Confronted with stagnant attendance and tough financial realities, Copia is kicking its campaign to find a recipe for success into high gear.

Under new president Arthur Jacobus, Copia is shaking up the visitor experience and embracing new commercial opportunities.

Responding to criticism of the $12.50 admission fee, Copia threw open its doors in January, February and March admitting the public for free. During those three months, attendance increased some 40 percent. More amazingly, revenue went up as well, as visitors spent more once inside.

As of April 1, Copia reinstituted an admission fee, but permanently dropped it to $5 for adults, $4 for students and seniors, with children 12 and under free.

Copia is now a great value, Jacobus said. Customers should be willing to spend more for specialty classes, wines, meals and merchandise, he said.

A winning strategy is needed at Copia, a $55 million project that is saddled with a heavy debt load. The gap between Copia's annual expenses and revenues is a whopping $10 million, Jacobus said. On top of an operating budget of $12.9 million, Copia has an annual mortgage payment of more than $5 million.

Speaking before the Napa Planning Commission in early March, Jacobus described Copia as being on a "short fuse."

"Copia is desperate for the foot traffic and attendance that the hotel represents," he said. "Copia cannot wait too long for this success to happen."

In an interview on Thursday, Jacobus was more upbeat, without downplaying the financial challenges. "I think we have a viable and credible plan for sustainability. Everybody sees a light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Jacobus said Copia is doing vigorous behind-the-scenes fundraising to cover its operating deficits while long-range plans to grow revenues are implemented.

"We're not treading water. We're swimming toward the goal," Jacobus said. "It happens little by little."

As a first-of-its-kind cultural institution inspired by Robert Mondavi, Copia continues to search for a winning formula to get visitors off Highway 29, Jacobus said.

To build visitorship, Copia has plans to remodel the west end of its First Street home for a visitor center that explains the attractions of wine country. Visitors can take a "Wine Tasting 101" course.

Such a center, staffed with a concierge, would go a long way toward persuading Napa Valley-bound visitors to make Copia their first stop, Jacobus said. The center could be operating by the end of the year if Copia's directors approve the project and makeover money can be raised, he said.

Kurt Nystrom, Copia's financial officer, cited small but cumulatively significant ventures to boost Copia's bottom line.

Because of recent legislation allowing Copia to sell wine by the bottle, Copia should bring in at least half a million dollars in new revenue this year, he said.

Copia's new wedding venue is almost fully booked through October, with each wedding bringing in $20,000 to $30,000.

Copia is renting its facilities for more private events. On Wednesday, a tent was going up in the parking lot for such an event this weekend.

The 2006 schedule includes more themed food and wine events capable of filling the building and grounds with crowds of Bay Area visitors.

Copia, which opened in late 2001, blamed its tepid early success on the depressed tourism economy after 9/11. When visitor numbers didn't rebound with the economy, management began to re-examine the "visitor experience." Avant-garde art exhibits disappeared. Exhibits became more approachable, while generally hewing to food and wine themes.

Finding the Copia lobby "sterile" when he took over last July, Jacobus injected new life in the vast two-story space with river views. Within 50 feet of the entry, visitors now encounter the Welcome Table.

On Wednesday, which was half-price locals day ($2.50 adult admission), the Welcome Table was offering three samples of asiago cheeses from Italy, matched with an appropriate wine. "They get their $5 (worth) the minute they walk in the door and have a glass of wine and taste the cheese," Jacobus said.

A second free wine tasting station was upstairs, while vinaigrettes were being sampled at the center of the building.

"We've warmed up the place and made it much more vibrant," said Jacobus.

As plantings mature, Copia's many acres of "edible garden" become an attraction in their own right, said Kathleen Iudice, a Copia's spokesman.

Copia's high-end restaurant, Julia's Kitchen, continues to draw strong reviews. Earlier this month it again made the S.F. Chronicle's list of 100 best Bay Area restaurants.

Over the long haul, what could mean more to Copia's success than its own exhibits, gardens and free wine tastings is what develops in the surrounding neighborhood, now known as the Oxbow District, Jacobus said.

Last week's city approvals of the 180-room Riverbend Resort Hotel on McKinstry Street and the Oxbow Public Market next to Copia's north parking lot could help make the Oxbow District a major tourist destination, Jacobus said.

Based on San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace, Oxbow Public Market is capable of delivering tens of thousands of visitors to Copia's front door. If Copia got just 10 percent of them, that would boost paid admissions significantly, Jacobus said.

Jacobus predicted that the public market and hotels are just the beginning of what could happen in the Oxbow District. With Copia as the anchor, the district could explode as the place to be, he said.

"There is that tipping point where people go 'wow. There is something happening there,'" he said.

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