After getting the go-ahead to resume operations in early June, Napa Valley resorts, wineries and tour operators are reporting a relatively solid comeback.
This upswing, however, comes on the heels of a significant blow to the famed wine region's tourism sector, which contributed about $2.23 billion in visitor spend to the local economy in 2018, according to destination management organization Visit Napa Valley.
"While we will not know the full economic impact of Covid-19 for quite some time, as a result of the shelter-in-place ordinance announced on March 19, hotel occupancy in Napa County dropped to an unprecedented 6.5% for the majority of April and May," said Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley.
In mid-July, Napa hospitality venues faced another setback, as a renewed spike in California Covid-19 cases prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to demand that all counties across the state shutter indoor dine-in restaurant and indoor winery and tasting room activities, effective July 13. Additionally, all California bars and pubs, brewpubs and breweries, were ordered to close all operations, both indoor and outdoor, unless they offered outdoor, sit-down meals.
Still, many Napa hotels are continuing to see occupancies tick upward, and have adapted to the regulatory landscape by growing their alfresco dining and amenity options.
The Meritage Resort and Spa, part of the Meritage Collection portfolio, is one of the few Napa properties that remained open throughout the pandemic, offering discounted rooms to first responders and essential workers. David Ryan, general manager for the Meritage and its adjacent sister property, Vista Collina Resort, confirmed that occupancy was "very, very low" throughout the spring.
"But once we got the green light to take in tourists, we've very quickly ramped up," Ryan said. "The weekend of June 26, we ran over 50% occupancy, which was the best weekend we've had since March. It's exciting."
Collectively, Vista Collina (which reopened on June 19) and the Meritage initially brought back approximately 140 of their 500 employees. The two properties then rehired around 30 additional employees ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, as the properties prepared to hit about 75% occupancy.
"While there are no government requirements around occupancy, we won't go higher than 75%," Ryan said. "We're certified under the California Hotel Lodging Association's Clean + Safe program, which states that after a room is checked out, you must leave the room vacant for 24 hours. So you really can't run more than 75% or 80% occupancy, because you have those empty rooms."
The Meritage Resort and Spa was one of the few Napa properties that remained open through the pandemic.
Marty Behr, managing director of Abercrombie & Kent USA, reported in late June that many other Napa-area hotels were similarly seeing strong booking activity, with partner properties such as Calistoga Ranch, Solage, Auberge du Soleil and Meadowood appearing close to sold out on recent weekend dates. Nearly every hospitality venue in the region, he added, is leveraging its surrounding green space.
"Most of the properties we work with in Napa have lots of acreage, and our clients are looking for that," Behr said. "Many have also expanded their patio dining. In some cases, they've even spread out into neighboring vineyards and are putting tables out between the vines, which is very attractive, and can double outdoor seating capacity."
According to Behr, A&K had been "slammed" by inquiries in recent weeks for its custom California wine country itineraries. Traditionally, the bulk of A&K's travelers to Sonoma and Napa are domestic, coming primarily from Texas and the East Coast.
Itinerary options changed little post-pandemic, with A&K clients still able to partake in the same hiking, cycling, horseback riding and hot air balloon excursions that are typically popular in Napa during the summer. Additionally, the vast majority of the company's boutique winery partners are open, though tastings are generally available by appointment only.
The region's emphasis on reservation-only tastings, however, can be a bonus for travelers wary of crowds, Behr said.
"Because the wineries are controlling numbers and doing private tastings with just a few people at a time, the crowds are way down," Behr explained. "The day-trippers from San Francisco aren't coming up, because they have to deal with advance reservations and social distancing. So it's actually a very attractive time to come."
At Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, which reopened on June 11, tastings are by appointment only, with the number of slots available "greatly reduced," according to Stag's Leap winemaker Marcus Notaro. Due to capacity limits, tastings are generally booked up approximately three to four weeks in advance.
During normal times, Stag's Leap typically hosts around 40,000 tastings per year, with sales at the winery's FAY Outlook and Visitor Center venue accounting for around 40% of its total direct-to-consumer business.
Fellow Napa winery Frog's Leap, which reopened for tastings and tours on June 15, has limited tours to single parties of no larger than six at a time and has reduced tasting capacity from between eight to 10 tables to just six tables, all of which are located in an outdoor patio area.
Tours and tastings are available by appointment via FrogsLeap.com, and weekend appointments are typically booked up to several weeks in advance, said Jessica Hague, vice president for direct-to-consumer sales, marketing and client experience at Frog's Leap. To accommodate the growing demand, the winery is working to complete construction on an outdoor tasting garden featuring 10 to 12 tables. The garden is expected to open in early August, ahead of the fall crush season.
"Because we're limiting capacity, we're able to offer what feels more like a private experience," Hague said. She estimated that the winery now hosts a maximum of about 40 guests at a time across its 50 acres, versus 75 to 100 guests during a peak Saturday period pre-Covid.
"These limits allow things to be nicely paced and safe for our employees, so they can feel comfortable interacting with travelers from all over the U.S.," said Hague, adding that masks are required to be worn by staff and guests throughout the winery, except when seated for a tasting.
The vast majority of Frog's Leap's recent visitors -- about 70%, Hague estimated -- are coming from the Bay Area and surrounding counties, though the winery has seen some drive and fly-in visitors from Las Vegas, Texas, Arizona and other markets.
It may be too early to gauge the impact of the governor's most recent order on wine-country tourism.
But earlier this month, Hague pointed out that "there are plenty of other parts of California that feel very safe, with lots of wide-open space, and Napa Valley fits into that. For people who are saying, 'Hey, maybe I can't go overseas like I planned to this year,' Napa Valley may be the right alternative."
Updated: This report was updated July 16 with new information about the order from California Gov. Gavin Newsom.