North Bay cannabis tourism seeks to overcome hurdles

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I f you have to wake up early to be somewhere at 9 a.m., it might as well be a tour bus full of mimosas and pastries taking you to learn about cannabis and sample wine and beer.

The Sonoma County Experience tour is one of several tour companies featuring cannabis dispensaries and facilities as well as beer and wine production.

Run by Santa Rosa native Jared Giammona, a tour in early August left from the parking lot of the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa. Most of those on board where going to a Wine and Weed Symposium at the hotel the next day, Aug. 8. The tour itinerary stretched to 5 p.m. and included stops at CannaCraft’s manufacturing facilities in Santa Rosa, a cannabis dispensary in Sebastopol, Barrel Brothers Brewing Co. in Windsor, and the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville. But the company offers a variety of other packages.

Among the vacationers and wine enthusiasts onboard was retiree Perry Wilson of Texas.

“I’m a wino,” Wilson said jokingly at one point. He is a fan of Texas wines and thought the tour would be a fun vacation activity.

But plenty of professionals attending the symposium also came along.

Diablo Valley College Professor of Business Administration Charlie Shi said that since the legalization of cannabis in California in 2018, students in his entrepreneurship class at the East Bay college had begun writing business plans for cannabis startups.

“A lot of them are in cultivation, delivery or turning it into food products,” he said of the plans. Shi said he was interested in the tour to learn about the industry and give students better direction with their fledgling businesses.

The big hurdle for us has been the marketing angle and marketing itself because of the federal laws around cannabis.Jared Giammona, Sonoma County Experience operator

Cannabis tours have cropped up in California since it became legal in California, but they are still subject to state and local restrictions, limiting their ability to advertise or allow visitors to consume cannabis products.

“The big hurdle for us has been the marketing angle and marketing itself because of the federal laws around cannabis,” Giammona said. While legal statewide, marijuana remains a federally outlawed substance.

“We don’t have the capability of doing targeted ads or paid ads through Facebook or Instagram,” he added. Those companies reportedly would not accept his money, since he is a cannabis-connected business and the plant is still outlawed federally. He said his company does have accounts on social media sites that post photos and videos of the tours and the stops along the way. “Nowadays that’s essential in marketing.”

He said his startup company has so far chosen not to purchase billboard advertising in the places where it is allowed and relies on reviews on websites like TripAdvisor and Google and word of mouth to promote the company.

While Sonoma County Tourism does not have a formal position on in-county cannabis tourism, Giammona’s business is on Sonoma County Tourism’s website, which he said has been helpful in promoting the tour.

“The county has been great, we have an open dialogue with them,” Giammona said.

We continue to assess the industry and watch it as it evolves, and we will make the decisions we think are right for Sonoma County as that industry segment matures.Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO, Sonoma County Tourism

While Sonoma County is heavily dependent on wine tourism, when it comes to guiding visitors to cannabis businesses in Sonoma County, the tourism agencies are being cautious.

Recent estimates put the value of regulated cannabis grow, counting only plant size or “canopy”, about 16 acres in the county, at $95 million.

According to Sonoma County Tourism President and CEO Claudia Vecchio, the group is “very careful about how we offer and convey these experiences out to the broader public.” She noted the county would work with tour companies that convey “the kind of feel we expect that our visitors are looking for.”

“We continue to assess the industry and watch it as it evolves, and we will make the decisions we think are right for Sonoma County as that industry segment matures,” she added, referring to the fledgling cannabis tourism industry in the county.

We are in the discovery-slash-infancy phase of cannabis tourism.Travis Scott, executive director, Visit Mendocino County

Mendocino County, long an epicenter of cannabis production even before legalization, has taken similar tentative steps towards engaging with the cannabis tourism industry according to Travis Scott, the executive director of Visit Mendocino County.

“We are in the discovery-slash-infancy phase of cannabis tourism,” Scott said. He said his group does feature some cannabis businesses on its website but not in the same way it spotlights more established industries like beer and wine.

Scott also said he wants to ensure the businesses themselves have a say in how their products are promoted.

“I’m working with an agency that creates strategic plans,” he said. “I’ve contracted them to go out and talk to the cannabis partners and stakeholders,” to get their input.

Scott also said because cannabis is illegal at the federal level, he has engaged outside counsel to advise on the legal pitfalls of promoting what the federal government considers an illegal drug.

Back in Sonoma County, Giammona said the limited number of licensed cannabis growers, manufacturers and retailers in the North Bay because of the number of licenses issued by the state also makes it challenging to run the tour.

“Logistically we’re crossing counties…because of the limited amount of operators,” Giammona said, noting that means more time in the bus and less time at sites, something he hopes will change as more cannabis operators receive permits.

While tour goers can purchase cannabis products on the tour and drink wine and beer, they cannot consume cannabis on the bus or during the tour under California law.

“It’s something that we want to add,” Giammona said. “Right now there’s (Senate Bill 625) moving through the Legislature that would allow for people over 21 to consume in a vehicle that has a separate area for the driver,” he added. “We’re taking a slow approach to it,” and want to see what happens with that bill, he added.

It's more empowering people with information, versus being focused on the consumption part.Brian Applegarth, Emerald County Tours owner, president of the California Cannabis Tourism Association

Other tours in the North bay and Bay Area offer a variety of experiences, with varying degrees of focus on consumption and education.

Brian Applegarth runs Emerald County Tours, is the founder and president of the California Cannabis Tourism Association, and sits on Sonoma County Tourism’s marketing committee.

Applegarth’s tours are either privately chartered or cater to an older demographic and focus on education, history and culture, although many do include consumption.

“It’s more empowering people with information, versus being focused on the consumption part,” Applegarth said, noting his tours do include visits to dispensaries and sometimes consumption lounges in San Francisco.

Applegarth said he has met with tourism officials from San Francisco to Santa Rosa and further afield. He said while many officials have been enthusiastic about promoting cannabis tourism in the future, “I think everybody is kind of waiting for the first person to dive in and take the plunge.”

That could partly be due to the risks that longer-running, out of state operators have faced, including run ins with the law.

Six years and probably over $6 million into it, by now it is the most challenging, most hostile environment for a tourism company that's probably ever existed.Danny Schaefer, owner of Colorado-based My 420 Tours

Danny Schaefer is CEO of My 420 Tours, a company based in Colorado, where recreational cannabis has been legal since 2014.

Schaefer said his tour’s objective is this: “To dispel the shame and stigma associated with cannabis.”

His offerings include a class on how to roll sushi and joints (and smoke them), a cannabis greenhouse tour that includes a party bus where patrons can consume cannabis, and a “beers and buds” tour that highlights craft breweries and also includes ingesting cannabis.

But despite the party bus atmosphere, it hasn’t been all fun and games for Schaefer’s company. “Six years and probably over $6 million into it, by now it is the most challenging, most hostile environment for a tourism company that’s probably ever existed,” he said.

He said his company struggled with banking its money since many banks are federally regulated and cannabis is still outlawed at the federal level.

Colorado and Denver refuse to put Schaefer’s tour on their website for promotional purposes, Schaefer said, forcing him to turn to other marketing tactics like word of mouth.

And a number of his guests and tour guides received criminal citations in 2018 in what he called a sting operation where local police and narcotics officers in Denver boarded one of the buses, saying ingesting cannabis on the bus was outside the definition of social consumption under state law.

That unpleasant experience led Schaefer and others to push a bill through the Colorado legislature, which was recently signed by Gov. Jared Polis.

Schaefer said the bill legalized social consumption at hospitality establishments on the state level and the rulemaking process currently under way would hopefully make clear that consumption is allowed in tour buses under certain circumstances.

For Giammona and his tour, highlighting the region of Sonoma County is a strength he hopes to springboard himself to future success, regardless of the consumption issue.

“We live in a very unique place and the history, and culture of cannabis here is second to none,” he said. “When you combine it with a world-renowned Wine Country and the microbrew capital of the U.S., your options are unlimited.”

Staff Writer Chase DiFeliciantonio covers technology, banking, law, accounting, and the cannabis industry. Reach him at chase.d@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257.

Correction, Aug. 26, 2019: Tax revenue from 16 regulated acres of cannabis cultivation most recently was $95 million.

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