Getting to Know: Brandon Darnell

It’s the job of Brandon Darnell, director of content at Visit Sacramento, to know the most intriguing restaurants and upcoming events in Sacramento. But that doesn’t mean he can pick his favorites, at least not publicly. “If I told you, I’d probably have about 20 emails to answer,” he laughs when asked about his favorite restaurant in town. Striking a measured balance and taking care to represent the city’s many diverse offerings—from restaurants to hikes to little-known treasures—is part of telling Sacramento’s distinctive stories to potential visitors.

The storytelling was always in Darnell’s sights. Before content became the new media juggernaut it is today, the writer made his way into mainstream journalism. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Sacramento State, he wrote for Gold Country Media in Lincoln and was one of the first hires for the independent publication Sacramento Press. He then moved on to destination marketing organization Visit Sacramento, where he spent nine years building its content marketing program before becoming director of the department last year. Darnell shapes the brand for Visit Sacramento’s web content, audio-visual release, podcast, visitor guide and more.

“The transition from journalism to content creation was actually not that difficult,” he says, “because it’s something very similar. …Creating compelling content has always been the challenge of journalism. And that’s always the challenge with what I’m doing now.

Visit Sacramento’s headquarters is located in the heart of Midtown on I Street.

Another less elective transition Darnell underwent was going from the status quo to promoting a travel destination during a global pandemic. Providing accurate information and inspired content about the capital has always been the job, but the stakes have become dramatically higher in 2020, especially at the start of the pandemic when uncertainty became the norm and public health the priority.

“I probably wrote three different full marketing plans that never saw the light of day because different variations came out,” says Darnell, explaining their tendency to become useless once it was time to implement them. “There was a lot of stuff to create, then put it aside and hope it would work, then finally put it in mothballs.”

As the tourist board took a break from marketing to visitors, Darnell and his team turned to their secondary audience – its residents. Many locals didn’t need much convincing to know what was special about Sacramento, but what about all the other unknowns during the pandemic? Visit the Sacramento Instagram and Blog has become a resource for up-to-date information on restaurant safety protocols, special hours and takeout offers.

Now Darnell is back on the move and returning to his own passion for travel as he prepares for his destination wedding in Iceland at the end of June. He’s also focused on promoting Visit Sacramento’s upcoming Farm-to-Fork Festival, hosting his weekly podcast, and promoting the Northern California town as his own worthy destination. “It’s not just about saying, oh, we’re halfway between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. Definitely worth the stop alone.

What initially attracted me to the tourism and travel industry, and how it changed:

I’ve been here (at Visit Sacramento) for almost 10 years. What initially attracted me was that I really loved traveling, I love the whole travel industry. I wanted to stay in Sacramento, however, and working in the tourism industry and the visitor industry here in Sacramento was actually a really good opportunity because I can interact with people visiting and I can promote Sacramento, my city home, as a tourist destination, as well as showing locals that it’s a good place to live.

Supporting the business and hospitality community throughout the pandemic:

The last place I ate before everything closed was at Vere’s Irish Pub with some of my colleagues. We were talking to the owner, Henry de Vere, and he was talking about all they do to make people feel safe and keep the restaurant very clean. I thought a lot of people might want this information.

So I came back, wrote a blog post about it, and we kept adding more throughout the first phase of the pandemic. And that eventually accounted for almost 50% of our web traffic over the next year 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 residents.

Darnell works directly with seven team members in the Marketing and Communications department, which is part of the 25-person organization.

The best part of the concert:

My favorite part of my job is really promoting Sacramento. It’s not the first destination people think of if they’re out of town when they hear the word California. But I think it’s a great place to come, and it’s fun to promote that. This is authentic California. It’s where we live, where we do things a little differently. And it’s a really welcoming destination. It offers 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 this is a lot of fun.

The challenge of promoting a destination in times of pandemic:

The biggest challenge the organization faced was that most of our funding came from hotel stays. So when people stopped traveling, our funding basically dried up overnight. Unfortunately, we lost about half of our staff. It was also a personal challenge. They were good workers, we had a good team. The challenge was figuring out what Sacramento needed to do to continue to be a viable organization, and talking to locals was part of that.

But also as things progressed it was how to bring travelers back once it was safe, and kind of gauge the appetite for what we could promote ethically so that we were still doing our job to bring business to the city, but not be irresponsible and tell people to travel in the middle of a pandemic. So the biggest challenge is probably just fewer employees trying to navigate something none of us have seen before.

The projects I am most proud of:

I think the podcast is the one I’m most proud of. I really appreciate the visitor’s guide (which Visit Sacramento produces in cooperation with Sacramento Magazine), it’s a way to use my training as a journalist with my passion for travel. So it’s always fun too, to write and work on. …

There was also a video in which our CEO (Mike Testa) talked about the hope on the horizon. We went back and forth on the script for this and made sure we hit the right note to let people know what we were doing not necessarily talking about us, but about the state of the hospitality industry. …

Every time you post a great video project, you walk around the office waiting to see what the first social media comments and emails are that you’re going to receive. In fact, it was almost universally acclaimed, which was really nice to see: our industry peers continued to see us as a leader for the hospitality industry.

What makes Sacramento special:

You feel like the people here are just good, honest people. It’s a great diversity. It’s a place where 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 you want to go to the latest concert at the Golden 1 Center, or if you’re just in town for a convention, or if you’re someone who lives here and likes to ride a bike on the bike path or just go s’ sit in a cafe and work there, there are a lot of different things you can do here. You’ll always find where you stand, which is pretty cool.

My ideal window to do the job:

Honestly, the most productive time I get to do my job is – and this is the dumbest thing – probably between 2 and 4 on a Friday. I think by then people are done talking about things, a lot of people are going away for the weekend, and it’s a really nice two to three hour period where I can really do everything else which I needed to catch up on for the week.

Edited for length and clarity.

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