Mendocino County is out to change ‘a lingering stigma’ on cannabis tourism
It’s no secret Mendocino County is well-known for its cannabis cultivation. As part of the famed Emerald Triangle, Mendocino and its neighboring counties — Humboldt and Trinity — make up the most renown cannabis-producing region in the country.
Still it’s a different thing for government to promote the long taboo cannabis culture. That has changed amid voters’ embrace of legalized recreational marijuana and the expansion of regulated markets across dozens of states.
Earlier this year, Visit Mendocino County, the region’s tourism bureau, took over cannabis marketing from a now-defunct organization. On July 1, at the start of Visit Mendocino County’s new fiscal year, cannabis was included among its communication pillars in the organization’s $1.8 million budget, said Executive Director Travis Scott.
Visit Mendocino County's other pillars are wellness, culinary, open space, animals, murals, harvests, throwback tourism and Mendocino cooperatives, he said.
Adding cannabis as a pillar is giving the long-entrenched local business its due, Scott said.
“As an industry, they've never had a lot of marketing focus put on them,” he said.
Local business owner Jim Roberts is one of the beneficiaries. A second-generation licensed cannabis cultivator, Roberts entered the hospitality space with a number of businesses about 10 years ago.
One of his properties, The Madrones, is comprised of luxury guest rooms with a restaurant, two tasting rooms and a cannabis apothecary called The Bohemian Chemist. Also on the property is an event venue, The Brambles.
There are multiple operations within Roberts’ cannabis microbusiness — retail, distribution and manufacturing. His apothecary product line includes cannabis flowers, oils and smokes.
“Just having (Visit Mendocino County) on board and being able to portion some of their funds toward cannabis tourism is very, very helpful,” he said.
Roberts also does a good amount of his own marketing.
“This last year, we decided to embrace cannabis tourism fully, and we even changed the tagline on our website, which now says, ‘Come for the wine, stay for the weed,’” he said. “And that was a very bold move. We've had a lot of comments on it, but mostly I think people love it.”
‘Still a lingering stigma’
In late 2018, the county’s Board of Supervisors tasked the Mendocino County Promotional Alliance with marketing cannabis. But in July 2021, Scott learned the Alliance would be shutting down in April 2022, at which time his agency would inherit that work — and its remaining $53,000 in funds.
So Scott contracted with Brian Applegarth, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Cultivar Brands, whose Cultivar Strategies is the consulting arm for destination marketing organizations.
The work began with education, Applegarth said.
“There’s still a lingering stigma so getting the travel ecosystem and the hotels, and the travel stakeholders of the county educated is vital,” he said.
The education component is followed by conducting a market assessment, which includes working with business owners in the cannabis space to help them understand that “going above and beyond a retail transaction is vital to the visitor economy,” he said.
Applegarth’s firm has been retained for a second year, Scott said, and possibly longer, depending on progress made.
Minding federal regulations
Statewide tourism-promotion agency Visit California also is supporting Visit Mendocino County with its cannabis pillar as much as it can.
“It’s undeniable that there are some destinations in California where it makes sense to include cannabis as part of the experience that's on offer for travelers if they choose to do so,” said Ryan Becker, vice president of communications, Visit California.
But because the federal government continues to list cannabis as an illegal drug, regulations don’t allow Visit California to spend any money on cannabis advertising materials, such as visitors guides.
And Visit Mendocino can’t buy programmatic ads on the internet or take out ads in magazines, Scott said.
So while Visit California doesn’t have dedicated funds for cannabis tourism marketing, it can — and does — encourage journalists to write stories about cannabis destinations in the state.
“Our job is to use the platforms that we've created to try to get more eyeballs on their message,” Becker said, such as on Visit California’s website. “Cannabis isn't splashed everywhere, but you will find it mentioned, contextually, in the editorial content that's on that site.”
Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and employment. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-4259.