Visit Napa Valley's Clay Gregory

A little more than a week after wildfires devastated parts of Northern California's Napa and Sonoma counties, Travel Weekly's Michelle Baran spoke with Visit Napa Valley president and CEO Clay Gregory about how the region's tourism industry is coping with the resulting loss of business and what the plan is for recovery.

Q: How much does tourism contribute to Napa's overall economy, and how does that compare with the wine industry's size and contribution?

A: In 2016, the economic impact of tourism was $1.9 billion in Napa County. So, it's very significant from an economic standpoint, from a government funding standpoint, from a jobs standpoint. It's the second biggest industry outside of the wine industry.

Q: In terms of that overall visitation, how significant is October for Napa?

Clay Gregory
Clay Gregory

A: The two strongest months every year, without fail, are September and October, and that's because people want to come for harvest. So from an economic standpoint, it's definitely a large hit for tourism to have this happen in the middle of October.

Q: Can you give me an overview of what is open, what isn't and what the overall visitor experience is a little more than one week after the wildfires broke out?

A: There's a page on our website [] that has what's open and what's not open. It also has some really good things for people who are not necessarily tourists or visitors but who have been evacuated, because the hotels and a lot of the restaurants are doing special things for them, too. A good number of hotels are not charging evacuees.

Happily there are now quite a few wineries that are open, quite a few hotels, a lot of restaurants now. The really good news from a local and a visitor standpoint is that the closed part of this list is getting smaller and smaller and the open part is getting bigger very rapidly now.

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Q: What are your constituents' biggest concerns regarding the impact these fires have and will continue to have on business?

A: The biggest thing is when and how do we get the messaging out that Napa Valley is not exactly but very close to its normal state, and how soon do we do that. There are some entities that want that to happen right now. But our board wants to be sensitive about when the right time is. And we don't want people to get here and be upset because of the air quality or because they can't do the kinds of things they were used to doing in the past.

When the earthquake happened in 2014, it was a much simpler situation. By the second week after the earthquake, we were able to say that Napa Valley is open for business with very few exceptions, because the earthquake was really focused in the city of Napa.

This is much more complicated, with how many different places were impacted and how much more devastating it was for so many people than the earthquake was. So, it's a matter of once we feel it's time to sort of put out the "we're ready to move on" messaging, which we're working on right now.

Q: Do you have an estimate of the impact on Napa's tourism economy?

A: No, and everyone wants to know the answer to that. I would literally just be making a wild guess if we estimated what the impact is right now.

Q: What is the recovery plan?

A: The images have been so dramatic, and there are so many people who lost their homes and who weren't as fortunate as those of us who got to go back to their home. And of course, there were losses of life. We have to be very sensitive about how we market this. One of the things that has made the Napa Valley what it is has been the spirit of collaboration, and that is very much visible through this disaster. So [recovery messaging] is going to be around that.

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