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California Wine Country business gatherings outside the office to gain steam in 2023

When it comes to being a destination for business meetings in 2023, bookings in parts of the North Bay are outpacing the state and other locations.

“Moving forward into 2023 we are forecasting a 3% increase,” Michelle Heston with Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn said. The Sonoma property in 2022 reported meetings reached the same level as 2019. “2022 (was) up over 100% from 2021 in meeting revenue, and 2022 (was) up 33% from 2019. As one might imagine, 2021 meeting revenue was down 50% from 2019.”

Visit California, the nonprofit tasked with promoting the state, predicts total business travel spending to reach 2019 levels in 2023. The agency defines “business” as group business like conventions, professional meetings and events as well as individual business travel. It does not break out group travel.

The number of business visitors in the state is not expected to hit pre-pandemic levels until 2025, according to Visit California.

Spending recovered first because inflation is driving up the cost of meetings, which includes paying for hotels, travel and food.

American Express Global Business Travel’s 2023 Global Meetings and Events Forecast reported 66% of those surveyed throughout the world expect in-person events like meetings to be at pre-pandemic levels within two years. Data is better in North America where the number of internal, small and simple meetings is already greater than 2019 numbers.

The bigger picture

If the number of business events/meetings conducted in San Francisco recovers, as some experts suggest, that should be good news for the North Bay.

“When The City sells out, it compresses out to Marin County. We are really dependent on it. We need San Francisco to get those big conventions,” said Christine Bohlke, sales and marketing director for Marin Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Smith Travel Research, which provides market data on the hotel industry worldwide, reports that 17 times in 2022 weekday occupancy in San Francisco reached the mid-70% range.

In hotel-speak, anything less than 70% is considered low occupancy. It’s business travel, aka meetings, that is usually the bulk of midweek bookings, whereas leisure travel tends to be weekend reservations. To achieve the 70%-plus occupancy rate, it usually takes a blend of both types of travelers.

“All of the U.S. had a good September. That was the first month where we exceeded 2019 data in the hotel industry,” Bohlke said. Her agency is reporting a hotel occupancy rate of 73.4% in Marin County for 2022.

Size matters

North Bay meeting space is not cavernous, so it will never attract the mega-conventions. Even the larger hotel properties don’t have the number of rooms like those in a major city. For instance, all of Napa Valley has 5,700 rooms, with 70% of properties having 40 rooms or less. San Francisco, for comparison, has more than 30,000 hotel rooms.

But a lack of large meeting spaces and hundreds of rooms could be an advantage, said experts, as the trend is for business gatherings to be smaller.

“Napa Valley is prime for today’s business meetings, which tend to be smaller and more collaborative in nature. The majority of requests from meeting planners that we are seeing are for groups of 30–50 people, a sweet spot for Napa Valley boutique lodging, wineries, and activities. We see that trend continuing for 2023,” Sarah Gillihan, director of communications for Visit Napa Valley, told the Journal.

As of Dec. 15, Visit Napa Valley had logged 1,109 requests for meetings in 2022, compared to all of 2019, a 30% increase. 2019 was a record high at 855.

Meetings are changing

In addition to smaller meetings, North Bay insiders say people still want to keep some gatherings outdoors, while hybrid functions are not as popular because people have Zoom fatigue.

“The preference for outdoor activities, dining options and meeting spaces will also continue in 2023. The benefits of including outdoor experiences in meetings and retreats extend beyond the desire to follow CDC guidelines. Planners want fresh air and outdoor offerings that inspire creativity and new ideas,” Gillihan with Visit Napa Valley said.

Dare Sturges, director for marketing and communications at MacArthur Place in Sonoma, is encouraged by the uptick in international meeting attendees. This is good news considering the state does not anticipate foreign business travel numbers to return to 2019 numbers until 2025.

How far in advance planners schedule a meeting is also changing

Sonoma County Tourism reports “the booking window for most groups is within three months, followed by within six months. Bookings for two to three years out has slowed significantly.”

While pre-pandemic it was common to book meetings years in advance, that’s not the case today. Most people want an event to take place within a matter of weeks or months, while the farthest most people are looking is 2024.

“Small meetings and last-minute meetings are still very popular and we are also receiving inquiries for larger events,” said Chris Wingerberg, general manager at The Lodge at Sonoma. “We are still seeing a lot of interest in meetings for 2023 and The Lodge is anticipating more meeting business in 2023 than we had in 2022. We are starting to book groups for 2024 already and booking that far out is a trend we were not seeing previously. I think this is the main shift that should make 2024 a better year than 2019.”

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