Tim Zahner is Executive Director for Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, where he works with a talented team dedicated to promoting Sonoma Valley as an overnight destination and supporting economic rural development through tourism.
Prior to SVVB, Zahner held several positions at Sonoma County Tourism including Chief Operating Officer, Interim CEO and Chief Marketing Officer.Tim received his undergraduate degree from Marquette University and an MBA from Sonoma State University.
You wake up in the morning — what’s the driving passion?
Some days you wake up and you wonder what the world is going to drop on you. My driving passion is more of a curiosity for what’s next and what surprises lurk around the corner. My parents instilled in my brother and sisters that we should learn something new every day. So my passion would be to go to back to bed having learned one thing new that I didn’t know when I woke up.
How is the 2019 year doing in terms of overall visitors and dollars spent versus 2018 and what key trends do you see taking shape for 2020?
Sonoma Valley, and the entire Sonoma County/Napa Valley area went through a rather anomalous pattern in 2018, when we were in active recovery from fires in late 2017. Right now we are returning to a more “normal” pattern, lodging rates growing a little bit and the occupancy growth we saw starting to plateau.
Key trends in 2020? Well, there is always the folly of prediction. I hope to see continued interest in Wine Country from travelers, especially with new hotels and restaurants and attractions coming online. I think as more Baby Boomers retire we will see very active travel from a group that has the funds and pent-up demand to see new things. If the dollar stays strong that may mean more international travel for them, but if it doesn’t, it may mean more visitation to domestic spots – especially off-peak. That will be good for both the travelers and the places they visit.
The Safeway Open is an annual event on the PGA Tour that comes to the Silverado Resort & Spa. How important a role does the event play in promoting tourism and overall awareness in the region?
Anytime you have a major event – especially one that garners media attention like the Safeway Open – it serves as a commercial for the host area. I know we get a lot of travelers who come not only for the Safeway Open but also events like those at Sonoma Raceway and even further afield like Harding Park in San Francisco and down in Monterey. We see lots of visitors who come for a major event but then add on a few days to see the area. And, of course, when they go home and tell their friends and family about their trip – and assuming it was a positive one- that can be a powerful motivator for more visitation.
In terms of golf — how important is the sport in terms of its contribution to the Sonoma Valley region?
Compared to other travel destinations – I’m thinking Palm Springs and Arizona– we aren’t a “golf destination.” Rather, we are a food and wine and outdoors destination that has golf. I think that’s important because even though we have great courses – Sonoma Golf Club is stunning and just a few minutes from the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa – we are a place to go and have an amazing meal, discover new wines, meet the winemaker, and enjoy exploring our small towns and we also happen to have golf courses. I see golf as one of many attractions that we have and we are lucky to have great weather and good courses.
How do you encourage feedback from visitors and what role does it play in shaping your promotional efforts for the future?
I’m lucky my office is in one of our visitor centers. I can open the door and get immediate feedback from a visitor, and we’ve been known to try out ad concepts or ideas on people standing in our office. You have to be careful some people aren’t just trying to please you, so I also try to silently watch people as they make choices and plan. One of my favorite things is to sit at the local café on the Sonoma Plaza and watch people plan and decide where to go next – I’ve gotten great insights into how to design collateral and present information better.
Besides Californians, what are the key States and foreign countries constituting the largest percentage of visitors? Also what is the average length of stay and dollars spent when coming?
As you would expect we get a lot from the West Coast states, notably Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Arizona. We do tend to see a fair amount of people from the mid-West and New York City area, but that may be a function of population centers and flights. International visitors skew to Canadians, and then Europeans, especially UK, Germany, France and those regions with a history and culture of wine and food. We also get a noticeable portion from Australia and New Zealand.
Since we are outside of a major gateway airport it can be hard to quantify the exact mix and we rely on intercepts at the visitors center, which will attract more international visitors than domestic.
Many locations active in tourism are facing key decision in how to interact and garner interest from Millennials who are clearly ascending in their overall impact. From your local perspective are you seeing any differences between Millennials versus Baby Boomers and if so what approaches are you advocating?
I think every travel marketer – and marketer in general – has been talking Millennials for so long that we’re starting to forget that the oldest members of the cohort are 40 years old and have kids. As mentioned above, Boomers will now have more time and more money for travel, but in sheer number Millennials are an impressive group. From a marketing standpoint I don’t know if it’s so cut and dry with how you approach one age group over another.
I have heard that from a wine-drinking standpoint the younger consumers are in the “educate and try new things phase” while the older travelers coming to wine country are more apt ask for specific types of wineries based on varietals they already like.
How much time do you spend interacting with businesses in the area and the visitors who come? How much of an impact does that have in your overall thinking and planning process?
I speak to our member businesses every day and I see our visitors every day. This has a great impact on our thinking and planning – we get real-time information on what visitors are asking for as well as seeing who is here – and who isn’t yet visiting.
The biggest challenges facing the Sonoma Valley region — short and long term is what?
Short term we have similar problems like the rest of coastal California – housing is expensive and there are a lot of unfilled jobs. Long term we are working on solutions, including infrastructure upgrades and making sure our growth is sustainable. I think Sonoma, again like a lot of the country, wants to leave a better place than what we found and make sure we invest in it and leave it for future generations. Some of those vines planted 100 years ago are still growing fruit – it would be great if the work we do now bears fruit a century from now.
Best advice your ever received — what was it and who from?
It’s hard to identify the best, as advice always seems to be most valuable when it applies to the exact situation you are in and you are fortunate enough to recall it. I’ll go back to what my parents taught me though – learn something new every day. Hasn’t failed me yet, and it keeps things interesting.
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Photo Courtesy Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau.