Solvang ‘Cutting Both Legs Off’ in Latest Marketing Move?
Contractor Resigns, Manager Quits — Will the Tourism Advisory Committee Be Next?
If you ask anyone in Solvang how much tourism matters to the community, the answer is likely to be “a lot.” The town of roughly 6,200 hosts 1.4 million visitors every year, and hotel bed taxes provide fully half of the city’s revenue. Keeping the city a destination in travelers’ minds falls to Solvang’s marketing division, which has suffered serious losses in recent days.
Solvang’s marketing contractor resigned in February — six months into the two-year, $600,000 contract — and the city’s marketing manager quit a month later. Then, at the City Council meeting on March 27, three of the five councilmembers suggested the all-volunteer tourism committee be suspended.
Councilmember Elizabeth Orona, who has 35 years of experience in the IT world and is a business owner, responded that suspending the Tourism Advisory Committee “feels like we’re cutting both legs off,” explaining that the committee brought an expertise that the council did not have.
Mayor Mark Infanti, who was a project manager for government contractors for 40 years, answered that there was too much conflict on the committee.
Orona stated that in her experience, conflict can have value: “Sometimes,” she said, “conflict can be good if we can extract what the tension is trying to solve.”
Solvang has suffered marketing issues since 2019, when the council abruptly stopped funding the Conference and Visitors Bureau and Chamber of Commerce for tourism services, according to media reports, citing costs. The Tourism Advisory Committee was formed in 2021 to advise the City Council on marketing initiatives, consultants and scope of work, budget allocations, and effectiveness of marketing and tourism programs.
All seven of its current members were nominated and approved by the council just a few months ago. They each represent businesses in Solvang — hotel, wine, food, landscape, retail — as well as the Chamber of Commerce, and the new chair, Vashti Wilson, launched the town’s popular Juneteenth celebration and is herself a business owner.
Wilson also brings serious contract and marketing chops to the table, with a background in military and aerospace contracting, as well as degrees in marketing and business statistics. Not only does she scan the invoices and contracts concerning the committee, Wilson also understands the ins and outs of social media.
‘It’s Not Fort Knox’
One promotional barrier the committee heard about at length in February was the difficulty that the marketing contractor, the Abbi Agency of Reno, was having accessing the city’s website and its Facebook page. They had decided to abandon the page and its 35,000 followers and create a new one. During that same meeting, however, Wilson recalled that a member of the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau had spoken proudly of how she had created SolvangUSA.com, which became the top tourism website in the Santa Ynez Valley.
“I like solving puzzles,” Wilson said of her next steps. She said that 13 years ago, when the Facebook account was created, the company only had personal accounts, not governmental ones. So she called the woman, and one Sunday, after about an hour and a half on the phone walking her through the steps, Wilson gained control of the city’s Facebook page.
“It’s not Fort Knox. It’s Facebook,” Wilson said.
Though Wilson emailed the access information to the marketing manager and city officials, she said the city has yet to form a governmental account to which administrative control of the city’s Facebook page can be transferred.
“If best practices were in place, an individual would not be the owner of a city asset,” Wilson said. “Where would we be if it had transferred to an employee who left the city?”
The other “conflict” Infanti mentioned is the marketing contract. After peppering the Abbi Agency with questions, the Tourism Advisory Committee voted 7-0 to have the agency return in March to give answers to question such as: If the contract calls for nine to 12 posts in social media per month, why did they only do three to four? The committee also asked for more information about the contents of the invoices.
During the meeting, committee member Kim Jensen — who runs Ingeborg’s chocolate emporium — took Abbi to task for their lack of preparation: “We thought you were the pros,” he said. “You’re forcing us to think about … bringing this back in-house.”
Abbi soon resigned, but its invoices totalling $129,000 was paid without an audit by anyone but the agency itself. In return, Abbi sent the city a long letter criticizing city leadership as rife with dysfunction within the marketing and tourism advisory committee.
The next few weeks should be interesting. The tourism committee meets on April 6, and the council discusses its fate on April 10.
Mayor Infanti insisted that he and councilmembers Robert Clarke and David Brown didn’t want to dissolve the tourism committee; they wanted to make critical hires before the committee resumes: The interim city manager retires at the end of April, and the council has spent March in closed sessions interviewing about a dozen candidates. The marketing manager position must be filled, too, Infanti said, and 31 people have responded.
For Solvang, the tourism issues — mid-week visitors, overnight stays, and the coming winter — may have to wait. Fortunately, June through October is the high season, and Solvang benefits from promotions by Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara. Spring, however, is when the city usually gets the media ball rolling for the city’s Julefest and other low-season attractions. In marketing terms, that’s right around the corner.
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