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With gatherings soon to resume, will Napa Valley's event economy come rushing back?
Economy

With gatherings soon to resume, will Napa Valley's event economy come rushing back?

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: April 17, 2021 series
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For more than a year, Marshall Bauer had none of the answers.

Bauer, president and co-founder of Milestone Events Group, routinely heard from clients desperate for information: how much farther into the future should they postpone their wedding plans? When would California allow their full guest list again? What about indoor ceremonies?

Until the California Department of Public Health (CPDH) on April 2 announced new statewide protocol for events and gatherings, Bauer had nothing to go on: gatherings of any size were banned altogether in California until October 2020, and limited to gatherings of only three households after that. State public health officials said nothing of when gatherings of any kind — weddings, concerts, corporate retreats — might again be permitted.

“The lack of guidance has had a twofold implication: anyone who had already booked an event had no idea what they could or couldn’t do … and a ton of potential business has gone elsewhere, out of state,” Bauer said. “It’s not just (weddings) — it’s corporate events and social events.”

Under the latest guidance from CDPH, events statewide can resume on April 15. The size of allowable gatherings ranges from 25 people to 400, depending on the tier of the county in which the event is taking place, whether it’s indoors or outdoors, and if guests are vaccinated.

For California counties in the orange tier, like Napa County, an outdoor gathering of up to 300 people is permitted so long as guests could show proof they’d been vaccinated or received a recent negative COVID-19 test result. If guests are unvaccinated or do not have a negative test result, that number drops to 100. Indoor gatherings of up to 150 people are allowed only if guests can prove they’ve been vaccinated or have tested negative for COVID; indoor gatherings are not permitted without such proof.

Those numbers came as a shock to Monica Flick, director of winery events for V. Sattui Winery, one of a handful of wineries in Napa County permitted to host weddings: she’d been expecting limits to be much smaller.

“At this point, we’ll gladly take it, but we were under the impression it would be a little more gradual,” Flick said. “We can now move forward with all of our weddings for the remainder of the year.”

The winery has 54 weddings on its books for the rest of the year, Flick said. Come fall — historically prime time for weddings in wine country — the winery has “at least four weddings a week,” according to Flick, and some weeks as many as six.

Venues like V. Sattui Winery are still figuring out how they’ll go about implementing the new regulations on an individual basis, according to Brittany Anderson, owner of the St. Helena-based event planning company L’Avventura Events. 

“They hold the cards in terms of — ‘here’s what we can do, here’s what we want to do, and here’s what we’re comfortable doing,’ and the rules are different at each venue,” she said. “I communicate all of that to my clients directly … and we figure out how to adjust our timeline, the crowd control or the location. That’s how I’ve been navigating as I’m at the mercy of the venue.”

Ahead of April 15, Visit Napa Valley, Napa County’s tourism advocacy group, is working on managing guest expectations, according to President & CEO Linsey Gallagher. Vaccinated guests will still need to wear a mask; tables and event venues won’t be packed to normal capacity. (“We aren’t just opening the flood gates,” Gallagher added.) Even given those restrictions, interest in events, both corporate and private, has heightened in the wake of the state’s new guidance, she said.

“California was the only state not allowing any of that. Every other state had some kind of a safe gathering protocol,” Gallagher said. “As a result, many other destinations got business that’s traditionally been very loyal to Napa. I am very confident that business is going to rebound as quickly as we saw leisure travel recover.”

The lack of guidance or timeline around pandemic-era gatherings has been especially tough for the local events industry because business is typically booked as far as a year and a half in advance, Gallagher said. Now that there’s at least a framework in place, business can resume.

V. Sattui’s Flick said the winery was still considering how best to comply with the new guidance. The process of verifying, for example, that each guest at a 300 person wedding is verified or has received a negative COVID-19 test will no doubt pose logistical challenges, she said.

“There’s no real direction on enforcement. Our standpoint is that that is not exactly our place (as the venue),” Flick said. “What we’ve communicated at this point is that it is up to the couples and their event planners to reach out to their guests and make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

Gallagher said the question of how to most effectively verify guests are vaccinated or COVID negative has been “the frenzy of the week.” A number of businesses have reached out to Visit Napa Valley asking for additional guidance, she said. Visit Napa Valley is currently in conversation with local elected officials and the county public health department on the subject.

“(Events can be) two to three times the capacity if you’re able to do that verification ahead of time,” Gallagher said. “We are hoping to see the state come out with something of an operational guidebook of what they’d like to see in that regard. That is the top priority this week as we pivot into next week.”

Napa County is still waiting for further clarification from the state regarding event protocol, County Public Information Officer Janet Upton said.

At an upcoming wedding Anderson is planning in May, the bride- and groom-to-be booked and paid for mobile testing vans, she said. Guests who cannot show proof of vaccinations can receive rapid tests onsite, and then check in with a particular family member tasked with keeping track of guests’ immunization or testing status.

“Everybody is taking all of the precautions at the utmost level to ensure the party they’re throwing is safe. You don’t want to be a statistic from last fall, where you had a 200 person wedding … and 80% of them got COVID,” Anderson said. “So if they have to pay extra money or bring in family members to keep a checklist of guests, that’s what they’re doing.”

The events industry is also eyeing June 15 with keen interest, according to Leslie Fravel, Milestone Events group director of operations and co-founder. Gov. Gavin Newsom previously said the state could have its tier system eliminated by that time, she said.

“We’re all curious about what that means,” Fravel said, adding that regulations could lessen. 

A return to normalcy may not be as simple as lifting the state’s tier system, though, Bauer said.

“Last year — you don’t need to look very far to see how that was a hit, since everything was shut down,” he said of 2020. “But this year, due to postponements, concerns about travel, a population that is not fully inoculated and staffing ... we’re looking at pretty anemic business.”

Staffing has been a particular concern for Napa Valley’s hospitality sector, which has repetitively laid off and rehired staff amid waves of lockdowns. That problem extends to venues and various relevant vendors, like catering companies, according to Bauer.

Anderson has had “a new wedding inquiry every single day for the last week” since California announced it would again open to events, she said. Though it’s been a tough year for wedding planners — Anderson knows some who retired early or left the business for good this year — the demand for their services will come back, she said.

Plus, just as micro-weddings and elopements were made suddenly popular by the pandemic, Anderson thinks the opposite will be true: “everyone wants to have a big celebration to commemorate what we’ve all been through together,” she said.

“I am really interested to see how this year goes. I’m hopeful that as we move into (fewer) guidelines and we’re open for business in June, it’s going to explode,” Anderson said of interest in wine country weddings. “If last week is any indication, we’re going to be just fine.”

Frank and Joan Burrell of Napa have celebrated their 50th, 60th and 70th wedding anniversaries -- and they're about to celebrate their 72nd.

You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or sklearman@napanews.com.

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Wine Industry Reporter

Wine industry reporter at the Napa Valley Register.

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