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Sonoma County Tourism launching campaigns to bring back visitors as virus restrictions ease

Sonoma County Tourism this month will roll out an integrated marketing program with a public relations push to travel journalists as the agency ramps up for when the region can fully reopen for visitation and travel, according to Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO.

The campaign will target relaxed outdoor activities like doing yoga in the vineyards and coastal excursions, and highlight Sonoma County’s small businesses, artists and diverse communities, she said.

A phased media campaign will follow in April, concentrated on driving overnight visitation.

The focus between April and June will be on regional drive markets, expanding in August to emphasize wellness and in-state flight markets. The campaign will bring home the messaging later in the year that Sonoma County is a “must visit” destination, Vecchio said during a recent virtual town hall.

SCT will be reallocating more than 50% of its funds for fiscal year 2020-2021 toward marketing and public relations efforts, according to Lori Angstadt, vice president of finance and operations. The agency’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.

“As we start working on reopening and recovery for our industry, we’ve laid out our expenses in a way that we feel will help us achieve this as effectively and safely as possible,” Angstadt said. “Reforecasting has become incredibly important to us. … While our greatest impact (from the pandemic) was back in the spring and early summer, we’re still seeing significant decreases.”

Angstadt said SCT’s current year forecasted revenue of $4.3 million is down 27% from its fiscal year 2019-2020 actuals.

“We are down 46% from our pre-COVID budget and expectations of almost $8 million,” she said, adding SCT is moving into the next fiscal year with optimism that travel and tourism will rebound. “We are budgeting for revenue of $5.9 million, which is an increase of 36% over this current year. However, we’re still down 26% from pre-COVID budgets, but we are moving in the right direction.”

Group business development will get 21% of the reallocated funds as coronavirus conditions improve and restrictions ease, Angstadt said. Funds also will be reallocated to a variety of initiatives, including community engagement efforts, paid advertising, trade shows, website enhancement and digital engagement.

SCT also will downsize administrative expenses as much as possible to reallocate even more funding toward marketing efforts, Angstadt said. The agency made a series of cuts in mid-March last year, when shelter-in-place was first mandated, as Vecchio told the Business Journal at the time. SCT furloughed six positions, removed the 401(k) match program and instituted 20% salary cuts for the executive team. Vecchio on Jan. 4 provided an update, stating the six furloughed jobs resulted in permanent terminations, but the 401(k) program had been restored, as well as 100% pay for SCT’s executives.

Ariane Hiltebrand, director, marketing systems and insights, presented ongoing trends, findings and forecasts in the industry from Destination Analysts, a San Francisco-based tourism market-research firm SCT has commissioned for several years.

For example, a national consumer-sentiment survey taken between Feb. 19 and 21, found enthusiasm for travel — while still low — has improved in recent weeks, with 60% of respondents stating they will be ready to travel when it’s safe.

As coronavirus infections continue to decline, leisure travel this year is expected to gain steam each month, peaking in July, according to the research firm’s current findings.

Travel activities perceived as most unsafe are cruise-line and international travel. On the other hand, taking a road trip is rated most safe, followed by outdoor recreation, shopping, and visiting friends and relatives, according to survey results.

“The overall index is 45.7%, which is the best since the pandemic started,” said Hiltebrand, noting the slow rollout of vaccines combined with coronavirus variants are contributing to people remaining cautious about traveling.

Kelly Bass Seibel, director of community engagement, said another important factor in the county’s recovery is paying attention to the needs of community residents. She cited findings from a Feb. 23 survey that found 48.3% of respondents don’t want travelers visiting their communities right now. That figure is 52% lower than the week prior and down from a 67% high last April, she said.

“While there’s natural fear in allowing visitors into the destination,” Seibel said, “we recognize that visitors are also the lifeblood of many of our small business and our hospitality businesses.”

And there’s no time to waste, according to SCT’s board chairman.

“Driving business is absolutely imperative right now,” said Steve Jung, who also is general manager of Doubletree by Hilton in Rohnert Park. “We cannot make any assumptions around recovery speed or numbers at this point, and must be cognizant of the need to rebuild our businesses and support our employees.”

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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