Corporate retreats return to California’s wine country, but COVID concerns change their scope

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decide when to meet

“I have been attending in-person meetings for several months. I find people really enjoy seeing everyone in person, making direct eye contact, sharing a personal smile. It’s a different feeling than on Zoom,” said Rick Wells, CEO of Marin Builders Association.

His group, which has members from about 570 Marin County businesses or those working there, is everywhere with his rallies. Some are aloof, some hybrid, some outdoors, some indoors. These have a limited capacity and have space for people to spread out.

The California Society of Association Executives, which has 1,200 members, was scheduled to meet in Sonoma County in April 2020. That was scrapped, but is back on the books.

“We will have our annual conference next year at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa,” said Jim Anderson, president and CEO of CalSAE. “I’m confident we’ll have a good turnout there. This will be our first conference at Wine Country, and we were on track in 2020 to set an attendance record.

Although COVID protocols still exist in some places or are mandated by individual entities, one group that is hyper aware of what is happening with the potentially deadly virus is the Sonoma-Mendocino-Lake Medical Association, a trade group for doctors .

“It’s still so volatile. I can’t count on planning an in-person event yet,” Wendy Davies, the medical group’s executive director, said of the pandemic in early May as cases started to rise again. in the greater bay area.

An event scheduled for early June in Sonoma County has moved from in-person to virtual. An appreciation dinner for physicians to recognize their efforts over the past two years is scheduled for June 9 in Healdsburg. It’s outside in a winery.

“I’m hopeful, but I feel the rug could be pulled at any time,” Davies said. “I’m not sure doctors will want to be outside and socialize.”

For a company like Empowerly that only has remote workers, meeting in person earlier this year was a big deal because many had never seen each other except on a computer screen.

“A lot has happened since the pandemic hit. The business has grown tenfold. We’ve had a few meetings, but the point was really to bond,” chief marketing officer Angie Suich said of of the multi-day retreat at the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa “There was a lot of teamwork in forging deeper and new relationships.”

A Michelin starred chef led a cooking class, people were able to take part in a guided painting session, with many shared meals provided.

About 35 employees of the 4-year-old San Francisco-based company that helps people get into college attended the retreat. Everyone had to be vaccinated. In January, the hotel still needed masks, as did other businesses visited by the group.

Places that are always busy

While in previous years weddings made up 80% of Triple S Ranch Napa in Calistoga’s business, it’s possible that this year they’ll be evenly split between nuptials and corporate retreats.

The property, able to accommodate 250 people and sleep 60, began to see business business resume in late 2021, with the phone now ringing non-stop. Triple S recently hosted a 30-person startup and a 150-person division of Google, according to owner Derek Webb.

“We’ve had so many conversations where I talk to the CEO of the company and he’s never met any of his employees except on Zoom, so the gathering has become huge for them,” Webb said. “It’s not the way we think about company pensions in the past where it was a benefit. It has become a necessity if everyone is at home. If they only meet once, twice, three, four times a year, that’s huge.

Guests at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa in Sonoma are a mix of new businesses and regular groups. Gatherings are often smaller today than they were in 2019. And some groups use a hybrid model where employees are onsite, while others participate virtually.

“Before the pandemic, our mix was 60% corporate and 40% transient leisure. During the pandemic, it was almost 100% pass-through recreation. Now we are seeing this return to pre-pandemic percentages,” Michelle Heston, a spokeswoman for the property, told The Business Journal.

She admits that the return of these business travelers was “exceptionally fast”; attributing it to pent-up demand.

People also want to be outside. Heston said the outdoor spaces had never been used to this extent before. The Fairmont sits on 13 acres. Businesses host focus groups, meetings, receptions and dining outdoors instead of relying on the 13,000 square feet of indoor meeting space.

The origin of companies has also changed a bit.

“Before the pandemic, we fed off of what I say is every NFL town,” Heston said. “We’re seeing clearly right now that the regional business mix is ​​bigger than either the east coast or the west. This engine market has been very important to us throughout the pandemic. »

The Yin Ranch in Vacaville was impacted by COVID as well as a fire in 2020. Its main meeting space was reduced to ashes after a wildfire passed through the property.

The 550-person pavilion is expected to be completed this fall and bookings are up. In addition to replacing the structure destroyed in the fire, Yin Ranch is building another venue that can accommodate 200 people.

The private 40-acre site with seven homes began hosting events in 2018.

“If we still had our building that could accommodate indoor events, I would have hoped we would have done more bands,” said Jennifer Maloney, events director.

For now, companies are content with outdoor events or the use of large tents. Hybrid events are also possible. Groups vary in size from 20 to 100 people. Customers come from the Bay Area, Sacramento and as far away as Asia.

“(Early May) we had 10 employees who wanted their own offsite meeting. They grabbed their laptops and the Adirondack chairs and had a meeting by our lake,” Maloney said.

Repeat business fills the coffers of the Casa Madrona Hotel and Spa in Sausalito. The Marin County boutique hotel has 64 rooms and 8,000 square feet of meeting space.

“March 2022 was historically the best month ever at this hotel as a whole. The second quarter is going as well if not better than the first quarter,” Casa Madrona sales manager Alex Stolle told The Business Journal.

“Because we’re such a small hotel, we can provide personalized experiences,” Stolle said. “I think because people have been working virtually for the past two years, there’s a sense of wanting to have a more collaborative experience rather than sitting in a boardroom for an extended four-day period.”

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