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All Is Not Lost In Wine Country Hospitality After Fires

The knock came at 2:55 a.m. on Oct. 9. HKS principal Brendan Dunnigan and his wife, Susanne Ice, were asleep in their room at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa. The San Francisco residents were in town for a weekend away, and Dunnigan was to attend a charity golf event for UCSF Medical Center in the morning. The night before, they had gone to dinner and there was no indication of anything wrong.

The remains of the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, which was destroyed during the Wine Country wildfires in October 2017

Dunnigan answered the door, and a man told them they needed to get out. Ice smelled smoke right away. The power was out and there was no warning, no fire alarms and no lighting, according to Dunnigan. He grabbed his phone and used it as a flashlight. They had to get out fast, and Dunnigan did not even have time to put on his shoes.

“I really thought I would have time to go back, but the fire was so immense in the hillside to the north and blowing in our face,” Dunnigan said.

Embers were flying through the air and along the parking lot.

“It was apocalyptic,” he said. “I’m grateful we got out.”

HKS principal Brendan Dunnigan's burned up Fiat 500e

Dunnigan’s Fiat 500e was still charging in the parking lot and had to be left behind. Luckily Ice drove up in a separate car because she was not planning on staying for the golf event. They jumped into her car and drove to safety.

The smoke was so thick, they were coughing and had to stop at a gas station in Santa Rosa to get water. Ice went inside the gas station and ran into someone who fled Kenwood. The whole town was on fire and driving south was the only safe path the man told her. They kept driving until they reached their home in San Francisco.

“I’ve been in buildings after a fire, but never one where my belongings were destroyed,” Dunnigan said.

It has now been over a week since the Wine Country fires began. Over 200,000 acres have burned and over 5,000 structures have been lost, including hotels like the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country. Vineyards and wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties sustained heavy damage and some are completely gone

For an area that relies on its wines, countryside and its visitors, the next few weeks and months will be rough. The hospitality industry has taken a big hit. Without its famous wineries, visitors may not come. 

In 2016, roughly 3.5 million visitors spent $1.9B in Napa Valley, which was a 6.3% increase compared to 3.3 million in 2014. Hotel guests spent $401/person as well in 2016. Even with much at stake, experts and hoteliers remain hopeful the region will rebound quickly.

Tough Road Ahead, But Tourism To Rebound

San Diego State University student Brittany Mazal and San Diego State University L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management Director Carl Winston

“I don’t think it’s going to scare tourists away,” San Diego State University L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management Director Carl Winston said.

Destinations tend to rebound quickly after a disaster, he said. He was in Las Vegas a little over a week after the mass shooting event, and said it already felt like normal.

“A whole new group of tourists have come so [the shooting] was an abstract concept,” he said.

Even in places like Mexico that have had issues with tainted alcohol and violence, visitors still come. Mexico is now the eighth most popular tourist destination after Turkey. Resorts in Mexico have shifted their marketing campaigns from Americans to Peruvians and Chileans, Winston said.

“Land-based tourist attractions always adapt,” Winston said.

For the Wine Country, Winston said room rates may be cheaper and marketing may go after new clientele. With some hotels lost, there will be less competition and that may stir up additional business for remaining hotels.

The region also may get some visitors who want to see the destruction. While the fires created bad publicity, the Wine Country did receive additional attention around the world, he said.

The wildfires spared much of the region's hundreds of wineries. As of Monday, 23 wineries were reported as destroyed or damaged, and most of Napa County's 475 wineries survived. Also, timing was key. About 90% of the region's grapes were already picked following a hot and dry season. Most of the vines are expected to survive as vineyards have a high tolerance to fire. 

 “I think the average tourist in San Francisco visting from Kansas or Germany will want to try some wine,” Winston said. “It will bounce back pretty darn fast.”

With many events canceled in the Wine Country, San Francisco hotels have been getting more requests and are likely to get more corporate meetings, wedding and special event business, the San Francisco Business Times reports. Many hotels in San Francisco, like the recently opened San Francisco Proper Hotel, were sold out shortly after the fires broke out because of demand from evacuees. 

Signs of normalcy have already begun returning to the area. Many evacuation orders have lifted, and firefighters have gained an upper hand with The Tubbs fire over 80% contained and the Atlas Peak fire over 70% contained as of Tuesday morning. While many hotels and wineries closed during the fires, many will reopen by the end of the week, according to Visit Napa Valley.

Hope Remains Among Hoteliers

Meritage Resort and Spa General Manager Michael Palmer visits with fire evacuees during lunch.

Meritage Resort and Spa general manager Michael Palmer also remains positive. The Meritage in Napa was out of the fire’s path and remained open during the height of the wildfire storm. Dozens of other hotels and resorts remain intact.

“For Napa Valley, we’ll recover,” Palmer said. “It will take a little time. There will be food and the wine and the wineries for people to come back to.”

October is typically a robust month and fall is usually big for groups. Since the fires, Palmer said he has had a lot of cancellations, but having these openings has allowed the hotel to take on more evacuees.

Palmer said his hotel has been offering evacuees a $99/night rate, waived resort fees and is allowing pets without a deposit. Other hotels also are offering discounted rooms.

“Now is really not a time to be worried about all this group business loss,” he said. “It is to give back to this community and be able to house people who would not have anywhere to stay.”

About 150 families and a handful of firefighters stayed at the hotel during the fire. The hotel set up a ballroom with TVs and refreshments and provided lunch and dinner. Palmer said the Meritage has also been using its laundry facilities to wash linens from nearby evacuation centers and provided shampoo, soap and towels.

“Both the resort and community are extremely resilient,” Palmer said. “We had that earthquake not too long ago. The city and this valley recovered from that.”

Palmer said this is his second disaster in 10 years, referring to the 2014 Napa earthquake, and the region recovered after that earthquake. 2017 was one of the best years the Meritage has had, he said.

November, December and January, the typical rainy season, are also the typical slow time for hotels like Meritage, so Palmer is not too concerned about the coming months.

“We’ll worry about the business going forward and put strategies in place to recoup losses best we can,” he said.