Sonoma County tourism sector attempts to lure visitors back following wildfires

After three consecutive years of wildfires that drove away fall visitors, Sonoma County tourism officials are exploring new initiatives to prevent Wine Country from turning into Fire Country in the minds of out-of-town visitors.|

After three consecutive years of wildfires that drove away fall visitors, Sonoma County tourism officials are exploring new initiatives to prevent Wine Country from turning into Fire Country in the minds of out-of-town visitors.

The county’s $2.2 billion tourism sector will attempt to convince travelers to consider visits in the spring and summer, hoping to diversify the industry’s reliance on the prime months of September and October. Early fall has historically been a critical season for the hospitality industry, which has capitalized on its connections to Wine Country by catering to well-heeled tourists visiting during the thick of the annual grape harvest.

But September and October have also become the peak of wildfire season in Northern California, and more recently, massive PG&E blackouts to prevent fires from erupting during dry, windy weather.

The issue has come to the forefront in the aftermath of the 2017 North Bay wildfires, which killed 24 people and destroyed more than 5,300 homes in Sonoma County; the almost two weeks of unhealthy, smoke-filled skies that lingered over the county in 2018 from the Camp fire 110 miles away in Butte County; and last month’s Kincade fire, which was accompanied by a historic power shutoff and the largest evacuation in county history.

After three straight years of significant and costly disruptions to its business, the hospitality sector has come to realize it must adapt.

Tourism-based businesses must take a proactive approach, said Claudia Vecchio, president of Sonoma County Tourism, a trade group that markets the region as a destination for visitors. They now operate in a real-time, social-media environment where photos and videos can push out a narrative in an instant without providing the proper context to an event, she said.

For example, a person viewing a photo of Soda Rock Winery in flames, one of the iconic images from the Kincade fire last month, might worry the blaze had wiped out Healdsburg 8 miles away. Locals may realize the city and the vast majority of wineries were spared, but many people outside the area will not see the distinction, she said.

“We’re dealing with the soft impact - their perception and peoples’ feeling of safety and the customer experience of what’s going to be there for them,” Vecchio said. “It’s all about the customer.”

While the tourism industry expects it will continue to draw large crowds of visitors in the fall, the composition of those visitors may change. Fewer may come on long-planned vacations from outside the state and more may travel from other parts of Northern California on shorter notice, Vecchio said. The shift increases the importance of marketing the county as a destination for all seasons, she said.

“We have to make sure that we can find any dollars that may be subsequently lost in October and can be shifted to another time of the year,” Vecchio said.

Sonoma County Tourism isn’t the only entity that’s grappling with the effects of wildfires within the hospitality sector. Hotels, restaurants, wineries, breweries and event planners are all figuring how to survive.

Many businesses that rely on tourist dollars have purchased or rented generators to keep power on during PG&E blackouts. At least one restaurateur is exploring an off-site kitchen or refrigerated truck to keep meats, cheeses and produce fresh instead of going to the trash bin. They constantly post updates on social media to alert followers they are open for business. And all worry about the toll of a housing crunch on their workers, who already have difficulty with Sonoma County’s high cost of living.

Struggle to survive

“There is going to be some attrition. It’s one more blow to an already fragile tourism economy,” said Joe Bartolomei, managing partner at the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville and a member of Sonoma County Tourism’s board. His boutique inn lost power for five days during the Kincade fire, the result of PG&E’s decision to shut down power lines to prevent its equipment from starting a fire.

“Already there have been some businesses who have to close the door,” he said.

Last week, chef Gerard Nebesky announced he was shutting down his Santa Rosa restaurant, Gerard’s Paella y Tapas. The final straw, he said, were the evacuations during the Kincade fire, which prompted him to close the restaurant for several days last month. It follows a string of restaurant closures in downtown Santa Rosa since the summer that include Stout Brothers, Jade Room, Mercato, Tex Wasabi’s and La Vera Pizza.

The full extent of tourism losses during the Kincade fire and PG&E blackouts are not yet known. Sonoma County officials are polling business owners to calculate the extent of the damage.

The disruptions come at a time when more hotel rooms are going empty in Sonoma County. The occupancy rate at local hotels dropped to 75.6% through the first nine months of the year, down from 80.9% during the same period in 2018, according to STR, a Tennessee research firm and longtime tracker of the global hotel industry.

“We are seeing less people (downtown),” said Natalie Cilurzo, owner of Russian River Brewing Co., whose downtown Santa Rosa brewpub has been a main tourist draw for the past decade, especially for its annual Pliny the Younger beer release in February. “It’s definitely changed a lot in the last three years.”

Last year, Russian River Brewing opened a new facility in Windsor. However, the PG&E power shutoffs have caused significant disruptions to the brewery, which spent $73,000 to rent a generator to keep operations ongoing in Windsor this fall, Cilurzo said.

To be sure, it’s not all doom and gloom. The Best Western Dry Creek Inn this summer finished a $4 million renovation that updated its Villa Toscana, an Italianate 60-room building that overlooks a piazza, fountains and landscaping. The effort was designed, in part, to keep up with other new entrants to the hotel sector in Healdsburg, such as Hotel Trio and Harmon Guest House.

“Competition makes you sharpen your pencil,” said Aaron Krug, president and general manager of the Best Western Dry Creek Inn. His family also owns a hotel in Sonoma.

The Kincade fire did not bring as much destruction as the 2017 blazes, and Krug hopes that any lingering effects may be minimal. The Healdsburg hotel had been near full capacity the last two weekends, he said.

“I’m hoping for more short-term memory (of the Kincade fire),” Krug said.

Still, business owners are on guard. Marshall Bauer, who operates a Santa Rosa events business that handles weddings, had to scramble to relocate six weddings during the October evacuations. His company, Milestone Events Group, represents multiple local wineries and was able to provide backup locations.

Bauer now confronts a winter season where 25% of all wedding dates will be selected between December and February. Half of the decisions will be made by early 2020, he added.

Preparing for disruption

“One of the two largest things that must be addressed are contingency plans. Every couple always wants to understand if rain might be a factor, or heat or wind. … That list is now a bit larger,” Bauer wrote in an email. “The second thing that it would be prudent to address is having everyone up their game and increase their advertising, starting right now. There is a finite window to book wedding clients for next year.”

The wildfire problem is especially hard on restaurants because they have smaller profit margins than other hospitality business, and thus have to manage their cash flow judiciously so they don’t come up short.

The contingency plans are pending for Sweet T’s Restaurant and Bar in Windsor. Its original location in Santa Rosa was destroyed by the Tubbs fire and the new location was shut down for 10 days during the Kincade fire, resulting in $135,000 in lost sales, said Ann Tussey, chef and owner.

Tussey is looking forward after successfully wrangling with her insurance company over covering her business interruption claim from the Kincade fire. A generator will be installed, though Tussey must ensure it will not be connected to the natural gas line, which was also turned off by PG&E during the Kincade fire. She also is thinking about the idea of an off-site kitchen to store perishable goods instead of taking a big loss during the next power shutoff.

“It’s crazy that every small business is trying to think about this,” Tussey said.

For Christopher Creek Winery in Healdsburg, the plan revolves on getting the word out that it is open this weekend though it will be selling wine out front as its workers clean up from smoke damage, said owner Dominic Foppoli, who also serves as mayor of Windsor.

The winery will likely lose half of this year’s vintage as a result of the power shutoff and most of its tasting reservations have been canceled for the rest of the year, Foppoli said. He is focusing on locals to help support Sonoma County businesses now that tourists are sparser after the fire. His message is to shop local.

“Everybody locally should be doing what they can in supporting those business that rely on tourists,” Foppoli said. “I have personally had dinner at local restaurants this week.”

Looking ahead

Even in Alexander Valley - which suffered the most damage with two out of its 42 wineries destroyed and an estimated ?50 acres out of 14,500 acres severely burnt - vintners have started thinking about the future as they clean up. Jake Hawkes, owner of Hawkes Wine and president of the Alexander Valley Winegrowers, said his group is exploring a new Healdsburg wine festival in July that would include wineries from the Russian River and Dry Creek regions as well.

“I don’t know what the public perception will be. … Unfortunately it is always a guessing game,” said Hawkes, whose own winery lost 70 tons of cabernet sauvignon grapes that were not picked because of the fire.

“The only thing you can do is try and make superlative products,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette