The Sonoma County Tourism Bureau has a new leader. Claudia Vecchio, director of the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, is the choice of the board of directors to be the agency’s new chief executive officer.
Vecchio takes over from Ken Fischang, who resigned in May shortly before the tourism bureau’s annual contract was up for review by the Board of Supervisors. She takes over an organization that faces an immediate challenge of trying to lure visitors back to the region in the aftermath of the devastating North Bay wildfires as well as contending with a $1 million budget cut recently imposed by the Board of Supervisors. She starts her new job on Nov. 1.
“Sonoma has such a great personality,” said Vecchio, 57, who also has previously served as the tourism director for the state of Ohio and worked for the Edelman and Burson-Marsteller public relations firms. “The people are creative, interesting and dedicated, and driven in a way that is really different from other places.”
Vecchio said she was familiar with Sonoma County because her late father lived in Bodega Bay for 25 years and she visited frequently.
She said she was open to new opportunities after six years on the job, in part because her job in Nevada is a political appointment by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, who leaves office in January 2019.
Joe Bartolomei, chairman of the tourism bureau’s board of directors and owner of the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, said there were about 70 applicants for the job with both “amazing” national and international experience. The board hired Vecchio before the fires erupted on Oct. 8, but held off announcing her appointment out of deference to the disaster, its victims, and relief efforts.
The board selected Vecchio because of her strong background as well as her passion for Sonoma County, Bartolomei said. “We needed someone to come in and take us to the next level,” he said.
Tim Zahner, who was chief marketing officer, had been serving as the agency’s interim CEO. To reward Zahner for the job he has done in service to the bureau, the board named him as chief operating officer, Bartolomei said.
The board felt Vecchio’s experience as a state official working in political environments could aid the bureau as it works to build understanding and communication with county residents, many of whom have grown increasingly critical of the negative impacts that winery tourism has had on their quality of life — from roads congested with wine tourists to big winery events held in once-quiet areas of the county. Vecchio said that earlier in her tourism career she worked on similar issues in Branson, Missouri, which had struggled with crowded roadways from the crowds of visiting country music fans.
While noting the success the bureau has had in promoting Sonoma County outside the region, Bartolomei said greater effort needs to be focused on the role that tourism plays within the community and local economy.
“We have not done a good job telling that story,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or [email protected].com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.