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Vacaville’s outdoor activities help Solano County city weather pandemic

You might think of Vacaville as a shopping mecca anchored by the historic Nut Tree, which opened in 1921 as a roadside stop. Today, Nut Tree Plaza houses 50 retail stores, an array of eating establishments, and a railroad and carousel that serves as a family shopping excursion.

But beyond that, and that Vacaville offers more affordable overnight stays than its Wine Country neighbors, the area has another ace in its hand: one that’s helped weather the pandemic and begin to recover from the storm that settled over the hospitality industry more than a year ago.

Known as agriventure or agritourism, Visit Vacaville highlights its farm experiences and recreational activities such as biking, hiking and climbing boulders.

Vacaville’s outdoor nature was one of two components that in some ways helped the city fight through the pandemic a little easier than its Wine Country neighbors, noted Melyssa Reeves, president and CEO of Visit Vacaville.

“People still wanted to get outside and do outdoor activities, which were still very accessible and still comfortable for a lot of people to do,” she said.

The city’s diverse economy also helped buoy a number of its hospitality businesses, she said.

“No matter what the world situation is, Travis Air Force Base is always busy and we get a number of (hotel) rooms from (there),” Reeves said. “And Vacaville has an enormous amount of biotech, which continued to stay fairly busy through the pandemic.”

Reeves has seen Vacaville’s economy grow in the nearly 14 years that she’s helmed the tourism agency, which operates on a July 1 to June 30 fiscal year. When she arrived, Visit Vacaville had been in existence for about two years, and had a $256,000 budget, she said. The organization had been without a director for about a year prior to Reeves’ arrival.

Today, Visit Vacaville’s fiscal year budget is about $800,000, she said.

“Crazy enough, we've had more businesses announce they're coming to Vacaville in the last year than I've heard in the entire time I’ve been here,” Reeves said, adding she believes employers are taking note of the impact tourism can have on a small community’s economy, and how that can translate to a better quality of life and help attract more workers.

Working the land

Pleasants Valley Agriculture Association is a collective interest in agritourism and cross-promoting with local businesses.

Soul Food Farms in Vacaville is a member of the group. Alexis Koefoed has owned the land with her husband, Eric, for 22 years.

Koefoed has spent nearly a decade focusing on diversifying Soul Food Farm — which she said at one time was the largest pasture chicken farm in the state — by planting rows of lavender fields, annual flowers, fruit trees, and investing time and energy into marketing the business’ olive oil.

“We were focusing on farm-to-table dinners as a way to bring people out here … to add revenue and diversity and interest for people to come out to the farm all year long,” she said.

Then the pandemic hit, visitors canceled plans and Pleasants Valley Farms’ farmers, including Soul Food Farms, were shut down.

Koefoed, who is the sole labor force on the property, said revenue dropped to “zero” after previous years grossing between $80,000 and $100,000. Koefoed’s husband is a working engineer and has kept the couple financially afloat.

The farm reopened about three weeks ago with a new farm store that includes goods from neighboring farmers. “We're very happy about being able to do that,” she said.

Over the last year or so, Koefoed said she’s seen a shift that she hopes will last.

“People in the Bay Area are really beginning to appreciate that during the pandemic, being outside was so important,” she said. “And maybe for many people it was the only opportunity to do something. I hope that wave of interest in being outside walking, hiking, being in nature, visiting farms will continue as a rediscovery of what's out here in the Bay Area for people to do.”

Back to the outdoors

It was the special events industry that was hit hardest in Vacaville during the pandemic, said Brooke Fox, executive director of the Downtown Vacaville Business Improvement District.

“In 2020, we had to cancel over 30 different events that typically serve as an economic-development engine that typically bring people downtown to shop and discover their local restaurants and best-kept secrets,” Fox said.

As it turned out, it was Vacaville’s outdoor resources that emerged as the first sign of recovery, she said.

“As we moved through the pandemic, the one thing that we were able to do was host our farmers market, a COVID-safe, socially distanced version, which was actually the only thing we could put on its feet,” Fox said. “It provided an economic benefit to our restaurants, and also to all the vendors and the farmers who needed to sell their crops and work their fields and bring their product to market.”

A place to hang your hat

Hyatt Place opened in Vacaville in August 2019, giving it roughly six months to build business before the pandemic hit, said Roy Galan, general manager.

As it turned out, the hotel’s opening coincided with the Lightning Complex Fire, so it quickly became a lodging facility to house essential workers fighting the fire.

But when the pandemic emerged, that essential business transitioned to health care workers and government personnel, including from Travis Air Force Base, Galan said.

From a tourism perspective, Galan agreed with Reeves that the affordability of Vacaville’s hotels is a benefit for travelers and the properties.

“I have had guests here that did their wine tasting in Napa for the day and came back at night,” he said, also referencing Sonoma and San Francisco’s visitors. “For someone who’s trying to do something on an economical basis, Vacaville is certainly a good place to hang your hat for the day and come back in the evening.”

Room rates at the 136-room Hyatt Place run between $119 and $189 per night, depending on the day of the week, Galan said, and $239 for one of its seven guest suites. That compares to between $300 and $500 per night in Napa, with rates as high as $1,000 a night at some hotels, he said.

For Reeves’ part, Vacaville’s growth over the last 14 years has been considerable, and she sees that continuing.

“When I came in, we didn't place a lot of ads,” Reeves said, noting the small budget at the time. “So we turned the lights on and did some social media and built a website. That was about what we could do. But our budget has grown steadily over time and so have our abilities to be able to better impact our community, we hope in all positive ways.”

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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