SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- In the wake of the wildfires that
roared through wine country last month -- some of the most destructive in
California history -- the state's tourism industry is working to contain a
second wave of damage: visitors being deterred by images of devastation in
places like Santa Rosa's northern Coffey Park and Fountaingrove neighborhoods.
"Just the imagery alone, I would argue, did more damage
than the actual damage to the tourism infrastructure and the product, much of
which now is back online," Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit
California, said in her keynote at the Wine Marketing & Tourism Conference
here earlier this month.
"It is horrific when we lose lives, but much of the
wine country was untouched," Beteta said. "We have over 1,200
wineries in Napa and Sonoma, and less than 10 were affected by the fires."
Wine country is beautiful and bountiful
There is devastation in
some places, but many, many hotels, wineries, restaurants and shops are open. For
those who want to visit, there is no reason
not to do it now, writes Michelle Baran.
Consequently, Visit California is spending $2 million on a
marketing campaign to stimulate demand for travel to Napa and Sonoma following
the October wildfires that claimed 43 lives statewide and in wine country
burned more than 160,000 acres and destroyed more than 8,000 structures.
Those numbers were provided by Todd Derum, Sonoma County
division chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection,
in a speech at the conference dinner.
Organizer Zephyr Conferences decided to proceed with the
event at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa despite the fires.
Zephyr president Allan Wright said conference attendance
dropped about 20% due to cancellations and a lack of last-minute sign-ups,
which he attributed to the fires. Some 200 wine industry representatives
attended, less than the 240 who had been expected.
While much of the agenda remained the same, Zephyr added
several discussions about the fires. During those talks, wine producers and
marketers, many from outside California, admitted that they had expected the
region to be in much worse shape than what they found upon arriving.
It was that kind of misperception and how local and state
tourism authorities are combating them that dominated discussion at a Wine
Country Fires and Crisis Recovery panel that had been added.
"The past three years have been record-breaking,"
said panel member Tim Zahner, COO of Sonoma County Tourism. But the current
forecast, he said, is "kind of soft."
Brad Calkins, executive director of Visit Santa Rosa said, "Prior
to the October fires, we were actually looking at being only up 2% or 3% for
the year." He added that the city's tourism business had been leveling off
a bit after several years of rapid growth. But following the fires, "we're
going to have a different story for Santa Rosa, because we lost 20% of our
Santa Rosa was one of the hardest-hit areas, with three
hotels -- the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, Fountaingrove Inn and America's Best
Value Inn & Suites -- destroyed. The vast majority of the remaining hotels
are now booked up mostly by locals who lost their homes in the fires, leaving
very little available capacity for visitors.
But that scenario is unique to the city of Santa Rosa, which
is holding off on aggressively marketing itself as a destination until hotel
capacity is freed up as impacted residents find housing. Those destination
marketing organizations (DMOs) in Napa and Sonoma that do not face the same
challenge as Santa Rosa have already turned up the dial on efforts intended to
help fuel a rapid recovery.
"The real question we're all having is, is there going
to be a small dip in the first quarter or not?" Calkins said. "It's
too early to tell. Come our summer season, which is big, I don't see a big drop
Visit Napa Valley said that its October hotel occupancy and
revenue numbers were thrown off by the fact that many Napa Valley hotels were
occupied by evacuees or emergency crews who were staying free of charge or at
significantly reduced rates.
Still, a number of hotels reported that their November
bookings were encouraging.
There is a great deal at stake. Fifty-four million visitors
to California partook in wine country experiences last year, and the wine
industry supports almost 800,000 jobs and generates about $114 billion in
economic activity for California, according to Visit California. None of the
regional and state DMOs are taking any chances.
On Nov. 12, Visit California did something Beteta said it
almost never does: It bought a full-page ad in The New York Times. Titled "California
Love," the ad asked readers to support and visit wine country.
Additionally, Visit California is hosting a benefit on Nov.
21 called Grateful Table (VisitCalifornia.com/GratefulTable), the proceeds from
which will go toward the region's recovery efforts.
"The best time to visit wine country is right now
because the destination is so grateful for the business," Beteta said.