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Wednesday, February 6, 2013, 11:34 am

Experts say Sonoma County tourism ‘has rebounded’

Hotel occupancy up 6.2%; room rates rose 3.6%

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    ROHNERT PARK — Tourism in Sonoma County continues to rebound at an encouraging pace, with revenue and hotel occupancy rates besting those of the previous two years, experts said Wednesday at an annual meeting on local tourism.

    Tim McGregor, Tom Klein and Ken Fischang at Sonoma County Tourism annual meeting, Feb. 6, 2013

    (from left) Tim McGregor, Sonoma County Tourism board chairman and general manager of Bodega Bay Lodge; Tom Klein, owner of Rodney Strong Vineyards; and Ken Fischang, the tourism group’s president and CEO. Mr. Klein won the Sonoma County Tourism Champion award for his work to get Sonoma County moved to the San Francisco Bay Area region on Visit California’s tourism directory. (photo credit: Tina Luster)

    For the fiscal year ended in September, hotel occupancy increased 6.2 percent, while the average daily room rate rose 3.6 percent, according to Sonoma County Tourism. The county’s official tourism booster presented last year’s results and laid out goals for 2013 at its annual meeting, held at the Doubletree hotel in Rohnert Park.

    “Sonoma County’s hospitality industry really made strides in 2012,” said Ken Fischang, president and chief executive officer of Sonoma County Tourism.

    By the end of last December, revenue per available room at Sonoma County hotels was $78.43, a 10 percent increase over 2011, according to Smith Travel Research.

    Mr. Fischang and other tourism representatives pointed to findings from a recent San Francisco State University study that found Sonoma County’s business improvement area, or BIA, brought in more than $209 million in destination spending through sales and marketing efforts.

    Since 2010, overall revenue for the tourism organization has climbed steadily, from just under $4 million in 2010 to nearly $5.3 million projected for 2013. Revenues come from two key sources — the BIA, which is a 2 percent assessment on hotel rooms, and the county’s transient occupancy tax. Nearly 60 percent of revenue comes from the BIA, and the remainder is largely from TOT.

    “The industry has rebounded,” said David Scott, general manger of the Sheraton Sonoma County hotel in Petaluma, noting that 2008 and 2009 were especially difficult years for the tourism industry. “The numbers are good.”

    David Rabbitt speaks at Sonoma County Tourism annual meeting, Feb. 6, 2013

    David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, says tourism is a $1.34 billion industry in the county. (photo credit: Tina Luster)

    David Rabbit, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, applauded the tourism industry in general.

    “Tourism and hospitality was the basis and the backbone of our recovery,” he said, adding that in industry generates $80 million in taxes collected. “Tourism led the way, and it’s one of the largest industries in our county.”

    It’s estimated that some 17,000 people work in the $1.3 billion industry, according to tourism officials. The county draws roughly 7.5 million visitors each year.

    The county also saw its share of sales leads increase by 23 percent, leading to a potential economic impact of $21.5 million, according to Sonoma County Tourism. There has been strong growth in weddings, small groups and international markets.

    The BIA, in particular, has been strong. According to the San Francisco State study, for every $1 invested in tourism promotion by Sonoma County Tourism, more than $85 was collected — 35 percent higher than the statewide BIA average of $63 returned for every dollar.

    The county’s BIA also helped with additional tax revenue, the study found. Per dollar invested in tourism, $1.90 went to county government coffers, versus $1.40 statewide.

    Lodging owners and other tourism businesses view 2013 as a year for further growth. Eighty-five percent of respondents in the county’s Annual Tourism Survey said they are either “somewhat optimistic” or “optimistic” about their businesses in the coming year.

    As the industry looks to the coming year, Sonoma County Tourism is undertaking a number of initiatives to maintain the momentum, particularly because tourism is a key factor for the county’s job growth outpacing all but Bismarck, N.D., according to a recent, highly touted report by UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.

    Key among such efforts is a revamped tourism portal website SonomaCounty.com. It was rebuilt on a “responsive design” platform — it adapts itself to any device, be it mobile, tablet or desktop computer — and integrates the tourism organization’s blog, inside-sonoma.com. Previously, the website for each device was different and more disparate.

    “It’s device-agnostic,” said Tim Zahner, director of marketing for Sonoma County Tourism.

    Another initiative is to continue working with Visit California, the state’s official tourism booster formerly known as the California Travel and Tourism Commission. It recently helped Sonoma County be moved from the North Coast tourism region to the greater Bay Area region. Now when prospective travelers search Visit California’s website, Sonoma County will be listed along with Napa Valley as a wine region in the greater Bay Area. Napa Valley previously was the lone wine region associated with the Bay Area.

    That may seem like a minor detail, but it’s the first such move in the state organization’s history and largely was at the behest of Mr. Fischang and Tom Klein, proprietor of Rodney Strong Vineyards near Healdsburg. Mr. Klein, a commissioner with Visit California, was named a “Tourism Hero” for his efforts. 

    “The two gateway cities to California are Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Mr. Klein said. “When you push those buttons, you want to be in the San Francisco Bay Area. We’ll be on about 1 million maps.”

    At the meeting Wednesday, Mr. Klein touched on the importance of another effort that began in 2012: the highly visible collaboration between Sonoma County Tourism, Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission to uniformly market the region.

    “We have the people you want,” he said, referring to the number of high-net-worth visitors to local wineries.

    Yet another focus of 2013 will involve efforts to expand the county BIA, potentially to Healdsburg and Sonoma. Both have declined, so far, to add the assessment to their lodging businesses. Absent the hotels, tourism officials began to work closely with restaurants and wineries on the BIA, and talks could begin again to include hotels.

    David Rabbitt, Michael Kennedy, Paula Higgins and David Scott at Sonoma County Tourism annual meeting, Feb. 6, 2013

    (from left) Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt; Michael Kennedy, director of county mental health services; Paula Higgins, Sonoma County Tourism associate director of sales; and David Scott, general manager of Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma; Mr. Kennedy was named the Sonoma County Meeting Idol for bringing the California Institute for Mental Health meeting to the county, boosting the economy by more than $160,000. (photo credit: Tina Luster)

    Other efforts in 2013 include the “Sonoma Sneak Away” campaign, which is aimed at attracting during the tourism off-season in-state visitors as well as those within reach of Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport. Another is a continued emphasis on the Sonoma County Certified Tourism Ambassadors program, which aims to train front-line employees and volunteers to become experts on the area and help visitor experience.The program has certified more than 300 participants, with 100-plus more enrolled in upcoming classes. 

    Tim McGregor, general manager of the Bodega Bay Lodge and chairman of Sonoma County Tourism’s board of directors, said the past year has indeed been much better for the lodging business.

    “The turnaround for our industry has been good,” he said. “And I think it’s countywide. I was very happy with the return of business over the year.”

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