In the first days of Travis Stanley’s new job in 2014 as president and CEO of the Napa Chamber of Commerce, an earthquake rocked the heart of the country’s most established wine region in Northern California. Uncertain what to do, Stanley drove downtown to see the damage.
Amid the broken glass and destruction from the 6.0-magnitude quake, Stanley encountered Rick Zaslove, owner of Eiko’s Seafood Market & Sushi Bar, who was inside his business trying to force open a storage door that was stuck behind fallen products.
“The restaurant was a mess,” Zaslove said. “Stuff everywhere. And then this guy shows up.” After Stanley introduced himself and they spoke for a bit, he helped remove the debris.
“Right then, I knew he was different,” Zaslove said. “I hadn’t been a part of the chamber. But after that, I joined. And I registered my other businesses, too. Travis did that. I feel like he’s a part of our world and business.”
Stanley stands out among Napa Chamber of Commerce leaders. He’s a Black man in Napa County, where the population is less than 3 percent Black. Beyond that, Stanley, a former public relations executive for three NBA teams, has led the city’s businesses through four major crises: the earthquake six years ago, the 2017 wildfires, the fires this year that were recently contained and the coronavirus, which shut down its industry. And business leaders and chamber members say he’s done it all with a hands-on, forward-thinking and inclusive approach.
“I’ve been trusted to guide an institution that’s been an integral part of the Napa Valley community fabric for more than 136 years,” Stanley said. “It’s not a small responsibility. But I know supporting our business community is vital. The results of my actions basically reaffirmed a long-standing personal belief, which is that helping others is the way we help ourselves.”
Stanley, 59, said his approach is simple: engage, connect and collaborate.
“The biggest key to that communication is our ability to listen,” he said. “Everyone’s busy having a voice and sharing opinions on social media. That empowerment has completely removed our willingness to engage in meaningful, constructive human dialog to reach common ground. Without that engagement, there can be no connection or collaboration.”
Stanley credits his Michigan roots for his community-oriented work ethic. He and his wife, Irene, met in San Francisco and raised their family in Oakland, but he said living in Napa opened their eyes up to the opportunities for a community-oriented lifestyle.
When Covid-19 hit, Stanley quickly went into action for his community. He led the formation of the Countywide Business Advisory Group, which brought together business leaders with public health figures, government officials and community stakeholders to develop a thorough plan to safely reopen businesses in a place that relies heavily on visitors who patronize its restaurants, vineyards and hotels.
Stanley’s role of empowering business owners helped Napa County reopen for business during the pandemic. When the advisory group met with state health officials, it could effectively share ideas to resume business safely, instead of wait for a plan from agencies that did not have personal stakes in their enterprises. The state government appreciated the collaboration, Stanley said.
Other chamber representatives throughout the Bay Area contacted him for advice about how Napa developed its advisory board, he said.
“Through it all, Travis has kept us together,” said Napa Chamber board member Ken Frank, the executive chef at La Toque restaurant. “He put the chamber out front as the lead, and his direction prevented businesses from collapsing. He maneuvered the chamber into a trusted source for businesses and local government.”
As small businesses across the country face closures, Stanley hosted a socially distant, mask-wearing ribbon-cutting event in October for eight new women-owned businesses that opened in downtown Napa, a monumental feat as the pandemic continues to crush many economies.
Christi Coors Ficeli, CEO of Goosecross Cellars, purchased her winery the same year Stanley took over the chamber. She said his connection to her eased her transition into a new business.
“His support was so important,” Coors Ficeli said. “And he’s so engaging that it’s hard to say ‘no’ to Travis. He will do anything to help. He’s always looking to connect you with others who can enhance what you’re doing. And the way he jumped in during the pandemic was crucial. He said, ‘We’ve got to save these businesses.’ He built the protocols for safely reopening. He had us do public service announcements … for free.
“The Napa Chamber now has a face, and it’s Travis.”
There are not many faces like Stanley’s in Napa. The lack of diversity is glaring, but there are some African American mainstays among the city’s 79,000 residents. The police chief, Robert Plummer, is the first Black person to hold that position. DLynn Proctor, one of the world’s few master sommeliers, is the director at the exclusive Fantesca Estate and Winery. Kelly E. Carter, a former sportswriter who knew Stanley from her days covering the Los Angeles Lakers, is the communications director for Alpha Omega Winery. And impressionist artist Jermaine Burse doubles as a private tasting host at John Anthony Vineyards.
“I grew up in this town,” Napa Chamber Vice President Kevin Teague said. “I know it completely lacks diversity.” Stanley’s tenure as president is “a statement of who we are and whom we want to be as a chamber.” He added: “Napa used to be disgruntled blue-collar workers and high-end wine. And now we’re making it more diverse. I like the new Napa more. And Travis is a big part of that.”
Proctor, who was featured in the 2012 documentary “Somm,” said he has noticed a change in the feel of Napa since Stanley’s arrival.
“And it’s because Travis comes with global, worldly experience,” said Proctor, who has lived in Napa Valley for 10 years. “The NBA is a global game, and that exposure gives him a lens that is not like anyone else in his position. And he’s brought those ideas and engagement to Napa and made it more fun, but also a more diverse place. I see it in the tasting rooms, at Whole Foods, at retail shops. There is a shift in diversity happening in Napa Valley, and much of it can be attributed to Travis and the chamber taking a dynamic approach to make it more welcoming.”
An ancillary benefit of living in Napa for Stanley has been his ability to satisfy his appetite for delicious wine. He said that in two years he devoured his vast collection of vino, but that he and Irene, who have two children, grew their own grapes on the 2½ acres behind their home. Their yet-unnamed wine, managed by acclaimed winemaker Mario Bazán, is in the tanks at Eleven Eleven Winery and scheduled for release in about 18 months.
“It’s a family collaboration that reflects our 17-year journey as husband and wife,” Stanley said.
In the meantime, the work at the chamber continues — in a fashion that is uniquely his.
“I’ll never allow a job to define who I am,” Stanley said. “I came to understand what my grandfather would tell me: ‘No one can be you better than you.’ My daily goal is to make every effort to present the best version of myself. I live — and work — by that.”