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Monday, September 14, 2009, 3:40 am

Seeing an uptick, tourism officials look forward

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    Sonoma County bureau moving; sets long-term plan

    Tourists and wine from the recent Sonoma County Wine Country Weekend.

    Tourists and wine from the recent Sonoma County Wine Country Weekend.

    SONOMA COUNTY – As tourism statistics indicate the sector is on the rise, the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau will commence its first, three-year strategic plan, including more tech marketing, a larger home office and additional satellite locations on the East Coast and abroad.

    Following a somewhat sluggish summer as the recession took hold, recent Sonoma County hospitality rates show a rebound, reflected in an increase in occupancy by half a percent between July 2008 and July 2009 — the first positive shift of the year. According the most recent Smith Travel Research report, occupancy rates hit 72.9 percent in July compared with Napa, where rates fell by 9 percent to 63.7 percent. Napa officials recently were more upbeat, seeing a return of more visitors.

    SoWineCntry2The bureau responsible for marketing Sonoma County tourism at the same time decided on a comprehensive business plan for the next three years.

    In the fall of 2008, the Board of Supervisors guaranteed funding to the group for more than one year for the first time, allowing the bureau and its vintner and wine grape partners to prepare a multi-year strategic plan. Among the efforts, the three bodies will make the move to a larger office in November once their lease expires late next month.

    “We have enjoyed our current location and wanted to stay here, but with the three organizations growing so fast we just needed more space than was available,” said bureau President and Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Fischang.

    The group will move from the 7,000-square-foot space it subleases from Gallo at 420 Aviation Blvd. to a 10,000-square-foot office about a mile away at 3637 Westwind Blvd. The additional square footage will allow for future staff additions, including a Southwest United States-focused salesperson, and a larger meeting room that can accommodate all of the groups’ boards.

    “The three-way partnership has been hugely successful in advancing Sonoma County as a destination and really putting us at the forefront as a wine region,” said Sonoma County Vintners Executive Director Honore Comfort.

    “We still have the freedom to pursue our own initiatives and strategies, but we are able to accomplish things that just wouldn’t have even been an option before.”

    Also as part of the three-year plan, the bureau hopes to add an East Coast office and European office, depending on when the economy settles. Currently the group has satellite locations in Sacramento, Houston and Chicago.

    Mr. Fischang said chief among changes in marketing for 2010 compared with this year will be an increased focus on alternative forms of advertising, including with social media and other Internet-based services, and a text messaging promo campaign.

    Last year and this year, the bureau launched and expanded its Twitter, Facebook and YouTube channel as well as developed a mobile phone version of its site and created other interactive, multimedia promotions.

    “The tech-based campaigns have been really successful for us, and one of their best aspects is that you can more directly track their effectiveness than say an ad in a magazine or radio commercial. It’s a better return on investment,” Mr. Fischang said.

    He said, for example, a campaign that asked people to send a text message for hotel promotions in Santa Rosa accounted for 60 percent of the room nights sold for a recent 25th anniversary for the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country. The bureau purchases displays in Bay Area transit stations and the San Francisco International Airport asking observers to text a certain number for hotel and wine promotions, which change every Thursday. Last week, texters were offered 26 percent off mid-week nights at the Farmhouse Inn, plus a free third night, wine tasting and breakfast.

    At the same time, the Sonoma County Vintners and Winegrape Commission are pursuing efforts to increase collaboration with the local American Viticulture Area groups.

    “We have a long history of each group working independently, partially due to the distinctiveness of each region, but we all kind of felt it would be to our advantage to work together, unify our message and better leverage marketing efforts,” said Sonoma County Winegrape Commission President Nick Frey.

    “Because we do have such a diverse climate, we wanted to make sure we weren’t sending the message: Jack of all trades, master of none.”

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