Since the defunding and disbanding of its homegrown visitors agency, Solvang has wrestled with who should direct its marketing efforts, ending up in turmoil in the effort to lure tourists.
In recent weeks, Solvang lost another marketing firm after The Abbi Agency faced strong questioning about performance and payments. Additionally, Cheryl Shallanberger, the city’s marketing and events manager, has resigned months after her hiring.
It’s just the latest bout of drama since the 2019 end of the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau amid questions about management and the spending of the city’s funds.
The City Council’s request to discuss the path ahead and a possible joint meeting with the Tourism Advisory Committee also sparked debate.
At the March 27, Mayor Mark Infanti and Councilman Robert Clarke suggested suspending the volunteer TAC.
“We shouldn’t suspend the TAC. We clearly need expertise that we don’t have on staff,” Councilwoman Elizabeth Orona said, adding that TAC members bring expertise and should be consulted. “It genuinely feels like we’re cutting both legs off. I genuinely don’t understand the thinking on that.”
Infanti contended that the city “made a mistake” in hiring the marketing firm before the on-staff marketing and events manager.
“We need to establish a plan that puts everything together properly before we start spending a lot of money again,” Infanti added.
On Monday, the council’s agenda includes a discussion of the TAC and the marketing and events manager position.
Tourism fuels the city’s coffers, but it’s been a rocky road to figuring out the path ahead for the small city where tax revenue from tourists provides a healthy chunk of funding to pay for parks, sidewalks, law enforcement and more.
Solvang’s bakeries, restaurants, hotels and assorted shops rely heavily on visitors spending money.
“Our city lives on tourism money, and that is a fact,” said Tracy Beard of the Solvang Chamber of Commerce and a TAC member.
During Thursday’s TAC meeting, business owner Aaron Petersen contended that businesses in town “are hurting,” noting that they have struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic followed by an especially rainy winter.
“We’re trying to right the ship. We need to move forward with advising the council on how to spend our money for tourism because that’s what we’re about,” Petersen said.
Formed in the 1980s, the SCVB, a nonprofit funded by the city, marketed Solvang as a destination for tourists and organized some events. The SCVB operated the Visitors Center, planned events such as Julefest, attracted film productions and more.
But a former council questioned the rising financial requests and management for the homegrown organization that employed up to 12 people locally.
It’s not clear if that organization could be resurrected with better oversight to again lead tourism marketing efforts.
Instead, Solvang hired of an out-of-town marketing firm, IDK, which later merged with Cogs & Marvel. Both are based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Last year, city leaders decided to try a different approach — seek a new marketing contractor but create a staff position to handle some marketing and event planning duties.
Yet another contractor, the third since 2019, was hired to operate the Visitors Center to provide information to tourists.
To help guide the marketing efforts, the council also created a Tourism Advisory Committee, which began meeting in September 2021 with a mission to make recommendations but not set policy.
Reno-based Abbi Agency’s resignation came amid questions about the firm’s performance and payments. The Feb. 15 resignation letter arrived after the Feb. 2 TAC meeting where an Abbi representative faced intense questioning about tasks required under the two-year, $600,000 contract.
Criticism about their efforts included a dearth of social media posts during Santa Ynez Valley Restaurant Week to promote Solvang eateries and earlier sharing a social media post that referred to Solvang as a Dutch-themed community.
In early March, TAC members chaffed at media reports based on the firm’s resignation letter criticizing the city.
“Unfortunately, the internal climate created by the City of Solvang’s leadership resulted in unexpectedly adversarial and combative interactions that took our team by surprise,” said Patrick Ty Whitaker, chief executive officer of The Abbi Agency.
“While many Solvang officials and business owners were an absolute delight to work with, the dysfunction and outright hostility at the highest levels of leadership within Solvang made our day-to-day efforts, and our long-term dedication to developing an integrated marketing effort for the city, unworkable.”
During the past several meetings, conflicts have erupted at TAC meetings as questions arose about Abby’s performance, the TAC’s role and audit of payments to the firm.
Two TAC members, chair Vashti Wilson and V. Louise Smith, reviewed the Abbi’s performance and payments, with a report due last week but not provided during the TAC meeting.
“As it stands, for two years, we paid $50,000 per month to a marketing company without any oversight as to what that money was spent on,” Wilson said, referring to IDK.
She added that the city spent $25,000 to $30,000 per month for six months without verification of services rendered.
“And after verifying it, we found that most of the services were actually not received,” Wilson said.
TAC members verbally tangled Thursday over temporarily hiring contractors for a few months until the city devises a longer-term approach.
Talks about hiring someone to handle public relations and social media for the next few months also sparked strong words between Wilson and TAC member Kim Jensen before Wilson’s early departure from the meeting.
As he assumed the gavel, TAC vice chair Alex Grenier, a Dunn School junior, asked his fellow members to remain united.
“If we don’t have civil discourse here, if we don’t have some level of a united front, people are going to take this and construe this as a further abdication of our responsibilities,” Grenier said. “We need to work together on this, and I don’t want a further twisted media narrative, so I just ask, let’s all remain civil and peaceful and get along and try to find the best solution for our city.”