Q&A: How is tourism rebounding from the North Bay wildfires?

Q&A: How is tourism rebounding from the North Bay wildfires?

North Bay Business Journal recently connected with Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, to get her analysis on how the county’s tourism industry is recovering a year out from the wildfires.

How would you say the county’s tourism industry is faring overall now, as compared to when you joined Sonoma County Tourism in November?

This has been an incredibly complex year for the Sonoma County tourism industry. During and immediately following the fires, the tourism industry was a beacon of support and resilience for our residents, the first and second responders, and also for our visitors. Because the hospitality industry is often the face of Sonoma County, this group of more than 21,000 stellar professionals had to put on a very brave and welcoming front throughout and following the fires, even though their own lives may have been upended.

When looking at tourism in the past year, it is very much a tale of two industries. Those looking in from the outside may perceive this to be an industry doing well. The standard performance metrics the industry has been using for years — the Smith Travel Report of hotel occupancy and rate shows an industry in great shape.

Year-over-year (as of July) Sonoma County’s hotel sector is showing an almost 7 percent gain in occupancy, a 4.3 percent gain in the average daily rate and an 11 percent increase in revenue per room. The taxes generated through the transient occupancy tax have been very strong, helping to ensure solid funding for all the programs supported through taxes generated by guests in lodging properties.

While the hotels in this survey have been spectacular hosts and are working hard on behalf of the county, these numbers don’t tell the broader Sonoma County tourism story.

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In two recent surveys commissioned by Sonoma County Tourism, the results show that both consumer perception and local businesses remain challenged, even a year after the fires. Over the course of the year, Sonoma County Tourism conducted two studies, one of consumers and one of local businesses.

The studies were done in January 2018, and then again in August 2018, to ascertain if perceptions and insights had changed over the time period.

In the consumer perception studies, not much has changed between January and September. While the great majority (61 percent) say the fires have little to no impact on interest in visiting to Sonoma County, 81 percent say they will delay a visit, and 69 percent say they will visit another California destination.

The local business survey shows that while most are still optimistic about the long-term potential of the tourism portion of their business, 57 percent of recent visitors expressed hesitation in visiting due to the fires, and 58 percent report business volume has decreased during the same period last year (June – August).

The industry also continues to be tested by not only the issues around the physical and emotional damage of the fires, but the ongoing and increasingly troubling concerns of finding workforce and workforce housing. Even as business picks up, these issues remain a challenge.

Which sector of tourism has rebounded most?

Without question the larger hotels and those along the Highway 101 corridor have rebounded, with several actually exceeding year-over-year projections. From a business travel and meetings standpoint, the loss of the Hilton, especially, the business that had booked into that property and recommitted to coming to the market was moved to other properties with meeting space.