in the region have going for them right now is a very large drive market — a 250-mile radius — that they can market to.

“We're lucky that we have so many people that live within that radius,” he said. “You're talking about 12 million people.”

Overnight stays in Marin and Solano counties, however, will likely take longer to show signs of recovery than its two neighboring counties.

The hotel occupancy rate in Marin County in August was 61%, a 30.5% drop from a year earlier. The average daily rate was $147.39, down 29.5%; and revenue was $6.8 million, down 51.5%.

Solano County’s occupancy rate last month compared to a year earlier was 70.5%, down 5.9%. The average daily rate for the county’s hotel industry was $92.20, down 16.3% from August 2019. Revenue was $9 million, down 21.3%.

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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