En route to Yountville, Calif., my GPS diverted me around wildfires, rerouting through towns without electricity (or operating stoplights). Twice, my cellphone sounded an emergency alert for nearby locations that were being evacuated.
Back on the highway, I watched a helicopter drop water on a large patch of blackened land. A little farther down the road, I saw an enormous plume of smoke rising in the distance.
This was disconcerting, to say the least, as I drove from San Francisco Airport toward the first annual Travel Weekly/TravelAge West Napa Valley Leadership Forum.
When I arrived, the Kincade Fire was still raging in Sonoma County some 30 miles away. The wind, however, was blowing in the opposite direction, and Napa was not under a red-flag warning. So I was surprised to find there was no electricity in Yountville, either. The reason, it turned out, was unrelated to the fires: A transformer crucial to the town's electrical power had blown.
The opening dinner that night was softly lit with battery-powered spotlights reflecting off the ceiling and "electric candles" on the table. My colleague Bob Sullivan suggested that I join the Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. table, hosted by Dondra Ritzenthaler, senior vice president of sales, trade support and service for Celebrity Cruises, and Vicki Freed, who holds the same position at Royal Caribbean International.
The table filled, and I noticed something unusual for an industry dinner: I was the only man at the table. It turned out that was not happenstance; Freed told me that RCCL primarily invites men as their guests to Travel Weekly's Pebble Beach Leadership Forum, and it saw the Napa event as an opportunity to balance the accounts and invite women exclusively. I offered to move, but they encouraged me to stay.
"You can be the token male," Freed said with a smile.
I'd take a night off from mansplaining, I told myself. I began to notice how the dynamic changes when a table is female-dominant. I started jotting down notes about it.
"What're you writing?" Ritzenthaler asked.
I said I had noticed how the conversation and tone were different at a table of women, versus when more men were in the picture.
How? she asked.
Women are better listeners, I said. Women compliment each other more and don't try to one-up each other's stories. The atmosphere feels less competitive.
As I spoke, I became aware, with some discomfort, that I might simply be projecting my own conversational tendencies onto all men.
But others at the table picked up on the theme.
"Women are so positive toward each other."
"The most important thing is that we're all together."
"Women want women to succeed. If one of us succeeds, all of us succeed."
Nexion president Jackie Friedman recalled Oprah Winfrey's Holland America cruise, where women outnumbered men five to one. "It was such a positive vibe," she said.
• • •
"Welcome to the terrifying, fire-ridden county of Napa, California," began winemaker Robert Mondavi Jr., as he addressed attendees the next morning.
(Though Napa has, for the time being, been spared in 2019, it suffered devastating wildfires in 2017.)
Mondavi and winemaker Kathryn Hall, the morning's other keynoter, are Napa-based, but each also has some vines in Sonoma County fields that potentially are in harm's way. It was impressive that both showed up, given the potential peril to their businesses. But they clearly felt it was important to take advantage of an opportunity to share Napa's story and ethos with leaders of the travel industry.
They told not only stories about their businesses but about the business atmosphere in which they operate. They wanted to explain what made Napa special.
Though in style and substance the two presentations were very different, they were, in local vernacular, well paired. Each praised the other as well as other winemakers in the region.
In Mondavi's speech, I heard echoes of comments at my table the evening before. He said that during the last fire crisis, competitors helped each other recover.
"That doesn't happen between Apple and Samsung," he said. "They don't send each other generators when the electricity goes out."
Mondavi's grandfather, Robert Mondavi, was a tremendous Napa booster, understanding that promoting the region, including his Napa competitors, to a global audience was vital to the success of his own labels.
• • •
Throughout the three days of the conference, I was struck by parallels between the wine and the travel industries. Both are designed to provide people with enjoyment. Both have a significant number of family businesses. And although elbows can be sharp among competitors, there is also an understanding that when competitors enlarge the pie, it just means there will be more pie to fight over.
In a place without power, powerful lessons.