How 'uniquely positioned' Siskiyou County lured visitors, created boon for locals
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March of 2020, activity crawled to a standstill, especially when it came to traveling.
It hurt tourism in Siskiyou County those first few months.
But then came the summer, and vehicle traffic began to pick up, as out-of-town visitors who were tired of being cooped up at home but did not want to go too far, discovered California's northernmost counties and their rural ways of life.
Tourism professionals are hopeful visitor traffic will continue to improve.
Heather Dodds, digital marketing manager for Discover Siskiyou, said the county was "uniquely positioned" to benefit during the lockdown. A key reason, she said, is the county is within driving distance from several urban areas in Northern California and Oregon.
It helps, Dodds said, that Siskiyou County offers great outdoor opportunities where social distancing is not a problem and lodging is relatively inexpensive compared to the big cities.
She said people wanted to get out and explore but only a few hours or a half-day trip from home.
Dodds said people have reported they returned this year to visit Siskiyou County after discovering it during the pandemic last year. The hope is more people will continue to make jaunts to the area and tell their friends.
Discover Siskiyou was formed in 2015, when lodging property owners worked with the Siskiyou Economic Development Council to develop Siskiyou County's first Tourism Improvement District. The organization's goal is to raise funds to market the region a travel and tourism destination, according to Discover Siskiyou. The organization is affiliated with the Siskiyou County Economic Council.
Travel woes amid pandemic
When the first COVID-19 shutdown happened, Dodds said Discover Siskiyou "essentially ceased all tourism spending because we didn't know what the impact would be."
As a result, they pulled all digital ads and reassigned the organization's three staff members to other programs within the Economic Development Council.
"It was scary. We didn't know what was going to happen," Dodds said. "We were at a total standstill."
Aman Dhillon, co-owner of the Holiday inn Express in Yreka, struggled when the pandemic began.
"We were very concerned because everything was so unpredictable, and the CDC narrative kept changing," she said. The immediate reaction, she said, was to shut down rather than cut down staffing and services since "no one was walking through the doors."
Dhillon said, "There were many sleepless nights with worries about the financial and health impact on the employees."
Social media campaigns
Dodds said in late spring of 2020, they began posting online again. First, they posted "Bliss Breaks." These were 20-second clips on Facebook and Instagram "to keep Siskiyou front of mind for when people could travel again," she said.
Once travel restrictions began to lift in June 2020, Discover Siskiyou came up with a digital advertising campaign touting Siskiyou as a safer option. Again her group took to using Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for social posts.
Discover Siskiyou ran Google ads, had display ads on Active NorCal, and launched the Discover Siskiyou podcast, which can be found on sources such as Spotify, Apple podcasts, and the Discover Siskiyou website. Episodes focus on things to do in Siskiyou County and featured interviews with local guides and business owners.
The team also put up digital "smart" billboards promoting Siskiyou County in the Sacramento area this past spring and summer.
In addition, Dodds said she has video ads running on streaming services, including Hulu, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime in partnership with Visit California.
"Discover Siskiyou advertised guests to come to experience the great outdoors when the other prominent travel destinations like Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, and Seattle were asking people to stay away," Dhillon said.
Tourism figures trending in the right direction
Getting people from nearby urban centers to Siskiyou County has worked, Dodds said.
For instance, she said, occupancy rates are sitting above pre-pandemic levels. From January to September, hotel rooms were 68.5% occupied compared to 62.5% for the same time in 2019, according to numbers Discover Siskiyou received from the Smith Travel Report.
Dodds said far northern counties — such as Siskiyou, Shasta and Humboldt — significantly outperformed larger destinations like Mammoth Lake, Lake Tahoe and Portland, Oregon, with occupancy rates. For comparison, occupancy rates for the month of September were 75% in Siskiyou, 75.6% in Shasta, and 79.6% in Humboldt. In Mammoth Lake, the rate was 49.8%, while in Lake Tahoe, it was 42.8%. And in Portland, it was 52.4%.
All told, tourism generated $129 million in Siskiyou County, according to Visit California. Nearly $40 million of that money was from accommodations and $35 million from food service, with local state and tax revenue for Siskiyou County at $10.9 million.
'A hidden gem of Northern California'
Dhillon said leisure tourism has helped her business. Corporate travel, on the other hand, has not rebounded.
She is encouraged by the positive feedback from visitors who have stayed at the hotel.
"Several of our guests mentioned that they had discovered a hidden gem of Northern California," Dhillon said.
Louie Dewey, owner of Cave Springs Resort in Dunsmuir, has seen a steady stream of tourists since last summer.
The resort was built in 1923, with Dewey’s family taking over in 1946. One thing that has helped, are that rooms at the resort, including 15 cabins, are separate from other rooms and don’t share the same air circulation system, which is attractive to many travelers who want to be as safe as possible.
“My place is unique,” Dewey said, adding it is a perfect spot for people who truly want to isolate themselves.
While the smoke from fires over the summer “did not help,” overall, business has been good, he said.
He said getting more travelers from places like Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area benefits the entire county.
“People are discovering Siskiyou County and all we have to offer,” Dewey said. "It has turned into a real positive for our county.”
Lance Banks, marketing manager at the Denny Bar Co., a craft distillery, restaurant and full bar in Etna, said his business noticed an influx of tourists, especially this past summer.
“It was one of our busiest summers to date,” he said.
To him, travelers are interested in more secluded areas where they can find quality recreation as well as good places to eat. And, since the pandemic, more travelers want a place with fewer people around.
"Rural locations are quite popular now,” he said.
Dhillon is cautiously optimistic the tourism trend will continue in Siskiyou County.
"We are hopeful that we will not see the likes of 2020 shutdowns again," she said. "We are still seeing the impact of the shutdowns with supply shortages, higher prices, and higher costs of doing business overall."
To Dhillon, tourism is a vital part of the economy for Siskiyou County and a great benefit.
"Tourism means local jobs," she said. "We need to have job readiness training at the high school level and the College of Siskiyous to support the local businesses during the busy summer months.
"We need to change our attitude towards tourism and look at the greater economic impact than just the 10% Transient Occupancy Tax they pay to fund the local cities' budget."
Bill Choy covers sports and general news for the Siskiyou Daily News/Mount Shasta Herald/USA Today Network. Follow him on Twitter at@SDNBillChoy. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism by subscribing today.