Rebuilding Sonoma County: Wedding industry sees drop in business after 2017 fires

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When Brittany Rogers-Hanson and her husband, Eric Hanson, moved their family from Las Vegas to Sonoma County in 2008, it was a choice made on a key factor: the requirement to live near a wedding destination.

Rogers-Hanson was at the time a wedding photographer — a skillset she grew into a thriving business after her family’s arrival in Sonoma County. In 2012, she founded Run Away With Me, a popular wedding planning business based in Windsor that caters to the needs of every kind of Wine Country wedding.

Since its founding, business has been booming for Run Away With Me, Rogers- Hanson said, with profits nearly doubling year after year, and 2017 was gearing up to be her business’s best year yet. She ended the year with about $1.5 million in revenue.

Because of that, Rogers-Hanson had high expectations for 2018. But then the North Bay wildfires hit.

Like so many of their Fountaingrove neighbors, her family lost their rental home in the blaze. Her son attended Anova, the Santa Rosa school for students with autism. The campus also was destroyed in the fire. And her lead planner’s home burned down, too.

The Hanson family estimates they escaped about an hour before the flames hit with some jewelry, their hard drives and — she laughs at this part — their reusable water bottles.

“It was so stupid, but we still have them,” Rogers-Hanson said.

October is always the busiest month for the Wine Country wedding business, and October 2017 was no different. In the seven days after the firestorm hit, she had four weddings scheduled. Two of the weddings had to be moved south to different venues in Novato, and one couple chose to cancel their event.

Just one East Coast couple, who opted for a destination wedding in California Wine Country, was able to have their party as scheduled: at a private estate in Dry Creek Valley. The air quality could have been better, but otherwise everything was going well — until the vineyard next door caught fire during dinner, Rogers-Hanson said.

“The winemaker comes in, and he’s like, ‘Um,’ ” Rogers-Hanson said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what is that face?’ ”

Flames had broken out next door, he explained, and crews were on their way to battle it.

“Part of me was like, ‘I’m going to bail, I’ve already been through that,’ ” Rogers- Hanson said. “It was just like, ‘Oh my God, come on. Really?’ ”

Firefighters quickly tamped the small blaze, and the party was largely unaffected.

On top of that, Run Away With Me’s phone was ringing around the clock, with out-of-state clients in a panic about how their wedding would fare in the face of one of the most destructive fires in state history.

“It was crazy,” Rogers-Hanson said. “I was driving around FaceTiming clients — like, driving down Dry Creek, FaceTiming and trying to show them, ‘Look, see, you can see there’s no smoke.’ I had to go everywhere and take video and show them. … It was just a mad dash.”

Business has been slow to rebuild. In 2018, revenue was down to $1 million, $500,000 off from the year before, and Run Away With Me has been working hard to overcome that slide. Rogers-Hanson now requires clients to purchase wedding insurance as part of their contract. Large wedding parties are booked less frequently, due to the risk involved, and questions from potential clients about wildfires come frequently these days. Before 2017, that never happened.

“Wine Country was like, perfect,” she said. “It never came up. I never had a single question of, ‘Do you guys experience fires, or is there anything we should worry about?’ Before, booking off-season weddings, it was like, ‘Oh, it could rain.’ Now it’s a very different conversation.”

Figures from the Wedding Report, an Arizona-based market research company, show that Run Away With Me’s experience wasn’t unique. Annual wedding-related sales in 2016 and 2017 in Sonoma County hovered around $115 million. In 2018, that number dropped to $110 million. The Wedding Report’s 2019 projection estimates it should be about the same as 2018.

Rogers-Hanson said her business is still about 20% to 30% off pace from where it was at this point in 2017. Still, she hopes for a rebound.

“It was a big learning experience, and unfortunately crisis can bring people together, and we had some great couples who were very supportive,” she said. “I told my husband — for us, we’re transplants, but Sonoma County is home. We’ll never leave due to the sense of community and how well people took care of us.”

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