Even as the Humboldt County Convention and Visitors Bureau was taking a bit of a public beating about its lack of cannabis marketing during the April 3 Board of Supervisors meeting (See "Cannabis Convention and Visitors Bureau?," Apr. 5.), a survey on that very subject was winging its way to the inboxes of HCCVB's target audience. Roughly 1,500 people on the bureau's mailing list responded to questions about whether or not tourists would visit Humboldt County specifically for cannabis activities, the likelihood of their trying a cannabis activity while here, how cannabis would affect visitors' perceptions and whether it would make tourists feel unsafe or want to travel somewhere else for family vacations with the kids. The responses, like the questions, skewed a bit negative.
While many respondents were neutral on the subject, a majority of those polled said they were unlikely to visit "specifically to experience cannabis activities" and said these unspecified activities would "negatively" or "very negatively" affect their perceptions of traveling here. Questions on safety and family-appropriateness were a bit less divisive, but it was in the comments portion that things really got interesting.
Between April 3 and April 9, 396 people added their comments to the survey.
Of these, 119 people said they were strongly opposed to the idea of cannabis tourism in the county, with several people asking to be removed from the mailing list and many saying they would never visit again. Sample: "Focusing on cannabis for tourism is a horrible idea. This would bring the wrong crowd, higher crime, more trash and transient problems, and would go against everything the redwoods and natural surroundings are trying to capture."
Fifty-six people were either strongly in favor of cannabis marketing, receiving more information about cannabis or opportunities to sample cannabis products or visit cannabis farms while in the region. Sample: "Although cannabis isn't the reason we are visiting, it is a plus and helped motivate our decision to come for other attractions."
Two hundred and twenty-one people left ambivalent, neutral or non-responsive comments, saying they were mostly interested in seeing the redwoods or didn't care either way. Some respondents were concerned about the impact of cannabis on their experience of the redwoods, citing worries about second-hand smoke exposure, but didn't indicate that they were planning on canceling their trips. Sample: "Keep the magic of the trees first."
The survey may have undermined some of the HCCVB's attempts to get more "heads in beds," as many respondents said they didn't know cannabis had such a big presence in the region, saying, in the words of one respondent, "It's a shame Humboldt County promotes this garbage." HCCVB's Executive Director Tony Smithers said the survey was sent to gather data to support the bureau's next step, as it has been under increased pressure to fold cannabis tourism into its current marketing plan since legalization. But will the response from the survey stymie efforts to promote pot? Smithers doesn't think so.
"My solution is that we just establish a parallel marketing track for cannabis," Smithers told the Journal, with the caveat that he'd need to receive the board's approval for this plan. "We're going to put a firewall around the current marketing track, the older group that are totally into the redwoods and family travel."
The demographic responding to the survey does skew a bit older, with a full 59 percent of those who took the survey self-reporting that they were above the age of 55. That age group — apparently the most likely to sign up for tourism mailing lists and respond to surveys — is an important one to draw to the region, but it's not the target market for recreational cannabis, Smithers says.
"The baby boomers are the bulge in the snake," he said. "They're still driving the bus. They're the ones with the disposable income. But there's no question that the millennials are coming on strong. They're a large cohort as well. There's a lot of millennials, they have much different attitude about travel. They will prioritize travel over buying a house, paying bills, student loans."
To reach that new generation of consumers, Smithers says they anticipate leaning heavily on digital marketing and social media. He said he would even be interested in attending a cannabis trade show with Terra Carver, executive director of the Humboldt Cannabis Growers Alliance. Carver was one of several people who spoke at the April 3 meeting and expressed concern about the lack of marketing.
"If I could speak to 10,000 potential tourists over a weekend, that would be great," Smithers said. Maybe they'll also sign up for his mailing list.
Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.