Places + Spaces

Leading Sonoma County Tourism After the Fires

People first, according to Claudia Vecchio, the newly hired CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, who has moved from one crisis to the next over the last weeks, balancing immediate and longer-term needs.

On Sept. 29, Claudia Vecchio, the director of the Nevada Department of Tourism & Cultural Affairs, accepted an offer to become CEO of the Sonoma County Tourism. Two days later, a gunman killed 58 people at a music festival in Las Vegas in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. A week after that, the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California’s history broke out — in Sonoma, they killed at least 23 people, burned more than 110,000 acres, and destroyed 6,600 structures, including more than 5,000 homes.

The wildfires had only recently been fully contained when Vecchio began her new job Nov. 1, moving from helping Nevada’s tourism community respond after the shooting to leading Sonoma County’s tourism industry as it recovers from the impact of the fires. Executive Editor Christopher Durso checked in with Vecchio on Nov. 3 — her third day on the job at Sonoma County Tourism.

Before you left for Sonoma County, what was the extent of your involvement in responding to the Las Vegas shooting?

My office was in Carson City, which is in the northern part of the state. Certainly the team at the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority was really ground zero, if you will, for the response about that with Las Vegas. From a state standpoint, we continued to ensure that their messaging got out and that we were saying the same kinds of things, because we did get calls about travel to Nevada because of this. We were one step removed.

What were your immediate thoughts when you learned about the fires in Sonoma?

I’ve dealt with a number of crises in my career in tourism and public relations. First of all, the team here under Tim Zahner, who was interim CEO, did a tremendous job with the immediate messaging and getting the right information out about what had been impacted and what in fact had not been impacted. Whenever you have a crisis like this, the assumption is everything is impacted and everything is closed. In fact while this was significant — the impact to people and their lives and everything is transformational — from a visitor’s standpoint there’s much of the county that was un-impacted and continues to be very much open for business and beautiful. But we need to be very sensitive to those things and make sure that the messaging that we have is somewhat tempered by the level to which this has impacted [the city of] Santa Rosa and much of the county in various spots.

How much damage did the fires do to your meetings and tourism infrastructure?

The greatest impact from that standpoint was in the city of Santa Rosa, where there were three hotels that were lost. The Hilton Sonoma Wine Country was definitely one that hosted meetings, and they have been working very hard to move those meetings and ensure that those who want to come here from a meeting standpoint are somehow accommodated. Some of the infrastructure of a certain swath of Santa Rosa has been devastated, but a visitor to this area is not likely to see that unless they choose to seek it out. So really, with the exception of those hotels and a couple of restaurants, the damage is probably not going to be noticed by anyone coming to this area.

What are your immediate priorities?

Well, certainly the needs of the needs of the citizens, many of whom work in this industry — [making sure] that they have the resources that they need. The organization is very much involved with the Sonoma Strong movement and making sure everybody is very well taken care of here.

And then we are starting to message out, starting to relaunch the paid and earned advertising, so it’s really trying to make sure the timing on all of that is correct and that we get back up to full sales and marketing messaging as soon as it’s appropriate. That really is the immediate need — to make sure that we are appropriately marching along this timeline, but supporting these communities and those who work in our industry to the best of our ability.

What role can meetings and events play when it comes to helping Sonoma with its recovery?

There will be a program that will come out of this organization fairly soon that really addresses that exactly. There will be an opportunity for meeting planners to give back in this area. The tourism industry has always been so tremendous at really giving back to communities who have faced some kind of disaster, whether it be hurricanes or tornadoes or something that has impacted the industry.

Does just bringing a meeting or event to Sonoma help?

Yes, bringing a meeting or an event, coming in to look at sites for future events, is a tremendous help. Not only does it continue to bring the economic impact of those events to the area, it also really raises the spirits of those in the hospitality industry — to know we’re not forgotten — and so that’s really important.

What meeting planners will find for the next little bit is that some of the [hotel] rooms are being used for evacuees and for disaster-response teams, but that won’t last particularly long. Certainly the meeting space and everything that goes along with that is still very much being booked, and the venues and hotels are all very anxious to get meeting business back. Bringing [a meeting] here is an economic boost, but it’s also an emotional boost and a real collaborative sign that they are still interested in this destination.

What made you want to take the job in Sonoma County? 

Really, two things. The first thing is that I have had family living in Sonoma County — out in Bodega Bay, which is out on the coast — for the past 25 or so years. So I had been coming here as a visitor, really as a great fan of this place, for decades. There is some personal attachment there. And on the professional side, it really is one of the premier destinations in the country, if not the world. Not only for its wineries and the iconic elements everybody knows, but it’s just this place that has such a great personality. It has sort of an independent spirit, and there are entrepreneurs and in their own way mavericks who are really doing something in a very different way than a lot of other places in the country. That really appeals to me as a marketing salesperson.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso is executive editor of Convene.