We start with a caveat. The following survey was conducted before the recent wildfires that struck Northern Sonoma County in late October. Nearly all hospitality-related businesses in the county likely have an altered perspective regarding their future business prospects, given the impact of the fire on people’s willingness to visit the region and commit to events during a time that now appears to be historically at risk.
It is important to point out that this is a survey of Sonoma County event vendors and does not include any input from the permitted venues in the county. While our business focus targets the various wineries, ranches, and other locations that serve the county’s wedding and event marketplace, we initially queried the vendor support network that work at these sites. The vendor community’s perspective provides valuable insight into the health of the wedding and events business in Sonoma County. It interestingly also closely mirrors much of the observational and anecdotal data we are exposed to as the largest provider of events sales and production in the county.
Our close observation of the wedding and events market informs us that venues such as wineries are having a more difficult time attracting the same number of events and weddings as in years past. This change is due almost entirely to the increase in the number of event venues both of a permitted and unpermitted nature. This fact will negatively impact those event vendors like caterers, photographers, wedding planners, and others who, as this survey shows, rely on referrals from a small number of venues with whom they regularly work.
Though this pre fire survey of event vendors showed an overall bullish view of the Sonoma County events marketplace, it also reveals that those vendors who do tend to work with a smaller number of venues are far less optimistic about their business prospects. This view is unquestionably due to the fact that most wedding and event venues are having a more difficult time filling their permitted event slots because of increased competition from both permitted and non-permitted event sites.
Milestone Events Group has built its success on expertly marketing permitted event locations. However, especially after the most recent fires and the resulting publicity relating to it, all Sonoma County event venues will undoubtedly need to up their marketing game to attract clients, brides, and corporate events to their locations. This need for increased marketing expertise in site marketing will also be critical for photographers, caterers, musicians, and wedding planners. Those who have based their sales efforts on receiving referrals from and servicing a relatively small number of venues will find a reduction in business associated with this upcoming season.
This first of its kind survey provides insight into how the multi-million-dollar Sonoma County events marketplace operates; how those servicing the brides, and company retreats operate; and the tools vendors use to attract new clients. This survey provides an up-to-date snapshot of one of Sonoma County’s most vital industries.
Crafted using online tools, the Milestone Events Group Vendor Survey was conducted over the course of three weeks in September and October 2019. We note that the Survey was conducted in advance of the late October wildfires. Fifty-one vendors replied to the twenty-two-question survey. Most questions consisted of multiple-choice options, with a few requiring open-ended responses. A variety of Sonoma County-based event service companies responded to the survey including caterers, event planners, photographers, musicians and entertainers, bakers, florists and others.
A Representative Sample of Sonoma Event Vendors
Milestone sought a representative sample of Sonoma County event vendors. In all, 51 vendors responded the survey.
A range of event vendors were surveyed over the course of three weeks in September and October 2019. The over representation of photographers due to the fact that there are many providing services to the Sonoma County events marketplace, which is heavily weighted towards wedding events.
The Majority of Respondents are Established Sonoma County Businesses
On average, respondents to the Milestone Sonoma County Events Vendor Survey have been doing business in the county for 14 years
Over 60% of the vendors surveyed have been in business in Sonoma County for more than a decade. With the majority of respondents being veterans of the Sonoma County events industry, the results are not only indicative of the experience of the respondents, but of vendors who possess significant perspective on the industry.
The overall market for events in Sonoma County was very good. Event vendors report a robust and growing Sonoma County marketplace focused on winery venues, but are also noticing increased competition from out-of-county vendors as well as increased difficulty finding and retaining labor.
Event vendors are seeing substantial growth in the event marketplace. Thirty-five percent view the marketplace growing, while only 13% see a decline in the market for events and weddings.
With more than 60% of respondents claiming a growth in their business, what’s clear is that businesses are benefiting significantly from a growing events marketplace. This trend is further substantiated by observing that less than 20% of respondents reported that their own growth is declining. This may indicate that there is opportunity in the events services marketplace for new entrants.
The bullish view of the events marketplace is further substantiated in the survey with more than 50% of respondents indicating that client queries have increased since the same time last year. Less than 20% of respondents have seen fewer inquiries by potential clients.
With more than 50% of respondents citing growth and a similar percentage seeing increased inquiries, it is no surprise that just over 40% of respondents also see their market share growing. A similar percentage of respondents say their share of the market is maintaining.
It is no surprise that with such a bullish view of the events marketplace and reports of increase growth and market share among a majority of respondents, that we would also see a substantial embrace of price increases among event vendors. More than 50% of respondents reported increases in the prices and fees they charge clients. And despite a steady 20% of respondents seeing declines in growth in their business, less than 2% of respondents report lowering prices.
Given the reported robust growth in events business in Sonoma County, it should be no surprise that a significant increase in competition from out-of-town vendors was observed by respondents to the Milestone Event Vendors Survey. In fact, over 50% of respondents saw an increase in out-of-county vendors coming to the county to compete for events business here.
The vast majority of respondents report the overwhelming amount of their business being conducted at Sonoma County venues. This parochial condition, demonstrated by 60% of respondents saying 60% or more of their business being conducted in the County, is not unusual. There are scant national or event multi-regional event planning and event related businesses and the vast majority serve clients in a discrete area.
It’s no surprise that Sonoma County vendors carry out their services at wineries. These unique venues offer a variety of options for event clients and represent a significant attraction for brides. Over 60% of respondents to the survey report that more than 40% of their business is done at Sonoma County winery venues. Fully a one-third of respondents do 60% or more of their work at wineries.
A third of respondents reported that the vast majority of their work (80%) is carried out at a small number of businesses—ten or less. This demonstrates the common practices of many venues choosing to work exclusively with a very small selection of certain types of vendors as their go-to partners for on-site events. It’s notable, however, that those reported work with a smaller number of venues were much less likely to report growth (44%) than those vendors that responded having worked with a more diverse set of venues. Seventy-Percent of this latter collection of vendors reported their business growing. The vendors who work with a wider variety of venues also reported a greater increase in sales inquiries, were more likely to report increased market share, were more likely to be increasing their prices, and were far less likely to serve winery-based events.
By far, respondents cited “Industry Partner Referrals” as most important in generating new business. Other vendors and venues were cited as the most important source by 68% of respondents, while “Past Client Referrals was cited by 19% of respondents. It’s notable that in the Internet Age, only 12% of respondents cited “Web/Internet Promotion” as their most important source of new business.
Given that Internet and web promotion was cited by respondents as the least important source of new business, it should be no surprise that over 80% of vendors surveyed reported spending less 10% or less of their annual revenue on advertising.
Instagram is by far the preferred Social Media platform of choice among those vendors who cite social media as a value to their business. Indeed, when asked to rank the top social media platforms for usefulness to their business, 80% ranked Instagram as #1. Facebook was a distant second with Pinterest, another visually oriented platform ranked the third most important.
Given respondents’ response to the question of which types of events delivery what level of annual revenue, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of weddings to Sonoma County’s event vendor industry. On average, Sonoma County vendors receive 68% of their annual revenue from servicing weddings. No other type of
event comes close to delivering revenue. Corporate events, delivering only an average of 15% of annual revenue, were the next most important source of revenue for event vendors.
In the past 12 months prior to the survey, 63% of responding vendors noted they had “significantly updated” their website. In the past 24 months, more than 80% if vendors has significantly updated their websites. While Social Media platforms are reportedly important to vendors’ business and though Internet advertising does not appear to be an important annual expense, it is true that the web presence of the various Sonoma County event vendors still is critical enough for them to keep their sites updated and to commit resourced to that updating.
When a vendor loses business to a competitor, the cause is overwhelmingly a matter of price, according to survey respondents. In fact, 75% of respondents replied price is the primary factor in losing business to a competitor while the second most important reason, at only 9% of respondents, was a recommendation given to a competing vendor.
A robust business outlook
One thing appears to be clear from the results of the 2019 Milestone Events Group Vendor Survey: business among Sonoma County’s event vendors has been robust and growing, with most businesses seeing increased inquiries. The survey describes a healthy and profitable Sonoma County events marketplace with weddings, and particularly winery weddings, acting as a business driver.
The Sonoma advantage for weddings
Sonoma County possesses an advantage over its rival to the east, Napa Valley. With weddings largely banned at Napa Valley wineries, Sonoma is able to offer brides and grooms a wider array of venue options. The results of this survey confirm the importance of wineries for event vendors and the importance of the wedding market in particular.
Unpermitted events sites cause for worry
We note that in open ended questions a number of vendors voiced concern that the serious consequences that can come with events held at unpermitted event sites often fall upon them and their businesses and that they have little recourse.
Competition among venues will impact vendors’ prospects
The increase in the number of Sonoma County event venues, both permitted and unpermitted, will have an impact not just on venue competition, but also on vendors who tie their success to a small number of event sites for a large portion of their business.
Price is important
Price is important, not just for vendors, but also for the entire Sonoma County market. One of the real issues is that permitted Sonoma County event locations pricing themselves out of the market. This is both a function of their site fees and wine costs but also the ancillary costs associated with most specifically lodging, resulting in an increased number of clients going to other adjacent counties as well as outside of the general area.
Milestone Event Group is the marketing expertise and professional event management behind a network of highly successful winery and other scenic wedding sites. Located in Sonoma County and largely representing Sonoma venues, Milestone helps maximize partner wineries’ event revenue and wine sales by booking the right groups at the right time, managing all aspects of the affair, assuring partner sites remain good neighbors, and assuring every event experience puts the winery and its wines in the spotlight.