Terence Concannon first discovered Santa Cruz in the 1980s when he heard the band Camper Van Beethoven on a Los Angeles radio station and drove to see them play at the Catalyst. He was immediately taken. It took a few decades, but now he’s finally made his way here to live as he takes the reins at the county’s tourism organization, after spending the past six years as president of Go Lake Havasu in Arizona.

As CEO of Visit Santa Cruz County (VSCC), a position he started in August, Concannon heads up the private, nonprofit corporation that’s focused on enhancing tourism and the local economy. The organization works closely with hotels, restaurants, retailers and others throughout the county to bring more visitors to the area and promote regional attractions. VSSC is funded through what’s called a tourism marketing district, a model used by other tourism agencies in California in which funding comes from an assessment on local hotel rooms.

Last year, tourism accounted for about 9,400 jobs in the county, with visitors spending a total of $1.6 billion on accommodations, retail sales, food service and more, according to the latest numbers from Visit California. Nationally and locally, the sector was hit hard by the travel restrictions and closures ushered in by the pandemic, but tourism and travel are quickly ramping back up. For context, pre-pandemic (2019) tourism spending in Santa Cruz County was $1.1 billion.

“I think the sense is that the travel industry is on the verge of coming back to where it was in 2019,” said Concannon. “There is a sense of optimism.”

The sense of optimism can also be seen in the amount of hotel development happening locally. In the past year or so, there have been 10 new hotel builds or renovations in the county, with more on the way.

Pre-pandemic, the efforts of VSCC and its counterparts around the state were really beginning to center more on getting visitors to go “beyond the gateways in California,” to areas outside major cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, according to Christina Glynn, the organization’s communications director. The pandemic only helped amplify that message as tourists sought out less-populated regions and places where social distancing could be done more easily.

“Smaller places like Santa Cruz County have really seen a renaissance,” she said.

Now as Concannon settles in, his top goal will be increasing tourism to the area by promoting Santa Cruz County as a world-class destination for outdoor adventure, arts and culture.

On the marketing front, one of the biggest changes is a shift in which markets VSCC is focusing on the most.

That will include more efforts to bring in international tourists. While the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and Australia have been the biggest focus for international marketing efforts, that’s shifting. In fact, Mexico is now the third-largest international market for tourism in California, according to Glynn. Other emerging markets for VSSC and its regional counterparts are Brazil and the Netherlands. At the domestic level, the Midwest and the East Coast are also increasingly targeted regions.

To help these efforts, a new international digital campaign will kick off Dec. 15, and the organization is working to translate many of its more heavily trafficked webpages. That includes Spanish-language ads to be run in Mexico. Glynn is also headed to Mexico this month with several of her counterparts from around the state as part of a Visit California trip to meet with media outlets there. Her colleague took a similar trip in the spring.

Terence Concannon, the new CEO of Visit Santa Cruz County.
Terence Concannon, the new CEO of Visit Santa Cruz County. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“We’re only planting seeds at this point, but we’re seeing some sprouts growing,” said Concannon. “I would suggest that within the next three or four years, you’re going to see some real ramp-up in our international visitation.”

VSCC is also pushing to promote the county as a location for meetings and conferences, especially during what’s known as the shoulder season (between Labor Day and Memorial Day), when recreational tourism typically tapers off. While Santa Cruz County’s lack of a real convention center has inhibited some of these efforts, Glynn and Concannon say the area’s smaller size and available space for outdoor meetings is a real opportunity, especially as larger cities in the U.S. still struggle to return to pre-pandemic conference schedules. That includes team-building events and niche conferences across sectors.

Also on Concannon’s agenda is making more efforts to encourage travel to other areas of the county, especially South County. In Watsonville, for instance, one of leaders’ big concerns is around needing to build more hotels in the area. That’s something Concannon says he will champion in any way he can, be it through marketing outreach or other resources.

While new developments like hotels will be key to growing the tourism industry, Concannon said he’s also very conscious about the need to do it in a smart and well-thought-out way that doesn’t negatively affect residents and minimizes environmental impacts as much as possible.

“Even though it’s our job to manage this destination for the people coming from outside the county to come and spend their money, our No. 1 customer at the end of the day is the residents and business owners of this county,” he said. “Everything that we do and hope to do, we hope will have a positive impact on their bottom line and on the residents’ quality of life.”

It’s the residents that contribute greatly to making Santa Cruz County a place people want to come to, not just the natural beauty and other attractions, according to Concannon.

“The city and county are known for being very welcoming and I want to make sure that perception remains; I want that to be cemented in people’s minds,” he said. “When people think of Santa Cruz County, I want them to think that they will be accepted, that they will be seen and that we will all be present for whatever it is they choose to bring to this county.”

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Jessica M. Pasko has been writing professionally for almost two decades.She cut her teeth in journalism as a reporter for the Associated Press in her native Albany, NY, where she covered everything from...