How California Cities Are Rebranding Themselves to Attract Visitors

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As travelers vacation closer to home amid the lingering pandemic, weekend getaway destinations in California are turning to an unlikely tactic to lure visitors: loyalty programs.

Wine Country communities east of the Sierra are seeking to reaffirm their cultural appeal — or in some cases rebrand themselves — in an effort to attract Bay Area travelers. To do this, dozens of tourist offices bundle discounts and promotions around themed activities—hikes, wine tastings, historical tours and more—into redeeming “pass” programs.

For example, hikers who electronically mark enough trailheads in the wooded foothills east of Chico can get free backpacks and insulated water bottles through Butte County’s new Adventure Pass program.

Similarly, Stockton’s Taco Trail and Sacramento’s Fried Chicken Trail send out T-shirts and stickers to people who “check in” on their smartphones at local restaurants. A tasting pass sponsored by the Sonoma County Tourism Board includes wine and beer flights at multiple wineries and breweries. Bakersfield has a Selfie Trail of photogenic landmarks. Rancho Cordova offers a Wine Passport.

Roast beef, grilled steak and marinated pork tacos are served at Don Rafa’s Taco Shop in downtown Stockton. A growing number of California tourist destinations are launching loyalty/rewards programs in an attempt to attract visitors and Stockton is known for its Taco Trail.

Andri Tambunan/Special at La Chronique

Nearly 50 such pass programs have launched in California in recent years — most of them showcasing local cuisine, art, booze and outdoor recreation — and d others are on the way. Some are free; others are paid. All aim to connect visitors to the cultural centers of each community.

Most of the programs are hosted by a Texas-based travel technology company called Bandwango, which runs more than 320 such programs across the country and lists 25 California clients, including destination marketing organizations in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Carmel, Bakersfield, Vacaville and Tuolumne County.

Before the pandemic, there was more spillover from visitors from California’s gateway cities — San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego — to smaller destinations across the state. But now those markets have focused on appealing to regional vacationers.

“These places need to restart tourism now,” said Humphrey Ho, managing director of Hylink Digital Solutions, an advertising agency in Los Angeles. “They rely on local drive-through and drive-through tourism. Very few of these (loyalty) experiences will be helpful to interstate or international travelers.

Airlines, hotels, and car rental companies have long used rewards programs to attract loyal customers. But a better point of comparison with the Bandwango programs is CityPass, which bundles discounted tickets to tourist attractions in the country’s largest metropolitan areas. In San Francisco, a $76 CityPass ticket covers admission to the California Academy of Sciences, a ferry cruise, and two other locations of the buyer’s choice for a nine-day period.

The interior decor of Arte Del Cafe in downtown Stockton.

The interior decor of Arte Del Cafe in downtown Stockton.

Andri Tambunan/Special at La Chronique

Bandwango brings a similar approach to smaller or overlooked destinations.

“Our clients try to differentiate themselves, even change the public perception of a place,” said Emilie Harris, Bandwango’s director of marketing operations.

The company offers a list of pass programs designed for smartphones. Some are paid plans similar to CityPass. Others are free promotional campaigns that offer users prizes in exchange for signing up and “registering” with participating businesses.

Visit Stockton, the town’s tourist board, first commissioned Bandwango in 2016 – making it one of the company’s first clients – and launched five campaigns through the service. Its biggest hit is a Taco Trail that guides visitors through the city’s vast array of Mexican cuisine. It attracted over 3,000 registrations.

“What drives our economy is agriculture – dairy, nuts, cherries, grapes – but we don’t value our food scene,” said Wes Rhea, CEO of Visit Stockton.

Part of the challenge is winning over locals who, if properly inspired, could act as ambassadors for their hometown, Rhea said.

“The No. 1 reason someone visits a community is friends and family,” he said. “But if these people don’t have a positive view of their community, we all suffer.”

Explore Butte County uses pass programs to direct visitors to area hiking trails, biking trails and lakes.

Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton.

Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton.

Andri Tambunan/Special at La Chronique

“Since 2018, our cities – Chico, Oroville and Paradise – have been associated with disasters,” said Carolyn Denero, CEO of Explore Butte County. “We want to get rid of that assumption. There are huge outdoor attractions here that we should be known for.

One trend working in favor of boutique destinations is the advent of “work,” or the practice of working remotely from a vacation spot for an extended period of time, Ho said. This has created a new subset of tourists who might be interested in checking off, say, all the breweries in Contra Costa County while staying in Walnut Creek.

New localized pass programs offering spicy food, coffee, bike rides and ice cream are coming to Northern California this year and next.

In Stockton, Rhea continues to come up with new themes to highlight.

“The way I think about it,” he said, “would you rather live in a town that has a Taco Trail or one that doesn’t?”

Gregory Thomas is the Lifestyle and Outdoors Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @GregRThomas

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