Think Walla Walla’s only similarity to Napa Valley is its wine? Not true, according to a presentation Wednesday from the chief executive officer of the Napa Valley Destination Council.
Sure, Napa County is an hour’s distance from San Francisco, while Walla Walla — as one audience member at the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center pointed out — is an hour from Hermiston.
Yes, the Napa Valley has more restaurants with Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world. And there, tourism is a $1.3 billion industry, which is leaps and bounds ahead of Walla Walla as it approaches the $100 million level.
But Napa Valley officials still have to find innovative ways to fill their hotels during the winter months; still have to develop funding mechanisms to sustain their efforts; and do it while marketing the same attractions that compliment wine no matter where it’s poured: food, art and wellness. Sound familiar?
While the dollar figures and visibility are lower here, there are plenty of similarities, too.
“It does sound like there are a few issues that are similar,” said Clay Gregory, president and CEO of the nonprofit association that serves as Tourism Walla Walla’s Napa Valley counterpart.
The guest speaker at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance’s annual meeting, co-sponsored by Tourism Walla Walla, talked about the strategic changes that have taken place in Napa since he became head of the destination organization two and a half years ago.
What many may have been surprised to learn, he said, was that the tourism organization had virtually no meaningful connection to the wine industry itself. It had three employees, a budget of less $500,000 — half a million less than Temecula — and counted only 20 of the Valley’s roughly 450 wineries among its key stakeholders.
“We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time,” Gregory said.
With a renewed focus, a new name, new relationships within the wine industry and a clear target for its marketing dollars, the organization now has 16 employees, 420 winery members and funding at more than $5 million.
Invited to the community by Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance Executive Director Duane Wollmuth, Gregory said his first impression was that the right people are at the table.
“The idea of getting you all to work together is right,” he said to a room full of winemakers, winery operators and tourism representatives.
Napa’s larger-than-life image belies its small-town nature, which is similar to Walla Walla’s. It has an agricultural foundation, a sensitivity to the quality of life of its permanent residents and a wine industry that — apart from a couple of behemoth labels — is largely is made up of boutique wineries that produce fewer than 10,000 cases per year.
“We’re a small place,” he explained. “We don’t make that much wine, and that’s a good thing because it means it’s precious.”
Developing Walla Walla’s wine tourism, he said, will take continued collaboration, a focus on developing and promoting the community’s brand and focusing funding where returns are shown.
Wollmuth acknowledged Wednesday that Walla Walla is vastly different than Napa.
But there are many things to learn from those who have come before, he said.
“Obviously they’re a lot larger. We can certainly learn from them in how we approach things.”Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8321.