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Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau crafts tourism recovery plan after fires

For better or worse, tourism is the lifeblood of the Sonoma Valley economy, and has been since it was branded “Wine Country.” But during the wildfires and immediately after, tourists and their discretionary dollars disappeared overnight. Wineries that had been booked past capacity suddenly stood empty. Hotel lobbies were desolate. Restaurants were deserted, tasting rooms vacant, but the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau (SVVB) was a bustling hive.

On its website, the SVVB claims a singular mission: “to serve visitors, members, and our community by promoting the Valley as a premier destination with the purpose of enhancing its economic vitality.” With the fires grinding the gears of the Valley’s tourist economy nearly to full-stop, SVVB crafted an aggressive, long-term, multi-media approach to recovery.

The campaign, financed with $100,000 from the Sonoma Tourism Improvement District’s catastrophic emergency fund, was launched Oct. 31 and conceived in three parts: restoration of services for the short term, an aggressive media blitz designed for implementation 45-50 days after the disaster, and an entirely new branding strategy for 2018.

It’s a go-big-or-go-home, no-holds-barred kind of campaign, and its creation has consumed SVVB staff since the scope of the disaster was first understood.

There will be 4,000 television ads on Comcast and Spectrum. Print ads in the Index-Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Sacramento Bee. Twenty-six billboards across the Bay Area. Numerous 30-second spots on CBS radio. Digital advertising on SFGate and Madden Media. And, of course, boosted posts on Facebook. Optimistically, the multi-pronged approach could reach as many as 284 million ears and eyes, at least according to projections from SVVB.

Not a moment too soon.

Laura Anderson, who operates a vacation rental in Agua Caliente, said business has fallen off precipitously since the fires. “Major cancellations,” she said.

And Virginia Hayes, owner of G’s General Store on West Napa, laughed when asked if her shop’s business had declined. “There was nobody that first week!” Hayes said.

A hostess at the Girl and the Fig acknowledged that business was slow, but said that diners — at least initially — were primarily local, instead.

Jonny Westom, SVVB’s executive director, has pressed his agency’s mission with zeal, meeting with various media outlets at a vigorous pace.

The first “recovery commercial” is ready to roll, featuring Café LaHaye’s Saul Gropman.

“I would tell anyone who’s hesitant, to come,” Gropman says, smiling at the camera in his inimitable style. “Don’t hesitate. We’re here, we’re open, and we’re ready to welcome you back.”

Cue panning shot of lush rolling vineyards, the soundtrack of happiness swelling in the background.

The #SonomaStrong hashtag has yielded to the #IHeartSonomaValley hashtag, chosen by marketers for its more positive tone, and B Public relations, of Denver, Colorado, triaged erroneous media reports to counter the perceived destruction with a more accurate portrayal of conditions here.

Layne Vann, of Alameda, is an avatar for those confused out-of-towners. Surveying the Plaza last week, she was comforted to find the city intact.

“I’m so relieved to see Sonoma still standing,” Vann said. “Even living just an hour away, I expected — from the media coverage — to find nothing but ash.”

Despite its well-funded, ambitious campaign, with the tourism spigot slammed shut by the fires, it may yet be a long, lonely winter.

Community spirit, on the other hand, runs flush, with gratitude and goodwill in abundance.

Capitalizing on the current state of bonhomie in wine country, Grateful Table is organizing a “long-table dining experience” for residents, first-responders, and community leaders on Tuesday, Nov. 21. Set in an as-yet unnamed vineyard on the Napa-Sonoma county line, an all-star line-up of chefs will feed hundreds of guests, with 100 percent of ticket sales going to wildfire recovery charities.

“This unforgettable experience will raise money for affected communities and share an ‘Open for Business’ message with a global audience,” the event’s press release said. “Coverage of the event will be shared with Visit California’s 1.4 million social followers and 5 million visitors to the website.”

Patience, it seems, is the currency of recovery. It may not happen immediately, but it will eventually come.

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com