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.
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.