Wine country marketers strive to reverse damage from fires

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Wine and tourism professionals show some heart during the Wine Marketing & Tourism Conference.
Wine and tourism professionals show some heart during the Wine Marketing & Tourism Conference. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran

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."

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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 inventory."

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 off."

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.

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