How Do You Balance Lives And Livelihood in the Face of Disaster?

The challenge facing Napa Valley is unprecedented, but here’s how the nearly $2 billion brand plans to rise from the ashes

On October 27th 2017, The Atlas Fire in Napa was declared contained after scorching 51,000 acres and claiming six lives. By the following Tuesday – Halloween -  Cal Fire announced that the last of the northern California fires were fully contained, having burned over 200,000 acres and killing forty-three people.

It was the worst natural disaster to strike the area since winemaking began there in the mid-19th century. The fires that started on October 8th raged through Napa and Sonoma counties for three weeks, claiming lives and destroying homes, vineyards and wineries. For the farmers, vintners and residents of Napa Valley, this was an unprecedented catastrophe; one that would require an unprecedented response.

“Napa is magic, it’s unlike any tourist destination in the world,” said Amanda Micheli, Assistant Manager at the Calistoga Motor Lodge. Her entire staff lived within the evacuation zone of the Tubbs Fire, and some lost homes. “In the aftermath, we had to think of some way to be sensitive to the lives lost, yet let people know that our livelihoods depend on tourism dollars.”

Visit Napa Valley, the valley’s official tourism marketing organization, immediately recognized the need – and the challenge – of creating this kind messaging. In 2016, 3.5 million people visited the Napa Valley, generating nearly $2 billion in revenue. Almost 14,000 people depend on the tourism component alone, not to mention tens of thousands supported by the production and sale of wine.

Lisa Poppen, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for VNV, was tasked with this tremendous responsibility. To create the campaign, she enlisted the help of MeringCarson out of Sacramento. Visit Napa Valley dedicated approximately 10% of the planned, annual paid media budget to the messaging, which centered around the hashtag #NapaValleySpirit. In addition to significant owned and earned efforts, the campaign was enhanced with donated or added value offers from VNV’s media entities and partners, as well as state efforts by Visit California, whose budget is even more vast.

“While much of the Napa Valley was still open, and reliant on tourism for their survival, we did not want to give the impression that we were selfishly inviting people back too soon,” Poppen said. “Especially while air quality issues varied and the long-term integrity of the Napa Valley brand was at stake.” 

To address the immediate fears and concerns of business owners and partners, as well as the long-term brand health and vitality of the Napa Valley, Visit Napa Valley implemented a two-phased approach. 

Besides general factual information for visitors, Phase 1 was designed as an expression of strength, hope and understanding to all those affected by these wild fires and their devastating aftermath. This messaging was prevalent in the #NapaStrong campaign on social media, and started in earnest on October 13th.

“Once the fires were under control and air quality improved, we implemented Phase 2 beginning October 18th,” Poppen said. “This was designed as an open for business/ welcome back message that informed people of the importance of tourism to the Valley.”

Poppen acknowledged the difficulty in walking the line between commerce and tragedy. “Phase II was to help relieve any guilt associated with visiting by letting (guests) know that it is through visitation that they can truly help the Napa Valley recover.” Among other changes, Phase II saw a switch to the #NapaValleySpirit hashtag from the #NapaStrong hashtag, along with a wider use of the phrase “Rebound, Rebuild, Reopen.”

Though Visit Napa Valley’s efforts have been comparatively Herculean, fighting public perception of the tragedy has been almost as difficult as being sensitive to it. “If you drive up highway 29, from one end of the valley to the other, there’s almost no signs to indicate there was ever a fire here,” says Jimmy Kawalek, President of the Coombsville Vintners & Growers Association. “In Napa County, so much of the fire burned off of the beaten path.”

But Kawalek echoes both the sadness and frustration felt all around the valley. “On the one hand, this horrible thing has happened. Homes were lost. People died. It’s a scar we won’t forget anytime soon. On the other hand, we’re open for business again, and we need that business to thrive or this tragedy just gets worse.”

In the end, Napa may come back to life simply by being the brand; by living the warmth, hospitality and magic that make the area unique. From the earliest moments of the fire, donations and volunteers poured in, from both outside and inside the valley. As evacuees filled up shelters, I personally volunteered twice to assist…and twice I was turned away. The Downtown Napa Salvation Army had never seen anything quite like the magnitude of donations, and eventually had to send supplies off to other chapters in need. Donations to the North Bay Fire Relief Fund have already topped $10.2 million from more than 17,000 donors, with more in the pipeline from corporations.

In addition, area hotels, restaurants and wineries donated free rooms, free meals and much more to evacuees and first responders. At the Calistoga Motor Lodge, “we lowered our room rates and donated proceeds to the firefighters,” says Micheli. “We even opened our pool so the firefighters could cool down.”

Napa Valley Spirit, indeed.