Photo: The Santa Maria Inn, one hotel property along California's central coast currently benefitting from a local tourism stimulus program.
Can the lure of a gift card to front the cost of meals, and a winery or two, nudge people to visit and boost local tourism? Leaders in Santa Maria believed so; this California city of 100,000 came up with a plan that could help support the local economy as we all emerge from the public health, social and economic crises COVID-19 has left across the U.S.
The shuttered small businesses and restaurants across the country together paint a sad portrait of the massive hit local tourism, and the workers who depend on it, have suffered over the past year. For every cretin who saw the stimulus check as a means to book a cheap trip abroad, there are thousands more who are still skittish about going on a road trip until the country has achieved true herd immunity.
But while America’s largest companies, many of which have done quite well during the pandemic, say that they “stand” with local communities, here’s some food for thought: Why not put their money where their public statements are, and help fund local tourism stimulus packages to encourage people to visit smaller cities and towns across America?
Santa Maria is the perfect laboratory to learn whether such a program can work. The city in northern Santa Barbara county to film buffs is famous for the 2004 film Sideways, legendary for how the character Sandra Oh played kicked the crap out of Jack. Wine aficionados know the movie, and Santa Maria, for the region’s pinot noir wine.
And therein lies the challenge Santa Maria faces. First, as more people travel again, they will flock to the usual places: Miami, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Las Vegas and so forth. At a more local level, Santa Maria competes with Santa Barbara, Ojai, Pismo Beach and Big Sur for those tourist dollars. Then there’s the wine factor: sure, the Santa Maria pinots consistently score rave reviews, but beyond Napa and Sonoma, the Golden State also boasts regions like Mendocino, Paso Robles, Temecula and Livermore.
Santa Maria and the surrounding area offer more than wine, however. A 30-minute drive can take you to beaches, hikes, old historical sites. For foodies, tri-tip, the cut of beef that has made Santa Maria the barbecue capital of California, is not to be missed. The city also has plenty of taquerias and Mexican restaurants where you can nosh on dishes like birria (stewed goat). The nearby shore offers fresh seafood options as well.
Nevertheless, promoting the area requires more than clever marketing and social media campaigns, and that’s where the “Santa Maria Valley Stimulus Promotion” comes in.
TriplePundit decided to see what this was all about.
The process was easy. Potential guests simply had to visit the local chamber’s tourism site and book a minimum two-night stay at a participating hotel or inn. After sending a PDF of the reservation to the chamber, visitors were told to expect a packet once they arrived at Santa Maria and checked in.
The program is good through the end of March, but it has already sold out: It didn’t take long for 500 visitors to participate in the program.
Included in the packet was a booklet full of suggestions for eating, wine tasting and visiting – the vast majority of places mentioned were local, including a map of a “taco trail” heralding the local taquerias in Santa Maria. In addition, a $100 Visa gift card was included, good for use anywhere. It covered 5 meals at local restaurants – 3p can confirm that it’s tri-tip’d out.
The rest of the itinerary is up to the visitor. 3p stayed at the historic Santa Maria Inn, where stars from Hollywood’s golden era, including Charle Chaplin, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe overnighted, usually on their way to extravagant soirees at Hearst Castle, located another 75 miles northwest along California’s coastal Highway 1. Hotel room doors throughout the property are festooned with star-shaped plaques reminding people who had slept there, including William Randolph Hearst and Marian Davies his mistress for whom he built his eponymous estate; 3p was, well, “fortunate” enough to score that room - unfortunately, the room Auntie Mame (Rosalind Russell) had partied in was already booked.
Other options, most of which are only 30 minutes away, included La Purísima Mission State Historic Park, the 11th of the 21 Franciscan Missions the Spaniards built as they took over California. Plenty of hiking trails await around communities like nearby Orcutt, which gives off an old west vibe, or Guadalupe, where walks can take you through spectacular sand dunes.
While the experiences this local tourism stimulus package offered were very local, the list of sponsors included a wide range of companies, both local and national. Companies that contributed to the program include Dignity Health, ExxonMobil, Walmart and Wells Fargo – as well as local car dealerships and retailers tied to America’s largest companies.
As more companies talk up “community,” local tourism programs like this one Santa Maria’s leaders successfully launched offer corporations an idea on how to contribute to a local cause – while helping to kickstart local economies at the same time.
Image credits: Leon Kaye
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.