As they sat huddled around banquet tables arranged in a U shape, tensely nibbling the remnants of a catered lunch in the conference room of Eureka's Red Lion Hotel, the Eureka-Humboldt Visitors Bureau Board of Directors voted last week to welcome cannabis businesses into their midst and to use them to market the county to tourists. But they also decided to keep their new members at arm's length, at least for the time being, lest they tarnish the county in the eyes of some would-be redwood revelers.
"It will be parallel marketing tracks," bureau Executive Director Tony Smithers explained, detailing his plan to market cannabis experiences to cannabis tourists and leave them out of the bureau's current marketing strategy. "Separate but equal."
But it was immediately clear the segregationist approach was deeply troubling to some board members and a few invited guests in attendance last week, who saw it as antiquated and stinking of Reefer Madness prejudices. The board's vote was itself a compromise of sorts, one floated by Eureka Community Development Director Rob Holmlund, one of its members.
During a brief presentation leading up to the vote, Smithers pitched the board on his "parallel tracks" vision. Leaning heavily on the results of an email survey sent to folks signed up for the bureau's newsletter (See "Canna-bias," April 19), Smithers explained that 75 percent of respondents indicated they are unlikely to come to Humboldt specifically to "experience cannabis activities." More troubling, he said, 45 percent said the presence of cannabis activities would negatively effect their perception of Humboldt as a travel destination and 49 percent said cannabis tourism would make them feel unsafe. (Smithers essentially indicated he was only bringing the cannabis issue forward at all because of "a lot of pressure ... from the people signing our checks," namely the county and city of Eureka, which combine to contribute more than $600,000 to the bureau's budget.)
Based on the survey, Smithers explained his fear that including the promotion of cannabis tourism and cannabis activities in the bureau's existing strategy could "taint" those efforts, making people less likely to choose Humboldt County as a vacation destination. Based on this, Smithers said the bureau should keep doing what it's doing but launch a cannabis marketing program targeting cannabis users while "firewalling" those efforts off from everything else the bureau does. Under the plan, cannabis businesses could pay to become bureau members in order to have their businesses and experiences marketed by the bureau — "it's pay to play," Smithers said, adding that the industry needs "to put skin in the game" — but they would not be featured on the bureau's webpage or publicly affiliated with its mainstream marketing efforts. But the bureau would work to help the industry put together a cannabis-specific visitors guide, create an "experiences" campaign targeted at millennials and promote canna-tourism through targeted social media outreach, Smithers pitched. Meanwhile, the board would form a subcommittee including some folks from the industry to gather input and make suggestions.
Before Smithers wrapped his presentation, some on the board were already itching to chime in, questioning whether his survey results were biased, a self-selecting group who would opt to sign up for the bureau's marketing emails. They pointed out that 59 percent of respondents were over the age of 55.
Smithers countered that occupancy rates in the county have gone up 15 percent over the last decade, so "we're doing something right." (He failed to note that a decade ago the nation was in the throes of a recession that halved the stock market, devastating people's savings.)
When the matter was opened up for discussion, Eureka City Councilmember Austin Allison pointed out that the demographics of California are changing — and look a lot different than those of survey respondents. The average age in the state is about 35, Allison said, and nearly 60 percent of the state's population is younger than 45. Eight-million people recently voted to legalize recreational cannabis, he said.
But others liked Smithers' pitch and were clearly spooked by the survey results. Lowell Daniels, the board chair and owner of Ferndale's Victorian Inn, said the bureau wouldn't want to do anything to "run off" its existing base. "Speaking for myself, I can't take a five-year hit on occupancy," he said. "I'll be broke."
After some rushed discussion before the meeting was slated to adjourn, the board ultimately voted unanimously — with some members appearing reluctant — to approve Smithers' proposal, with the "compromise" amendment that the subcommittee report back at the board's next scheduled meeting with proposed changes to the plan.
"As of Monday, we'll hit the streets to recruit cannabis members," Smithers said.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.