How Napa Valley changed under longtime tourism chief Clay Gregory

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Visit Napa Valley, the county’s tourism agency, announced March 18 that longtime president and CEO Clay Gregory will retire, effective May 1.

On that date, Linsey Simpson Gallagher, who took the helm as president on Feb. 4, will also assume the CEO role, according to the announcement.

Gregory, who joined VNV 10 years ago, announced Nov. 21 that he would be stepping down as president once they hired a replacement, but retain the title of CEO.

“The board and I are pleased with the smooth and successful transition of Linsey Gallagher into the leadership role,” Gregory said in the March 18 statement. “As we draft the fiscal year 2020-2023 long-range plan, I am extremely confident in her stewardship of the Napa Valley as a desired visitor destination and community partner for the next 10 years.”

Among his accomplishments, Gregory is credited with convincing politicians to embrace a steady funding source for Napa Valley tourism promotion by agreeing to create the Napa Valley Tourism Improvement District, which added a 2 percent assessment separate from the existing 12 percent transient occupancy tax on hotel guests.

As a result, the fiscal-year budget for the agency expanded from $1 million in 2009 to $7.8 million in 2019, and from three employees to 28.

“The development of the Napa Valley Tourism Improvement District is one of Clay’s most outstanding accomplishments,” said Mike Gallagher, co-founder and co-chairman of CityPASS, an Idaho-based business that sells discounted ticket packages for more than a dozen attractions across the country, including San Francisco.

“When I met him, he was defending the TID to the board of supervisors and they voted for it,” Gallagher said, adding that besides also being in the tourism business, he’s a Napa resident. (Gallagher is not related to Linsey Gallagher.)

“We’re lucky to have leaders like Clay who understand the Valley and how tourism works,” Gallagher said, adding he considers Gregory a friend. “In my opinion, because of Clay, the Valley is better than it’s ever been and is on the right track to be the best it can be.”

That assessment also resonates with Don Shindle, chairman of VNV’s Board of Directors, Napa Valley Tourism Corporation and general manager of the Westin Verasa Napa.

“Clay has been instrumental in the creation of the current funding structure and ongoing maturation of Visit Napa Valley over the past 10 years,” Shindle said. Gregory’s career in Napa Valley began in 1989, when he joined Robert Mondavi Winery, where he served for 14 years as general manager. He went on to work for more than five years as president at Jackson Family Wines before joining Visit Napa Valley in the summer of 2009.

Although it was his first foray into tourism, Gregory’s deep experience and relationships within the wine industry served as a bridge to the tourism industry. And in a broader sense, the timing of his arrival couldn’t have been better, said George Goeggel, managing partner of Auberge du Soleil and VNV board member.

“We looked to him to guide us at a very difficult time,” he said, referring to the Great Recession. “We were underfunded, understaffed, and we had to deal with a business downturn that hadn’t been seen in decades. We were all in trouble; it was just a matter of degree.”

Revenues among the members’ businesses had plummeted between 20 and 40 percent, depending on the hospitality category of a given business, Goeggel said, and that was the case for several years.

“The new funding mechanism was probably the key element for the members’ businesses,” he said. “It allowed us to actually navigate through these down times because we created capital to counteract the downturn. … It was like a godsend because, until that point, everybody felt marketing wasn’t that necessary.”

Gallagher noted that strong marketing and sales expertise is essential to successfully running a tourism organization – and that Gregory has it mastered.

“What it comes down to is you need someone who can sell. Nothing happens until someone can sell,” he said. “Linsey knows how to do this and I think she’s going to be a great leader, and I think Clay will still be around if she needs (any) help.”

Indeed, Gregory will be nearby.

“While my official last day with Visit Napa Valley is April 30, I hope to continue to stay connected to the organization and look forward to also staying busy with other not-for-profit Napa Valley organizations,” Gregory said in a statement. “I also plan to play more golf, travel with my wife T (Tersilla), and take many walks with our two beloved Basset Hounds, Eleanor and Annabelle.”

Throughout his decade at Visit Napa Valley, Gregory had a standing invitation from one of his colleagues as each year came to a close.

“We would have lunch and a nice bottle of burgundy on the terrace at Auberge du Soleil,” Goeggel said. “We would reminisce about what happened during the year. It was always enlightening and on a lighter and relaxed note on a sunny day in December.”

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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