Sonoma County’s tourism chief sees visitors coming here for cheese and the wine
When Claudia Vecchio became chief executive of Sonoma County Tourism last November, she certainly faced immediate challenges.
It was mere weeks after the historic Tubbs fire destroyed more than 5,300 homes and killed 24 people in the county. Although much of the local business sector was spared in the natural disaster, tourists stopped coming here and three Santa Rosa hotels with a combined 400-plus rooms were burned.
The tourism bureau also had its own problems when Vecchio, 58, arrived after serving as director of the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs for six years. The agency’s former director, Ken Fischang, resigned in May 2017 after questions arose over spending and accounting practices. The county board of supervisors then last fall cut $1 million from the pot of money the tourism agency receives through local hotel occupancy taxes, redirecting those funds for the work of emergency responders.
Vecchio said she has reorganized the nonprofit tourism agency the county established in 2005 as its official destination marketing arm to be “a more responsible organization so people trust what we are doing, trust what we were saying.” It has a 2018 budget of $8.5 million and 24 employees.
Under her leadership, the tourism bureau has launched its first major branding campaign — “Life Opens Up” — that seeks to go beyond Sonoma County’s traditional wine tourism and highlight more reasons to visit, whether it’s the cheesemaking or bicycling adventures.
“We are just getting started. Sonoma County 2.0 is underway,” said Vecchio, whose late father lived in Bodega Bay for many years. She got to know the area with frequent visits.
Vecchio recently discussed with Staff Writer Bill Swindell various tourism- related topics, such as the backlash over wine tourists to the county’s opportunities for cannabis tourism. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You came in with challenges. The former director left under a cloud and the county supervisors cut the bureau’s budget by $1 million last year. How did you address that?
The last three jobs I have had were in the same situation. There had been a director who was no longer there after being asked to leave and there was an interim director. This organization really needed a foundation of transparent and measurable objectives and initiatives that would move it forward in a way that I felt strongly about, which differed from the previous director.
So how did the agency change?
A lot of tourism bureaus have this focus of bringing in groups and meetings. Most of the time, those destinations have built a number of large hotels with meeting space. They have the assets to have such a focus. Sonoma County doesn’t. For Sonoma County, a great number of experiences that you can have in this area are individual travel experiences.
So can Sonoma County attract any meetings?
Sonoma County has a sweet spot in the meetings place. The association of XYZ usually has a board retreat or they have a smaller group comprised of that larger association. Groups of 200 or under would be fantastic. We definitely have a robust sales team selling Sonoma County for meetings. We just need to be reasonable on what we offer and work closely with our hotel partners so that we are sending them the right kinds of leads and the right kinds of business.