Smart Talk: Interview with Kenneth J. Fischang, CHME, CMP

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After majoring in tourism, restaurant and hotel management (plus foreign language) at Purdue University, Kenneth J. Fischang, CHME, CMP set a goal of working in as many different sectors of the hospitality industry as he could, to learn about it first-hand. And he has succeeded. Fischang started his career with Hyatt (Chicago, Lincolnwood, Long Beach and San Francisco), a large corporate hotel brand, then segued to independents in Palm Springs. This led to joining the pre-opening team of the Palm Springs Convention Center and helping to launch a major trade show. Staying true to his career path, he held positions with the Pasadena CVB and the Kalamazoo County [Michigan] CVB, prior to his appointment as President/CEO of the newly formed Sonoma County Tourism Bureau.

Q: What are the biggest challenges ahead for your bureau?
A: Our organization just had its three-year anniversary last July 1st, and one of our challenges is still educating people on the destination, communicating the brand, because as a destination marketing organization, we’re an infant—and we’re doing this education in a challenging economy.

Q: Speaking of your anniversary, [the SCTB’s] contract was extended, a vote of confidence for you and the direction you’re taking the bureau. How are you promoting Sonoma Country going forward?
A: We hear from the economists that the hardest hit properties are luxury and upper full-service, but we’re uniquely positioned as we have such a diverse product here. We have just under 12,000 rooms, and a whole variety of different types of properties. Every DMO needs to be a cheerleader for the destination, and we need to continue to work even harder in these [difficult] economic times.
About six months ago we ID’d some key markets. The first is international shows, where we’re partnering with the California Travel & Tourism Commission and the San Francisco CVB. The second is the staycation market, which started with high gas prices in an area where you have 8 million people and [Sonoma’s being] a one-tank drive. The third is visitors to San Francisco and Moscone Center. We know that even in challenging times, associations have to meet—it’s their bread and butter. And the SFCVB and Moscone Center have done a great job of booking them. One in four visitors comes to wine country from San Francisco.

Q: Your organization’s funding model is atypical. What can you tell us about it?
A: We’re uniquely funded, as 2/3 of our budget is from a Business Improvement Assessment; it’s not a tax. It can only be used exclusively for promoting tourism.
The other 1/3 of funding—we sell seats on our board. Because we’re a private nonprofit pay-to-play type of organization, the largest payer is the largest player (Sonoma County). The supervisors appoint eight seats on the board.

Q: You initiated an innovative $4,000 meeting planner incentive program. What results have you seen?
A: We started the cash incentive program about a year ago. It’s been enormously successful, and we’re continuing it in 2009. We pay the incentive based on actual room nights—up to $4,000 goes right to the master account of the company or organization. We booked 28 meeting and tour programs—5,312 room nights with an estimated economic impact of more than $3 million. [For planners] if you know you have an extra $4,000, you can add spa treatments, upgrade VIPs, or add F&B upgrades for lunches and coffee breaks, and so on.

Q: How did the term “Sonoma Country” come about?
A: Back in 2005 we did an exercise looking at the competition’s strengths and weaknesses, and then looked at the mission of our organization—putting heads in beds—and what amenities we might have in place. We have a large number of day trippers, and our No. 1 visitor amenity is wine. We have more than 500 of the world’s best wineries here; it’s part of our branding. We [then] looked at destinations with spas, and said, if we can get people to go to spas, they’ll want to extend their stay and spend the night. And, third—what makes us different from our competitors—is that we have two coasts, not one. There’s the Pacific Ocean, 50 miles of beautiful ocean, and San Pablo Bay, with the Carneros region. Then we put all three together—America’s premier wine, spa and coastal destination—and added an “r.”  We’re not just Sonoma wine country—that limits us. We’ve got the coast, the redwoods, three rivers, outdoor recreation, eco adventures [and much more].

Q: What should planners know about your destination, but often don’t?
A: We have nonstop direct air service daily [to Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport] from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Portland and Seattle—so you’re truly no more than two flights from anywhere in the world. While other destinations have lost airlift, our airport increased theirs 20 percent in 2008.

Q: What would our readers be surprised to know about you?
A: I was 11 years old, and my family and I had been traveling all across the country. We were sitting at a table at Alioto’s at Fisherman’s Wharf, looking at the Golden Gate Bridge and the boats, and I thought “When I grow up, I want to be in the restaurant and hotel business.” And it actually worked out. 

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