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.