Secret Destination

Solano hopes to attract travel spending by uncovering its image

Back Article May 1, 2009 By Sukhjit Purewal

Benicia paid consultants $40,000 to help with a branding strategy; among the recommendations were revitalizing and bringing people to the downtown waterfront, shown here.

Benicia paid consultants $40,000 to help with a branding strategy; among the recommendations were revitalizing and bringing people to the downtown waterfront, shown here.

If Napa County is wine country and Calaveras County is frog-jumping territory, where does that leave a place like Solano? Trying to catch up, perhaps.Thirty years ago Napa County was where Solano is today, says Solano County Supervisor Mike Reagan. In 1992, Napa brought in $361 million in tourism revenue, and with $319 million, Solano wasn’t far behind. Fast-forward to 2006: Napa brought in almost $890 million, but Solano’s revenue only rose to $554 million.

Solano’s popularity is tied to day-tripping to Discovery Kingdom (formerly Marine World), the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, the Vacaville Premium Outlets or the reincarnated Nut Tree Village and Family Park, which is particularly popular with Asian and European travelers, according to Melyssa Laughlin, executive director of the Vacaville Conference and Visitors Bureau.

If Napa County is wine country and Calaveras County is frog-jumping territory, where does that leave a place like Solano? Trying to catch up, perhaps.

Thirty years ago Napa County was where Solano is today, says Solano County Supervisor Mike Reagan. In 1992, Napa brought in $361 million in tourism revenue, and with $319 million, Solano wasn’t far behind. Fast-forward to 2006: Napa brought in almost $890 million, but Solano’s revenue only rose to $554 million.

Identity isn’t a natural evolution; good marketing campaigns assist in the transformation, Reagan says. “How do we create a coherent identity as something other than that space between Sacramento and San Francisco?” Reagan says.

Early last year, officials in Benicia, one of Solano’s seven cities, hired Oakland-based public relations firm The Placemaking Group to help shape its marketing strategy.

Benicia’s problems, according to The Placemaking Group, reflect Solano’s problem as a whole: “Benicia is just one of a very long list of places to visit and things to do. Despite its attractions, it is easy for travelers to bypass Benicia while en route to other more well-known destinations.”

The Fairfield Tourism Association, the city’s tourism arm, is promoting its location as a true asset with the slogan, “Good Natured Fairfield,” which Beth Javens, executive director of the Fairfield Tourism Association, says was derived from the varied tours — such as the Jelly Belly Factory and Budweiser plant — wine tasting and agribusiness in the Suisun Valley.

With more effective marketing, officials hope that more tourists will make their way to Solano and do more than just look when they’re driving through.

“We are a gateway county, but you can stop at 19 wineries right here on your way to Napa County,” says Stephen Pierce, the county public information officer. “Lost in the shadow of Napa County is the second-oldest wine appellation in the state.”

Until recently, the cities in Solano County — Fairfield, Vacaville, Dixon, Vallejo, Benicia, Rio Vista and Suisun City — have taken a go-it-alone approach to tourism. Cross-promotion had been largely nonexistent.

Economic development officials agree that promotions must extend beyond Fairfield or Vallejo. But before officials can slap a slogan on their county, they have to answer the nagging question: What is Solano County? “We don’t know what that is,” says Pierce, the county’s public information officer.

Last October the county withdrew a request for proposals for researching and developing a branding strategy. The economy forced branding plans to the back burner, though the county is seeking a grant to pay for the efforts.

“The county is still trying to pull this together, but the county doesn’t have any economic development money because it’s directed within city limits,” Pierce says. “To be in any kind of an aggressive position, we need to do that study. We’re in a holding pattern until someone wants to write a check.”

Meanwhile, officials in Fairfield and Benicia have been working on their own branding campaigns. Fairfield added two hotels in 2007, and a Residence Inn is under construction, bringing Fairfield’s room count to 1,400.

Javens, executive director of the Fairfield Tourism Association, says that while Fairfield serves leisure travelers headed to Napa, there is the question of just how much hotel space is enough.

“We don’t want to cannibalize the properties we do have,” Javens says. “But we don’t have the luxury to say we don’t need more hotels.” For a long time, the Jelly Belly factory, with its free tours, was the only destination people associated Fairfield with, Javens adds.

But the city boasts wine-tasting rooms and SePay Groves Olive Oil, in addition to the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, which also offers free tours.

Further down the highway, the city of Benicia recently paid consultants $40,000 to help officials formulate a marketing plan.

“Tourism was identified by this City Council as a top priority,” says Amalia Lorentz, economic development manager for Benicia. “We decided branding was the smart way into that.”

Benicia feels kind of like the Mayberry of the East Bay, Lorentz says. With its small-town atmosphere and population of about 28,000, Benicia officials are proud of its low crime rate. It’s a “meeting place for girlfriends,” traveling from various points outside the county. The town’s glass-art studios and waterfront are particularly popular, she says.

The Placemaking Group found that Benicia is a well-kept secret among well-to-do day-trippers and families living within a 20- to 40-minute radius.

Unlike Fairfield, Vallejo or Vacaville, Benicia does not have a dedicated tourism group. There is only one hotel in town, a Best Western, though there are two bed and breakfasts and a Holiday Inn Express under construction.

The Placemaking Group report calls for more aggressive promotion of Benicia while building up all the trappings of a bigger tourist destination, a busier waterfront, more shops, more restaurants and more hotels.

Noting its “quaint and comfortable small-town appeal” and the potential waterfront development, the consultants conclude Benicia could be the next “Half Moon Bay, Pacific Grove, Capitola, Petaluma or Point Reyes.”

But financing these plans requires  new revenue. For now, city officials are working on jazzing up its website.

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