Sunset Savor the Central Coast organizers cancel food and wine festival

Morgan Ward, a volunteer for the Apple Farm Restaurant and Bakery in San Luis Obispo, adds a caprese salad made with heirloom tomatoes to the plate held by Melanie Cole of Merced at Savor the Central Coast on Sept. 27, 2014.
Morgan Ward, a volunteer for the Apple Farm Restaurant and Bakery in San Luis Obispo, adds a caprese salad made with heirloom tomatoes to the plate held by Melanie Cole of Merced at Savor the Central Coast on Sept. 27, 2014. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Sunset Savor the Central Coast, the four-day food, wine and lifestyle festival whose economic impact has pumped millions of dollars into the San Luis Obispo County economy the past six years, will not return this September.

Rather, organizers are looking to reshape the annual event — possibly as a traveling attraction at food and wine festivals across the region, according to Chuck Davison, president and CEO of Visit San Luis Obispo County, a tourism marketing agency.

“We’re extremely excited about the (new) direction of Savor,” Davison said Thursday. “We think this can really add value to the tourism experience we’re trying to create in San Luis Obispo County.”

On Tuesday, the Visit San Luis Obispo County board of directors voted to put Savor on hold. It was scheduled to take place Sept. 22 through 25 at venues including Santa Margarita Ranch.

The board reached its decision after two key partners bowed out. Sunset magazine, which had sponsored Savor the Central Coast since its inception in 2010, put its partnership with Visit San Luis Obispo County on hold, and San Diego event marketing firm Fast Forward Event Productions, which came aboard as a partial owner last year, ended its contract with the group.

“While the county and our group see a lot of value to the event, we decided to pull back and regroup and look at other options with (Savor),” said board chair Jay Jamison, CEO and general manager of Pismo Coast Village RV Resort in Pismo Beach.

After five years in the red, Sunset Savor the Central Coast turned a profit of $12,116 in 2015, according to a report by San Luis Obispo firm Productive Impact. That’s compared to a shortfall of $76,186 in 2014.

“The event consistently had lost money,” said Davison, who was hired as Visit San Luis Obispo County CEO in May 2015. “One of the board’s directions to us was to get the event into profitability.”

Last year, Savor generated an economic impact of $3.47 million in the county, the firm said, down from $4.48 million in 2014. That 2015 figure includes an estimated $1.91 million spent to prepare and operate the event and $1.16 million spent by attendees on lodging, food and other expenses.

Savor attracted 5,063 unique visitors last year, which is believed to be higher than the year before. A specific comparison isn’t available because visitors were counted differently in past years, Davison said, noting that organizers used to count event-goers, exhibitors, volunteers and staff as attendees too.

About 59 percent of last year’s event-goers were from San Luis Obispo County, while just under 41 percent hailed from Southern California, Northern California and 24 other states. In 2014, county residents made up 64 percent of attendees, while out-of-area visitors constituted 36 percent.

$3.47 million Economic impact generated by Savor in 2015.

$4.48 million Economic impact generated by Savor in 2014.

“This (past) year we made some major headway,” Davison said, calling the 2015 festival “a big win for us.”

But organizers are now facing a fresh set of challenges.

Davison said Sunset is “taking a year off” from Savor sponsorship in light of a major restructuring. Last year, the magazine welcomed a new editor-in-chief and moved from its iconic offices in Menlo Park to new headquarters in Oakland.

“They’re interested in a future partnership, but they will not be involved this year,” Davison said of Sunset.

Visit San Luis Obispo County and Fast Forward Events Productions parted ways in mid-December for financial reasons, Davison said.

Under the terms of Fast Forward Event Productions’ agreement with Visit San Luis Obispo County, the San Diego firm originally planned to increase its ownership stake in Savor until it owned the event in its entirety in 2018. At that point, Visit San Luis Obispo County would have licensed the Savor name and other assets to the firm in exchange for 10 percent of the profits.

Instead, the partnership lasted for less than a year.

“We were very excited to be able to bring the event from a deficit of $100,000 to profitability this year,” said Michelle Metter, one of two partners at Fast Forward Event Productions. But, she added, “We did not see that it would be able to sustain the (fiscal) growth that we would be looking at in terms of our investment.”

According to Jamison, Visit San Luis Obispo would not produce Savor in its current format on its own.

“We’re not in the event-running business. We have other priorities,” Jamison said, specifically marketing and branding San Luis Obispo County.

That’s why the tourism marketing group is looking at new ways to promote the Savor brand.

“Our marketing committee’s recommendation is to really take Savor on the road into other markets in California as well as Phoenix and Las Vegas,” Davison said, in hopes of luring visitors to the Central Coast.

For example, Davison said, Visit San Luis Obispo County might set up a booth at the San Diego Bay Food and Wine Festival featuring local chefs, breweries and wineries. “The consumer is tasting the experience they could have in SLO County,” he explained.

The move, he added, would extend Savor’s reach “from a few thousand to tens of thousands.”

In addition, Davison said his group could eventually bring Savor back to San Luis Obispo County in a different form.

“The board did not close the possibility (of) a multi-day event in the county if the right partner comes along,” he said, adding that one promoter has already presented such a proposal to Visit San Luis Obispo County. He declined to elaborate.