Tourism officials developing strategies to rise from the ashes

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"When people are ready, we're saying, 'We need you,' because we will need people," Sonoma County Tourism interim CEO Tim Zahner said.
"When people are ready, we're saying, 'We need you,' because we will need people," Sonoma County Tourism interim CEO Tim Zahner said.

NAPA, Calif. -- As firefighters gained the upper hand last week on wildfires that had burned more than 150,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties, tourism officials started plotting their recovery plans to help lessen the impact of fire damages on businesses and workers whose livelihoods depend on the billions of dollars visitors spend in Northern California's wine country each year.

"There are over 20,000 people in Sonoma County employed in the hospitality industry," said Tim Zahner, interim CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, which reports that annual tourism spending in Sonoma County is $1.93 billion. "Hospitality is very important to Sonoma County."

Zahner said it was too soon to determine the fires' economic toll on the county's tourism economy, but he added that Sonoma and Napa counties were already working together to come up with marketing initiatives.

"When people are ready, we're saying, 'We need you,' because we will need people," Zahner said. "We hope we can use a lot of that goodwill and hospitality that we have built up over the years of being a crucial part of people's memories and their life experience and say, 'Come back and support us.'"

Both Zahner and Clay Gregory, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, acknowledged that recovery marketing in the aftermath of such a calamity is not easy.

In the immediate aftermath of the wildfires, the two destination marketing organizations (DMOs) spent the ensuing days in crisis management mode, issuing information updates, providing links to vital resources such as fire maps and road closures and compiling lists of which businesses were open and which were closed.

But last Wednesday, Visit Napa Valley released its first piece of positive messaging, focusing on the community spirit of Napa Valley and the desire to rebuild and reopen.

"We are humbled by the incredible dedication we have seen from the emergency service response teams who continue to work to keep everyone safe," Gregory said in a release last week. "The spirit of collaboration to rebuild and reopen is remarkable. Our thoughts remain with those impacted by these wildfires, including the more than 13,000 people whose jobs are supported by the Napa Valley tourism industry."

Visit Napa Valley reported that the wildfires mostly affected the eastern and western hills surrounding the valley floor, and that many of the hotels, wineries, restaurants and other businesses throughout Napa Valley either never closed or reopened last week. Only a small number of businesses remained closed as of press time.

While acknowledging both the devastation and the hard work and bravery of emergency workers who have struggled tirelessly to contain the fires, Napa and Sonoma counties are indeed now hoping to shift the conversation toward the many towns, areas and businesses that were not affected.

"If people came up today and they went to West Sonoma County or Northern Sonoma County, and they weren't looking in the news, then they most likely wouldn't know that there is anything going on," Zahner said. "The majority of the fires were in rural agricultural back-country areas. What was in the paper and what made a lot of the news, was that a finger of the fire did come down into Santa Rosa.

"That portion of Santa Rosa is a residential area. Someone coming up to do Lake Sonoma or the Russian River Valley or the Sonoma Coast, they won't see these areas. ... When you look at space, it was roughly 10% of the county that was involved in the fire or evacuation, which means 90% of it was not."

But for many of the region's businesses, the DMOs said that the images of the devastation, of entire neighborhoods wiped out and Armageddon-like scenes of destruction, were going to be hard to overcome.

Michael Palmer, general manager of the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa, said, "What's really hurting us here is people seeing pictures of these horribly devastated homes in Santa Rosa. My heart bleeds for those folks, but that's certainly not what's going on here. That'll be a difficult hurdle to overcome."

The Meritage took in some 150 evacuated families for a reduced price of $99 per night and was also offering reduced and comp rates for firefighters and rescue crews. Those guests replaced many of the original guests who had canceled because of the fires.

Palmer said he did have some groups and even a wedding party that continued on with their plans in the immediate aftermath of the fires. And he expressed the hope that in time, guests would come back.

"I think it's going to be a slow process," Palmer said. But asked if he saw this affecting business into 2018, he insisted, "Absolutely not. People are always going to come here because this is a great destination for food, wine and wellness."

Dani Johnson, vice president at Garden Grove, Calif.-based Coastline Travel Advisors, which sells about $200,000 worth of Wine Country trips and tours each year, said that for the time being she, too, faces the same image challenge with her clients.

"Their idea is that all of Napa is demolished and that there's nothing left of it," Johnson said. "I tried to explain that Yountville, Napa and Calistoga are all fine. I'm letting them know that you can still have an amazing experience."
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Danny King contributed to this report.

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