One year later: How we've changed

This is part of a report Oct. 8 on the one-year anniversary of the October 2017 wildfires that forced tens of thousands to flee quickly and destroyed thousands of homes. Read more personal accounts from business and civic leaders as well as updates on the economic recovery.

North Bay Business Journal recently connected with Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, to get her analysis on how the county’s tourism industry is recovering a year out from the wildfires.

How would you say the county’s tourism industry is faring overall now, as compared to when you joined Sonoma County Tourism in November?

This has been an incredibly complex year for the Sonoma County tourism industry. During and immediately following the fires, the tourism industry was a beacon of support and resilience for our residents, the first and second responders, and also for our visitors. Because the hospitality industry is often the face of Sonoma County, this group of more than 21,000 stellar professionals had to put on a very brave and welcoming front throughout and following the fires, even though their own lives may have been upended.

When looking at tourism in the past year, it is very much a tale of two industries. Those looking in from the outside may perceive this to be an industry doing well. The standard performance metrics the industry has been using for years — the Smith Travel Report of hotel occupancy and rate shows an industry in great shape.

Year-over-year (as of July) Sonoma County’s hotel sector is showing an almost 7 percent gain in occupancy, a 4.3 percent gain in the average daily rate and an 11 percent increase in revenue per room. The taxes generated through the transient occupancy tax have been very strong, helping to ensure solid funding for all the programs supported through taxes generated by guests in lodging properties.

While the hotels in this survey have been spectacular hosts and are working hard on behalf of the county, these numbers don’t tell the broader Sonoma County tourism story.

In two recent surveys commissioned by Sonoma County Tourism, the results show that both consumer perception and local businesses remain challenged, even a year after the fires. Over the course of the year, Sonoma County Tourism conducted two studies, one of consumers and one of local businesses.

The studies were done in January 2018, and then again in August 2018, to ascertain if perceptions and insights had changed over the time period.

In the consumer perception studies, not much has changed between January and September. While the great majority (61 percent) say the fires have little to no impact on interest in visiting to Sonoma County, 81 percent say they will delay a visit, and 69 percent say they will visit another California destination.

The local business survey shows that while most are still optimistic about the long-term potential of the tourism portion of their business, 57 percent of recent visitors expressed hesitation in visiting due to the fires, and 58 percent report business volume has decreased during the same period last year (June – August).

The industry also continues to be tested by not only the issues around the physical and emotional damage of the fires, but the ongoing and increasingly troubling concerns of finding workforce and workforce housing. Even as business picks up, these issues remain a challenge.

Which sector of tourism has rebounded most?

Without question the larger hotels and those along the Highway 101 corridor have rebounded, with several actually exceeding year-over-year projections. From a business travel and meetings standpoint, the loss of the Hilton, especially, the business that had booked into that property and recommitted to coming to the market was moved to other properties with meeting space.

One year later: How we've changed

This is part of a report Oct. 8 on the one-year anniversary of the October 2017 wildfires that forced tens of thousands to flee quickly and destroyed thousands of homes. Read more personal accounts from business and civic leaders as well as updates on the economic recovery.

The branded hotels, primarily along the Highway 101 corridor, have been the lodging properties used by both evacuees and first- and second-responder crews. This has been the case until very recently.

Which sector is still struggling, or rebounding more slowly?

The sector that seems to be most challenged is the restaurants. Although the restaurant business is always an extremely competitive one, the information we’re getting says many of our restaurants are having a difficult time recovering.

This has to do with several factors, including the almost embarrassment of riches Sonoma County has in the number and quality of its restaurants, but also the fact that with fewer visitors in the destination, and especially off the 101 corridor, there are fewer restaurant goers.

While many of the wineries and associated tasting rooms have reported lower visitor attendance, customer sales revenue seems to be strong, helping to lessen the sting of the reduced number of visitors.

What do you think needs to happen in the coming year that can further aid recovery efforts in tourism?

This coming year is going to be every bit as challenging as the last one, but we’re optimistic that with the industry working closely together we can move forward in a very positive way.

The Sonoma County Lodging Association has expanded to become the Sonoma County Hospitality Association. This will help galvanize the entire industry together in a singular voice and with a singular purpose — this will be incredibly beneficial.

Anything you want to add?

Sonoma County Tourism, in conjunction with the Sonoma County Hospitality Association and Visit California, is working to craft and integrate a crisis-management plan that can be used should another natural disaster, or any other crisis, occur.

The most important lesson learned from the October wildfires is to be prepared should another incident occur that disrupts the tourism industry. We are committed to working with our partners to be prepared for the future.