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Path forward: California Wine Country tourism boosters plan industry’s pandemic recovery

From promoting wellness to planning for when travelers can once again fly to the North Bay, the region’s tourism agencies are moving into 2021 knowing they have a lot of work ahead.

One of the trends that emerged last year as the pandemic wore on was the emphasis on physical and mental health, said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism. Wellness is already an existing component of the assets the agency touts.

“We started to really integrate the thoughts, the ideas of wellness and taking care,” said Vecchio, whose agency was forced to pivot its marketing efforts more than once, “and we will continue that into 2021.”

Vecchio sees a multipronged approach to recovery, which she is hopeful will be underway by May, with logistics being first and foremost, such as when the vaccine becomes widely available to the public. Recovery also depends on when the state is allowed to reopen — and stay open.

The hospitality businesses SCT partners with, especially restaurants and hotels, have been devastated since the pandemic began because of the substantial financial investments they’ve made several times to ramp back up, only to be shut down again, she said.

“We will have a very hard first quarter, I think, in coming to the realization of businesses that haven't been able to sustain their operations,” she said.

The rockiness of last year also directly impacted Sonoma County Tourism.

Vecchio shared with the Business Journal in mid-March the multiple cuts that were made early in the pandemic, including furloughing six positions, removing the 401(k) match program and instituting 20% salary cuts for the executive team. The six furloughed jobs resulted in permanent terminations, but the 401(k) program has been restored, as well as 100% pay for SCT’s executives.

Before shelter-in-place, Sonoma County Tourism had a full-time staff of more than 20 people; that has been whittled down to 15.

The tourism agency’s budget is down about 50%, but Vecchio said she’s hopeful the second stimulus package will help because 501(c)(6) organizations like SCT are included in the PPP program this time around. Sonoma County Tourism, as well as Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau and Visit Napa Valley, are mainly funded by a hotel tax or lodging assessment.

Visit Napa Valley

Visit Napa Valley CEO and President Lindsey Gallagher’s recovery road map begins in January, while the county remains under shelter-in-place orders, with a “Napa Valley Restaurant Week—To Go” campaign.

Once freed from shelter-in-place, “We will once again advertise to Bay Area drive-market visitors and also extend into Southern California and beyond, including an Expedia campaign to drive room nights,” Gallagher said. “The move to this phase will, of course, be triggered by health and safety metrics in our county and region.”

Among other initiatives, once vaccine distribution increases and people fly again, Visit Napa Valley is planning a national ad campaign to reach visitors who will stay longer and spend more.

Visit Napa Valley’s own operational recovery also is on the mend after having had to make cuts starting back in April.

“From a staffing standpoint, we had 25 staff in February 2020, and at our low point this (past) summer, we were down to just 5.5 employees,” Gallagher said. “We are now up to nine full-time and four part-time staff.  We expect to stabilize at this staffing level for the next six to 12 months as we begin the recovery phase(s).”

Visit Napa Valley’s year-to-date revenue is down 58.4% through the month of November, she said. With shelter-in-place back again as of mid-December, Gallagher expects additional declines in revenue for at least the next month, depending on how long the stay-at-home orders remain in place within the Bay Area region.

Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau

Tim Zahner, executive director at Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, didn’t mince words when reflecting on last year.

“2020 was a very bad year. There's no other way to put it,” he said. The pandemic, which stunted a “business that is built upon the free movement of people,” was compounded by another year of fires and PSPS events.

“The travel industry knows about the threat from pandemics, like with SARS and MERS, but never on this scale,” Zahner said. “If we had clarity — not on a local level — on a national level on what our strategy was and how that would be reflected to the various levels of government, I think we would have handled (the pandemic) much better and probably had different outcomes.”

Zahner leads SVVB’s marketing efforts largely through engagement on social media, actively supporting and promoting the destination and its hospitality businesses through virtual events and one-on-one video interviews with business owners to give viewers an inside look at their shops and wares.

Last year’s marketing campaigns also included other creative endeavors.

“We did things as simple as Sonoma meditations during the first lockdown, which were scenic long-form videos of just Sonoma scenery,” Zahner said. “So if you were locked down in San Francisco, you could always dream about coming up to Sonoma when the time is right.”

Zahner does a lot of work but he’s quick to note he’s not a one-man show.

“I've been very lucky with the partnerships I have with Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, the vintners and growers in the city of Sonoma, and the county of Sonoma,” he said. “We are in contact all the time and trying to figure out what can we do together, or where can we let the other person take the lead so we don't waste resources.”

SVVB’s 45 volunteers and five staffers haven’t been able to work since March, but he is hopeful that will change this year.

“A lot can happen by the time we get to April, May and June,” he said. “We’ll be at the beginning of the end and we'll be getting toward some kind of recovery by summer. But I'm not going to wait around for it, either. I'm going be out there trying to get people to come here.”

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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