Sonoma County’s tourism chief sees visitors coming here for cheese and the wine

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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.

The bureau’s budget pressures aren’t going away. Are you looking at outside-the-box ideas?

We are looking at alternative sources of funding. There are corporate types of partnerships. I think the Sonoma County brand would be attractive to other partnerships — like a credit card. It would be something that matches the brand and the DNA of Sonoma County. We are thinking about loyalty programs that can drive dollars to the way people purchase products. There are marketing partnerships we can offer through our own programs as an internal way to raise funds. But I really want to look outside of our own organization.

Sonoma County has had a spate of hotel openings after the post-recession lull, even making up for the rooms lost during the wildfires. Do we still need more hotels?

There is room for more of the right hotels. We could use more large hotels with more meeting space. I’m not seeing a lot of those built. It’s more smaller boutique hotels. We need to be very intentional about the types of hotels that come into our destination. That’s based on who we want to be. I think we need to look at who we want to be and the type of traveler we want to attract here.

Sonoma County has about 7.5 million annual visitors and about 10 percent of those are estimated to be foreign travelers. What opportunities are there in the international market?

We are more focused than ever on that group — international — and the travel agent group. A lot of our travelers when they visit, they visit a lot of places while they are in the United States, which is very common. It’s great having San Francisco as an international gateway. So they will come in there spend a couple nights there, and they will come up here for a few days. They then go to Yellowstone and down to Las Vegas. It’s kind of a Western loop that a lot of people do. We just need to be sure we are in the travel planning and the itinerary plans.

What foreign citizens are especially ripe targets for Sonoma County?

Australia. Wine lovers are wine lovers. They travel for their passion. Australians are great because of their love of wine and because of their zest for adventure. They are fun people. They have no fear of getting in a car and driving around. They are explorers. The same with the Germans. The Germans will do that same kind of adventure travel. The French will do some of that, too. The United Kingdom has been a big market for California. They have historically been more city travelers. They aren’t going to get in a car and travel around.

What about the Chinese?

I spent a lot of time in China. The Chinese love Las Vegas. They love Nevada. I just caution about China. I don’t think we are quite ready for China for a number of reasons. They are so brand-centric. There are some brands in Sonoma County that they would be perfectly happy with because they recognized them. But the many times I was in China, they were very proud that they could have a Napa wine. It wasn’t really a brand within the Napa region, but that was really the hallmark if it was a French wine. I say that’s fine, let them go to Napa and some will come over this way.

In some areas, wine tourism is viewed as a negative. How do you respond to those voices? What can be done to address such concerns over traffic and noise?

The problem is not unique to Sonoma County. People are sort of victims of their own success. The old time thinking of marketing, selling and bringing numbers of people to your town is really taking a new role to becoming a destination- management organization.

We are putting together a destination-management plan. We’re going to start this pretty soon. This is a full-court press with the community on the areas where tourism enhances and those where tourism has effects. We really want to identify who we want to be here and how we manage both the marketing and the experience of our travelers to make sure that we are in balance.

The bureau has traditionally focused on wine tourism, but we know there is so much more in Sonoma County. Craft beer tourism is a now major business. How are you responding?

That is what our new brand for Sonoma County — “Life Opens Up” — is all about. We are a progressive community of artisans. It is connecting with people in an emotional way to provide a juxtaposition between wine and all the natural and cultural resources we have beyond wine. The ads will soon start running. We have a headline on one that reads a “Cool, Crisp Finish” but the image is of the Sonoma Coast. We understand we are a wine destination, but there is so much more to do here.

Let’s look at the Russian River Brewing Co.’s new craft brewery and restaurant in Windsor. How do you capitalize on the hundreds of thousands of visitors that are projected to visit there annually to ensure that they spend more time in Sonoma County and just don’t get back on Highway 101 to go home?

I think it’s important for us to convey the kinds of experiences that those people are going to want to do in addition to craft beers. We have a profile to talk to Sonoma County visitors. The people who are coming into Russian River, they are into artisans. They are not coming for Pabst Blue Ribbon. Certainly, other food experiences are going to be helpful to them. We need to help them understand the other restaurants, the other makers that are here. The cheesemakers, for example. We need to let them know about the different events that are going on. People plan trips around events. I think we can do a better job of crafting such packages.

What about outdoor activities? A lot of focus has been on kayaking the Russian River or biking a few trails. Some come for hikes. What can be done to assemble more enticing packages so visitors can spend several days over a whole host of activities and truly highlight Sonoma County as an outdoor destination?

That’s what we are marrying the wine with on our advertising, whether it would be the redwoods or the Sonoma Coast. We talk about that a lot. We have hosted the Outdoors Writers Association of America. We could all do a better job of putting together the packages that feature such activities.

What’s the potential of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit train for tourists coming from San Francisco once the Larkspur extension is finished? What could be done to get them up here without cars?

There is definitely potential with the SMART train. It has to schedule itself so it accommodates travelers. There needs to be a little different schedule than it has now. Right now, it accommodates commuters — for good reason. But I welcome the chance to work with SMART officials to have a schedule to accommodate travelers for their timetable. The weekends are big. You have to look at the weekend schedule to ensure they have enough flexibility and have itineraries that meet the train at those various stops. I would always put together an itinerary where people stay overnight in Sonoma County.

The burgeoning SMART bike/trail path opens up a tremendous opportunity for bike tourism. The state has already taken the first step to create a 300-mile trail from the San Francisco Bay Area to Humboldt Bay on old railroad tracks. What’s the potential there?

I worked in a lot of states. One of those states is Missouri and they have an enormous rails-to-trails system. It’s hugely popular. People will come from far and wide for this. They get to go for wonderful landscapes. It would just be a win all around.

What does the future hold for cannabis tourism? Sonoma County appears conflicted. There already are some efforts — such as cannabis dinners and van tours — but there is still some within the county who don’t want anything to do with the newly legalized sector.

We’re certainly looking at it. It’s an experience a lot of people want to have. It fits in the DNA of Sonoma County. We’re not diametrically opposed to cannabis tourism. It is just finding the right product, the right message, and the right way legally to talk about it and make sure we’re respecting the opportunity, but not taking a risk because we don’t know enough yet. It’s still in the exploratory stage. There’s definitely interest in learning more among our board members.

What is one local sector that is poised to become more popular with tourists in the future?

The whole cheese thing is really interesting to people. In fact, they love that a lot of cheesemakers are women. When we bring a cheese trail map to media, they love it. But some of those places aren’t open all the time to accommodate visitors. We just need to develop that product so that the experiences are available to people. We need to have places open on a regular basis, so visitors can rely on going there.

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

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