Wildfire fears remain detrimental to Sonoma County’s tourism sector

In the aftermath of the October 2017 wildfires, there’s a lingering question about the diverse hospitality sector in Sonoma County - from hotel lobbies, to winery tasting rooms, to craft brewery taprooms. When will the throng of out-of-town visitors return?

A year and a half after fierce flames destroyed 5,300  homes and killed 24  people countywide, the tourism-dependent businesses still struggle to recover. Immediately following the natural disaster, expected visitors canceled planned vacations after seeing TVtelevision images of burned homes and smoky skies that made the area resemble a war zone rather than a bucolic paradise.

Travelers slowly have started coming back, but traffic at area lodging properties, restaurants and popular destinations still isn’t as brisk as before the fires. The number of visitors who travel here is important because the tourism sector remains a key driver of the county’s economic activity. The industry directly employs 10% of the county’s 250,000-employee workforce, plus indirectly another 20% of workers at local shops and restaurants.

“Post-fires, it didn’t feel good for nine months,” said Joe Bartolomei, co-owner of Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant in Forestville and chairman of the board of Sonoma County Tourism, the main agency that promotes tourism. “Our destination is still pretty vulnerable.”

A prime indicator of that vulnerability has been the county’s hotel occupancy rates, and those numbers mostly have been lackluster. In fire-ravaged 2017, lodging occupancy sagged by less than 1% from the previous year, according tohehe STR, a Tennessee research firm that tracks the U.S. hotel industry.

Thanks to out-of-the-area workers who came to help rebuild houses and fire survivors who needed a temporary place to stay, hotel occupancy ticked up 1.5% in 2018. However, during the first three months of this year, occupancy levels at local hotels and motels plunged 12.9% amid heavy rains and subsequent flooding in portions of the county. And for eight of the past nine months, occupancy at lodging properties has declined.

Otherwise, more troubling signals emerged in the highly competitive restaurant and food-related industry with recent closings of Two Tread Brewing and Recherche du Plaisir chocolate shop in Santa Rosa , and SHED marketplace in Healdsburg. Each of the owners partly blamed the closures on a falloff of customers since the fires.

Aside from the lingering effects of the fires, restaurateurs worry about their increasing inability to hire and retain workers. They said many in food service have packed up and left town no longer able to afford the region’s steep cost of living.

“On the negative side, I think the fires are one contributing factor,” said Sondra Bernstein, a co-owner of Sonoma’s the Girl &and the Fig restaurant, in Sonoma, a Glen Ellen cafe and a catering service., and “I definitely know the workforce is diminishing.”

Still, there’s renewed optimism with the county’s high tourist season kicking off. An early barometer is this weekend’s ?28th aAnnual Passport to Dry Creek Valley, which sold out with 5,000 people swarming more than 40 wineries in that region. Last year, there were about 500 less wine aficionados participating, said Ann Peterson, executive director of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley. About 70% percent of the visitors this year are from outside of the Bay Area.

“Last year, it was so hard with ticket sales,” said Peterson, who noted cancellations started right after the 2017 fires and sales never recovered.

So what will it take to trigger a sustained tourism turnaround? A little help from Mother Nature would go a long way. Tourism officials said the single biggest benefit would be if the state of California - and not just our region - doesn’t experience a major wildfire this year.

“From a visitor standpoint, they just hear that California is on fire and they see these national stories showing these fires. Their desire to come to a place that could be impacted by fire is certainly lessened,” said Claudia Vecchio, chief executive of Sonoma County Tourism. “It will greatly benefit us, if we do not have a big fire this year. It’s really around the perception of what the visitor experience is going to be here.”

New York or Florida residents, for example, may think the whole state is affected when they see news coverage of fires burning anywhere in California, then opt to travel to Europe for wine tasting instead of the North Coast.

Another deterrent to visitors in the past six months was unhealthy air quality in the county caused by fires outside our region. In November, winds blew smoke here from the Camp fire in Butte County and covered much of the Bay Aarea with a smoky haze. The foul air for about two weeks precluded most outdoor activities and virtually halted visitor traffic.

“We had a really enthusiastic first year until the Camp fire. ... Then we really saw a softening,” said Liza Hinman, a partner in the Astro Motel in Santa Rosa, a retro boutique property opened in January 2018. Motel bookings for the summer give her hope. She’s also a partner in The Spinster Sisters restaurant, which served fewer patrons through the fall and winter.

Make no mistake, tourists are visiting the county - just fewer of them so far this year. Take Wright and Jenny Hartsell of Boerne, Texas, who walked around Healdsburg Plaza on Wednesday with iced coffees in hand. They’re here celebrating their 35th  wedding anniversary. The couple are repeat visitors, since they’re members of wine clubs at Hartford Family Wines and Williams Selyem.

“We would have been back here regardless (of the fires). It’s a beautiful place,” Wright Hartsell said.

That’s exactly the message proprietors ofthose running hotels, restaurants and wineries who rely on tourist spending want to hear. It’s’s reassures their belief that Sonoma County offers one of the most beautiful and exciting visitor experiences in the United States, for food, wine and an array of outdoor recreation.

“There is still so much in Sonoma County that appeals to travelers from California, from outside the market, from around the world. There is still a lot to be excited about when it comes to Sonoma travel,” Vecchio said.

That’s the bet made by Jack and Ann Seifrick. A few years ago, the couple moved west from the Dallas area to Sonoma County. They bought a 15-acre parcel in the Dry Creek Valley to start a boutique winery, Cast Wines, which had its first vintage in 2012. They named the winery after a spell they said was cast on them when first visiting the hillside property, where a ?5-acre vineyard now is planted with wine grapes to make zinfandel and petite sirah.

They just finished a renovation that expanded their winemaking capacity up to 10,000 wine cases. It also allowed for a tasting room, an outdoor scenic vista where guests can relax on Adirondack chairs and take in the picturesque view across the valley, and an inside cellar to serve visitors on hot or rainy days.

“Am I’m bullish? Yeah. And I think other smart money is, too,” said Jack Seifrick, who cited the hotels that have opened or are planned around the Healdsburg area. “There is still quite a bit of confidence that we got a great product and we got a pretty good experience.”

The couple has about 40 investors in their winery, including many of their former neighbors near Dallas. Thus, they are especially excited about the American Airlines flight service from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport that starts on June  6, because many of their wine club members from Texas are expected to fly here for a visit.

“I look at the data and say, ‘There’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand,’?” Seifrick said of his and the county’s tourism prospects. “There’s a lot of people who skipped a couple of years coming here. ... Our product and our destination is so good, we’re going to get them back.”

Down by the Russian River, the business prognosis looks good at Burke’s Canoe Trips in Forestville, which starts it busy season on Memorial Day weekend. Despite historic-level flooding two months ago around Guerneville, customer inquiries and reservations have been coming in earlier than usual, owner Linda Burke said.

“From our perspective, it’s a promising season ahead,” she said, with superb water levels on the river because of winter rains.

Nevertheless, the fire-induced sluggishness in the local hospitality industry appears to have provoked cautious optimism, even among operators of popular tourist meccas such as Russian River Brewing Co., which in October opened a $50  million brewery, restaurant and taproom in Windsor with much fanfare. In February, the county received a $4.2  million financial boost from visitors who traveled here from 42 states and 14 countries for the brewer’s annual two-week Pliny the Younger craft beer release at its Santa Rosa and new Windsor brewpubs, according to a Sonoma County Economic Development Board survey.

On weekends, Russian River’s taprooms attract plenty of visitors. However, the weekend visitor groups are smaller than in past years at its original brewpub on Fourth Street in downtown Santa Rosa.

“Our to-go beer sales are down, which tells me that we are not seeing the out-of-town visitors we have in the past,” co-owner Natalie Cilurzo said in an email.

With spring in full swing and a droughtless summer ahead, locals in the hospitality trade want tourists to come and join Bay Area residents at the many weekend festivals and outdoor events planned in the North Bay.

Bartolomei of the Farmhouse Inn described as a hopeful sign a recent conversation with an overnight guest who didn’t ask him a lot of questions about wildfires.

As for the all-important weather through December, Bartolomei’s wishing “we could just have a plain old boring year,” he said.

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