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Visit Napa Valley symposium lays out path to recovery

The path back from the pandemic’s devastation to Napa County’s tourism and hospitality industry — the main economic driver to the region — is well underway, according to Visit Napa Valley, which held a “destination symposium” on Wednesday.

The hour-long virtual event recounted the issues faced last year by the region’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry, as well as research findings and plans moving forward.

Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, along with her team, gave presentations that included introducing the tourism bureau’s redesigned website, the results of a branding study, and the eventual return of group meetings and events.

Gallagher started the pre-recorded event in the tourism agency’s new 2,550-square-foot welcome center, opened in November at its new location at 1300 First Street, Suite 313, in downtown Napa. The center is fully wired and equipped to support virtual meeting platforms and in-person gatherings once the state reopens, she noted.

“The Napa Valley spirit is strong, and we start 2021 with optimism for a post-vaccinated world, alive with travel again,” Gallagher said.

Karen Wibbenmeyer, senior manager, digital marketing, walked the viewing audience through the website’s redesign, launched last month. The new layout includes larger photos, additional videos, more user-generated content and FAQs throughout the site. VisitNapaValley.com also has grouped all content by category, such as lodging, restaurants and wineries, including related blogs.

“During the research process, we found the typical visitor to Napa Valley is a bit intimidated with all the choices here, and typically doesn’t know more about wine than if they prefer red or white. So we’re trying to make the planning process more approachable,” Wibbenmeyer said. “Most importantly, the goal is to continue to create referrals and drive traffic to our partners’ sites.”

Lisa Poppen, vice president, marketing and communications, spoke about the evolution of Napa Valley’s brand, which is revisited every three years through a long-range plan based on analysis of the destination that includes consumer studies. Findings include an emerging shift in potential visitors toward millennials and younger generations, and their travel wishes that combine luxury with a more casual feel.

The study also showed heightened competition from neighboring tourism regions.

“When you're at the top like Napa Valley, others are coming for you,” Poppen said. “If you've visited some of our (competition) lately, you know that there is a lot of investment in both physical amenities, as well as gradual improvement in the wine itself.”

The research findings will help shape future advertising campaigns, Poppen said.

She also discussed how Visit Napa Valley shifted gears and moved to a virtual messaging strategy once the pandemic hit, with themes that included “Wine from Home,” “Better with Time” and “Raise a Glass.”

Lynn Jakubowski, associate, business development, discussed group and leisure sales. She noted that national findings show gradual growth in confidence to hold and attend meetings, particularly in the third quarter and beyond. But closer to home, it may take longer.

“With California’s delay in allowing gatherings compared to the rest of the United States, Napa Valley may not see significant group demand return until 2022,” she said.

In the meantime, Visit Napa Valley is preparing to develop a direct sales and promotional campaign so it’s ready “with a strong and singular message as soon as the state provides a timeline.” The campaign also will include messaging for ongoing wildfire challenges.

“(The pandemic) has impacted each of us in profound ways and beyond the numbers and the data,” said John Evans, managing director at Silverado Resort and Spa. “We’ve seen friends and family laid off. We witnessed long-time businesses close their doors for good. And along with the rest of the world, we watched with heavy hearts as fires once again ravaged our treasured valley.”

Other business leaders participating in the symposium were Don Shindle, general manager, Westin Verasa; Michael Collins, general manager, Archer Hotel Napa; and Kenta Kamohara, general manager, Holiday Inn Express & Suites in American Canyon.

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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