Napa Valley's new tourism chief wants region on millennials' bucket list

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If you didn’t know better, Linsey Gallagher could be an unassuming mom in your neighborhood coffee klatch.

Gallagher is that person but is also the recently appointed president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, the county’s tourism bureau.

Less than a year ago, the finance and marketing veteran was 10 years into her role as director of international marketing at the Wine Institute, a wine industry advocacy group in San Francisco. She traveled the world, championing California wines to about 25 countries and managing a global team that included about 15 international offices.

Under Gallagher’s tenure, California wine exports grew from $800 million to $1.6 billion, amounting to 70% growth over that 10 year period.

By her own account, the work was rewarding, but after a decade, she began to think about making a change — to what exactly, she didn’t yet know.

“I was just sort of trying to navigate where to go from here and how to have a little less international travel in the mix,” Gallagher said. “I had little kids and I was gone for long chunks of time.”

But when you travel the world and make friends everywhere you go, your name is bound to pop up on the radar of industry recruiters. And that’s what happened for Gallagher when she got a phone call in November to gauge her interest in interviewing for an executive role at Visit Napa Valley, the agency with a $7.7 million budget for the next fiscal year and tasked with stoking the area’s tourism industry with visitors.

“Clay (Gregory) had been in the job for 10 years,” said Gallagher, who with husband, Lon, bought a home in Napa in 2012. “And I thought, this is not going to come around again for 10 years, and it’s kind of perfect for me.” Gallagher and Gregory already had an established working relationship from her time at the Wine Institute.

Taking a new role

By the end of 2018, after many years of international travel, commuting to San Francisco and yearning for more quality time with her family, Gallagher hit the “work-life balance” jackpot.

On Feb. 4, she officially stepped into her new role as president of Visit Napa Valley. Gregory subsequently retired in May, at which time Gallagher added CEO to her title. Prior to her hiring, Gregory had served for 10 years as both president and CEO of the tourism agency.

Even before her time at the Wine Institute, Gallagher’s resume made a strong case for winning the job at Visit Napa Valley.

She grew up in a small town in Vermont, the eldest of three children in a family that owned a commercial real estate business. By her own account, she has always been business-minded.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in business administration with a focus on finance and international management from the University of Vermont, Gallagher moved to New York City for a 2-year financial-management program at G.E. Capital, which owned NBC.

“When I was finishing up at my training program at NBC, most of my friends were going on to the NBC audit staff, and that was a very aspirational thing to do among my finance friends,” she explained. “And I said, ‘I’m going to take this Today Show job.’ I’m very glad that I did.”

Gallagher knew from a young age she didn’t want to focus her career on finance, but she accepted the job as finance manager at the Today Show for a deliberate reason: The position also offered an opportunity to learn the production side of TV, including a window into marketing and consumer behavior.

It turned out to be a life-changing experience.

After two years at NBC, Gallagher moved to Chicago to study full time at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where she earned her MBA, with an emphasis in marketing and media management.

Gallagher then moved to California to accept a marketing position at Modesto-based E. & J. Gallo Winery. She was promoted several times over the course of her four-year stint before joining the Wine Institute. In fact, it was at Gallo that she met her husband, who continues to work for the winery in sales and marketing.

Future of Napa Valley tourism

Gallagher had come to know Napa well during her time with the Wine Insitute. She gained a good amount of tourism knowledge after traveling for 10 years on trade and media missions with Visit California, where she worked closely with Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of the 501(c)(6) nonprofit corporation that promotes the state as a tourism destination.

“I’ve seen a consistency of just a very calm and measured approach; she’s been very strategic in all that we’ve done over a decade,” Beteta said. “There’s never any drama, no surprises. She’s very friendly and warm and super strategic, but also willing to jump in with both feet on this new work experience.”

Now Gallagher’s work is focused on building the future of tourism in the Napa Valley.

“I think our biggest challenge looking ahead is going to be, how do we continue to appeal to our core travelers, who are probably a little north of 50 years old and in the prime of their earning careers, and at the same time get younger travelers to come to Napa Valley,” Gallagher said. “I think millennials are kind of bucket-list driven. We need Napa Valley to be on that bucket list, and we need them to feel that it’s an experience that’s catered to them — and not to their parents — so that they come back.”

“Millennials are all about experience,” Gallagher added. “They don’t necessarily want to go to five tasting rooms in a day as if it’s a bar; they want the Instagrammable moments at these places. They want food with wine, great hotels and interesting things like a hot-air balloon, our Napa Valley Wine Train or something along those lines,” Gallagher said. “And we have all of that here. We just need to, I think, do an even better job about communicating the breadth and depth of a Napa Valley experience.”

Gallagher is now getting ready to roll out her long-range plan to Visit Napa Valley’s board of directors to be approved for the new fiscal year that begins July 1.

The plan is comprehensive, with multiple components that include, but are not limited to, evolving the sales and marketing efforts to be more diverse, such as targeting younger visitors; further expanding partnerships with Napa’s hospitality businesses; and promoting tourism to residents to help them appreciate the value that visitors bring to the local economy.

“It’s 16,000 jobs in the community, $85 million to the general funds in the county and at the city level,” Gallagher said, adding that a typical property owner’s tax bill would be $2,000 higher without tourism. “Tourism dollars is a big chunk of what it takes to make this community run.”

And after years jumping on international plane flights, Gallagher is glad to now be one of those Napa residents.

“I’m still pinching myself that I can now drop my kids off at school,” she said. “It’s a blessing, needless to say, and to be walking distance from the office and be so in touch and ingrained with this community.”

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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