Sonoma County Tourism President and CEO Claudia Vecchio and Chief Operating Officer Tim Zahner, provided Sonoma County Alliance members on January 3, 2018 with a update on the status of county tourism in the wake of the October wildfires. They addressed what is being done to inform the public that Sonoma County is “Open for Business” as part of its role as a destination marketing and branding organization.

In a recent benchmark update released by Smith Travel Accommodations Report (STAR), November’s hotel occupancy total in Sonoma County was up 13.6% in 2017 compared with the same 2016 month. While tourists were part of November’s occupancy mix, the report also reflects the need for housing for those evacuated during the fire storm, accommodations for FEMA, state and SBA officials, rooms for first responders from other areas, as well as places to stay for consultants brought in to help handle rebuilding permits.

It is difficult to track the impact the fires will have in the long term on what has been a robust tourism industry that garnered $1.93 billion in direct travel impact spending in 2016. Last year the tourism industry accounted for 20,410 jobs, produced $643 million in earnings, and generated $76 million in local tax revenue.

Some 85% of Sonoma County’s visitors come from within the U.S. while 15% are international visitors from Canada, Western Europe, Mexico, and Asia (Australia/New Zealand, Japan and Korea).

In addition, 91% of Sonoma County’s tourism businesses are locally owned and 82% have fewer than 25 employees. Business categories represented include lodging, restaurants, shopping, wineries, meeting venues, outdoor activities, cultural arts, weddings, farms and farmer’s markets, nightlife and transportation. Some 96% of tourism-related businesses are locally owned.

What became apparent is that potential visitors might not come to Sonoma County after the fires or postpone trips thinking that everything was destroyed – which was not true — since 90% of the county was not touched.

“It’s a privilege to be part of a team and represent a countywide tourism industry that came together through challenging times to not only support one another, but also to rally around and get the word out that we are open for business and ready to welcome visitors to Northern California,” Vecchio said.

In keeping with its vision to ensure a robust economic ecosystem for Sonoma County businesses and residents, by promoting overnight stays and encouraging tourism within this county, the tourism bureau sees itself as complementing existing Chambers and visitor centers as a “megaphone” for getting its messages out to the public.

A significant part of the tourism bureau’s mission is to stimulate domestic and international sales through community engagement, by promoting local hospitality businesses to visitors, and by targeting seasonal as well as off-season visits (Sunday through Thursday from November to April).

This approach is designed to help avoid the boom-and-bust flat line cycle that would occur in the past, Zahner said. “So how are we changing perceptions and attitudes toward tourism? In 2015 the debate was all about growth concerns. In 2016, some said we had too much tourism, but by 2017, our survey in many Sonoma County cities focused more on issues other than those directly related to tourism per se.”

The tourism bureau’s annual advertising spending is divided into three campaign periods, a Sneak Away promotion from January to June (44%); a Harvest campaign from October to December (34%), and Awareness and Maintenance advertising spending throughout the year (22%).

From 2005 to 2016, two of these campaigns have increased overnight visits to the county during the off-season from 45% to 65% (Sneak Away program) and from 48% to 68% (Harvest ad program). During the same time frame, peak season occupancy went up from approximately 77% to 88% in Sonoma County.

Last year – before the fires — the bureau launched a “listening tour” program for county residents informing them about the bureau’s work and to address how it can partner with each community to ensure its concerns are addressed. Meetings were held in nine Sonoma County communities. Chief among concerns (in order of importance) were housing, traffic, and road conditions, followed by parking, litter/trash, finding workers, homelessness and emergency services funding/use issues.

The fire recovery and reset focus was addressed with a “Sonoma County Strong” advertising campaign targeted in three phases: Short-term — from the fires through containment; mid-term — from containment through June 30, 2018, and long-term — starting after July 1, 2018. This outreach emphasis takes a multi-prong approach starting with Support, Educating residents and prospective visitors and Selling the county as a viable destination with a “Come Visit” appeal.

The campaign strategy took on new meaning with statements such as: “We are bold, brave, committed, resilient…We Are Sonoma County Strong, and We Are Open For Business” featuring a #sonomastrong hashtag while also leveraging traditional and social media.
Messages in October included stating the facts and correcting misinformation. During this month the tourism bureau liaised with its main customers and partners and also became a resource to find housing for those displaced or aiding in recovery. A toolkit was prepared for partners outlining the overall messaging plan.

In November, “come visit Sonoma County” was publicized to drive overnight stays and occupancy (because of the lodging venues that were affected). A parallel message offered incentives and said Sonoma County is open for business and meetings. Other copy points included a thank you for support as part of the Sonoma Strong theme, while conveying a “permission to travel” statement to potential visitors.

December messages continued to convey the “come visit” invitation with a spotlight on smaller inns and B&Bs, restaurants, attractions as well as businesses dependent on overnight guests. This theme carried over into January with emphasis on small accommodation resources.

On January 4, 2018, the tourism bureau launched another survey to assess post-fire consumer perceptions and surface lingering fears. With the Sneak Away campaign, indicators show strong interest in travel to Sonoma County (the test will come after this interest is converted to actual visits).

At the end of January the “Sonoma Passport” will be launched to attract visitors to smaller entities where their passports would be stamped leading to incentives after certain thresholds and numbers of stamps are attained. A new Sonoma County Visitor Guide is also planned for release in February.

Meanwhile, the media will be monitored to see what concerns continue to surface that can be addressed with appropriate, and positive responses. Social media will be utilized to post “beauty spots” within the county untouched by fires, along with visitor testimonials from those who have come and have seen for themselves that much beauty remains to be experienced, enjoyed and appreciated. Ongoing meetings with partners are planned to monitor and gauge business trends.

The road ahead for Sonoma County Tourism includes three objectives:

Implementing its strategic plan calling for better data, more robust direct-to-consumer marketing, enhanced community engagement and a firm commitment to running an efficient organization. The core values of the organization include being service centered, collaborative, innovative, accountable and strategic (forward thinking and focused).
Effectively branding the county, its attractions, accommodations, events and activities.
Continuing to monitor post-fire impacts on tourism and to identify red flags.

Five key initiatives define the purpose of the bureau: Driving overnight visitation; creating and conveying value; engaging partners and partnerships, spearheading long-term destination planning, and running an effective business.

Vecchio said this is layered plan designed to develop and improve the infrastructure and fabric of the community as Sonoma County rebuilds.

“We are only successful if our partners are successful. Our mission is to be creative, to convey a voice for our partners and to constantly look for trends to help define what Sonoma County is, and what it means to visitors, residents and businesses — so that these attributes and benefits can be effectively communicated to those who decide to come and stay overnight.”