California tourism group to spend $2 million urging visitors to return to Wine Country

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The state’s main tourism agency will spend about $2 million to help spread the word that travelers should not cancel their plans to visit Sonoma County and greater wine country in the aftermath of last month’s devastating wildfires.

Visit California, the nonprofit arm of the state Office of Tourism, will begin its campaign with a full-page advertisement in this Sunday’s New York Times, announcing to readers that Wine Country is open for business. Paid digital and social media outreach will follow in early 2018, to promote the spring tourist season and reach national and international travelers.

The effort will help counter the perception that the wildfires, which have resulted in 43 deaths to date and caused more than $3 billion in insured damage, has shut down prime tourist spots in Sonoma and Napa counties. In fact, only about 10 North Coast wineries suffered major damage and the amount of vineyard acreage that were burned was minimal. Tasting rooms started reopening less than two weeks after the fires.

“Just the imagery alone, I would argue, did more damage than the actual damage to the tourism infrastructure,” said Caroline Beteta, president and chief executive officer for Visit California, which is funded through state-collected fees. Beteta made the comments Tuesday at the Wine Marketing and Tourism Conference at Santa Rosa’s Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country. The event was sponsored by Zephyr Conferences, an events business based in Montana. Organizers said attendance was down 25 percent from last year as a result of the fires.

The agency is trying to be proactive in reaching travelers, noting that the effects can linger as they did in San Diego in the aftermath of the 2007 wildfires. There tourism to sites like the San Diego Wild Animal Park and Legoland California plummeted.

“The difference now is we do have the bandwidth and the resources to deal with the media correction,” Beteta said. “We were definitely a little more aggressive with this campaign to correct the reality versus the images.”

The public outreach within the past month has been sensitive, especially to the feelings of those who are displaced, as more than 5,100 people lost their homes in Sonoma County, said Brad Calkins, executive director of Visit Santa Rosa, a local nonprofit affiliated with the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce. “We’re still trying to work through the messaging,” he said.

Many hotels are still hosting evacuees as survivors attempt to find more long-term temporary housing, with occupancy rates that were still higher than 90 percent as of last week, he said. Santa Rosa lost about 400 hotel rooms in the blazes, about 20 percent of its overall stock.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

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