It’s the job of Brandon Darnell, director of content at Visit Sacramento, to know about the most intriguing restaurants and upcoming events going on in Sacramento. But that doesn’t mean he can pick favorites, at least not publicly. “If I were to tell you, I’d probably have about 20 emails to answer to,” he chuckles when asked about his favorite restaurant in town. Striking a measured balance and taking care to represent the city’s many diverse offerings — from eateries to hikes to little-known treasures — is part of telling prospective visitors Sacramento’s distinctive stories.
Storytelling was always in Darnell’s sights. Before content became the new media juggernaut it is today, the writer made his way in traditional journalism. After graduating from Sacramento State with a BA in journalism, he wrote for Gold Country Media in Lincoln and was one of the early hires for the independent publication Sacramento Press. He then shifted to the destination marketing organization Visit Sacramento, where he spent nine years building his content marketing program before becoming the department’s director last year. Darnell shapes the brand for Visit Sacramento’s web content, audio-visual output, podcast, Visitors Guide and more.
“The transition from journalism to content creation actually wasn’t so hard,” he says, “because it’s a very similar thing. … Creating compelling content was always the challenge in journalism. And it’s still the challenge with what I’m doing now.”
Another, less elective transition Darnell underwent was shifting from business-as-usual to promoting a travel destination during a global pandemic. Providing accurate information and inspired content about the capital city had always been the gig, but the stakes became substantially higher in 2020, especially at the initial outset of the pandemic when uncertainty became the norm and public health the priority.
“I probably drafted three different complete marketing plans that never ended up seeing the light of day because different variants came out,” Darnell says, explaining their tendency to become irrelevant once it was time to implement them. “There was a lot of create a whole bunch of things, and then just basically sideline it and hope it would work out, and then just eventually just put it in mothballs.”
While the tourism bureau pressed pause on marketing to visitors, Darnell and team pivoted to speaking to its secondary audience — its residents. Many locals didn’t need much convincing when it came to knowing what was special about Sacramento, but what about all the other unknowns during the pandemic? Visit Sacramento’s Instagram and blog became a resource for up-to-the-moment information on restaurants’ safety protocols, special hours and takeout offerings.
Now, Darnell is back in the swing of things, and is returning to his own passion for travel as he gears up for his destination wedding in Iceland in late June. He’s also focused on promoting Visit Sacramento’s upcoming Farm-to-Fork Festival, hosting its weekly podcast and promoting the Northern California city as its own worthy destination. “It’s not just saying, oh, we’re halfway between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. This is definitely worth a stop on its own.”
What initially drew me to the tourism and travel industry, and how it’s changed:
I’ve been here (at Visit Sacramento) for almost 10 years. What drew me initially was, I really enjoyed traveling, I like the whole travel industry. I wanted to stay in Sacramento, though, and working in the tourism industry and the visitor industry here in Sacramento was actually a really good opportunity because I get to interact with people who are visiting and I get to promote Sacramento, my hometown, as a tourism destination, as well as kind of show locals that this is a good place to live.
Supporting the business and hospitality community throughout the pandemic:
The last place I ate before everything shut down was at de Vere’s Irish pub with some of my co-workers. We were talking to the owner, Henry de Vere, and he was talking about all the things that they were doing to make people feel safe and keep the restaurant extra clean. I thought that a lot of people might want that information.
So I came back, I wrote a blog post about it, and we kept adding to that throughout the first phase of the pandemic. And that ultimately, over the next year, accounted for almost 50 percent of our web traffic because it became such a resource that people were looking for. So it was a way for us to support the business and hospitality community as well as provide a service to the residents.
The best part of the gig:
My favorite part of my job is really just getting to promote Sacramento. It’s not the first destination that people think of if they’re outside the area when they hear the word California. But I think that it’s a great place to come, and it’s fun to kind of promote that. This is the authentic California. This is where we live, where we do things a little bit differently. And it’s a really welcoming destination. It provides its own small town feel, but it’s still a big city, and the food here is amazing. Just being able to introduce people to that is a lot of fun.
The challenge of promoting a destination during a pandemic:
The biggest challenge that the organization faced was most of our funding comes from hotel stays. So when people stopped traveling, our funding essentially dried up overnight. Unfortunately, we lost about half our staff. That also was a personal challenge. These were good workers, we had a good team. The challenge was figuring out what Sacramento needed to do to go forward to continue to be a viable organization, and speaking to locals was part of it.
But also, as things went on, it was how do we bring travelers back once that’s safe, and kind of gauging the appetite for what we could ethically promote so that we would still be doing our job to bring business to the city, but not being irresponsible and telling people to travel in the middle of a pandemic. So the biggest challenge is probably just fewer staff trying to navigate something that none of us have ever seen before.
The projects I’m most proud of:
I think the podcast is one that I’m most proud of. I really enjoy the Visitor’s Guide (which Visit Sacramento produces in cooperation with Sacramento Magazine), it’s a way to use my journalism background with my passion for travel. So that’s always a fun one too, to write for and to work on. …
There was also a video that featured our CEO (Mike Testa) talking about hope on the horizon. We went back and forth on the script for this and making sure that we were hitting the right note to let people know what we’re doing without making it necessarily about us, but about the state of the hospitality industry. …
Whenever you release a large video project, you kind of pace around the office waiting to see what the first comments in social media come in and the emails you’re gonna get. There was actually almost universal acclaim to that, which was really nice to see: our industry peers continuing to see us as providing a leadership role for the hospitality industry.
What makes Sacramento special:
You get the sense that the people who are here are just good, honest, people. It’s a nice diversity. It’s a place that you can come here and you can definitely be yourself and you can find your people here. I really like that about Sacramento. Because if whether you want to go to the newest concert event at the Golden 1 Center, or you’re just in town for convention, or you’re someone who lives here and likes to ride your bike on the bike trail or just go sit at a coffee shop and work there, there’s a lot of different things you can do here. You’ll always find the place where you fit in, which is pretty cool.
My ideal window for getting work done:
Honestly, the most productive I am to get my work done is — and this is the dumbest thing — probably between 2 and 4 pm on a Friday. I think at that point, people are done reaching out about stuff, a lot of people are checking out for the weekend, and that’s really a nice two to three hour period where I can just really get everything else done that I needed to catch up on for the week.
Edited for length and clarity.
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