International outreach, social media marketing, cost cutting contributed

SONOMA COUNTY — While the tourism and hospitality industry in Sonoma County took a sharp hit in 2009 amid steep economic decline, the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau announced at its annual meeting last week that the year was salvaged. It compared relatively well against some of its main competitors, and 2010 looks to be a much better year.

Hotel occupancy was down in Sonoma County in 2009 by 11.5 percent, but the bureau made extensive efforts to draw in international markets with stronger currencies to compensate for the dwindling domestic tourism, said Kenneth Fischang, president and CEO of the bureau.

Despite the tough times in California, Sonoma fared better than its rivals by accommodating multiple levels of income with close-to-home “staycations” and campgrounds, rather than just relying on high-end tourism, he said.

An aggressive marketing campaign, which included new social media outreach tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, also helped account for a significant portion of about 55 million ad impressions at a much cheaper cost than much of the traditional advertising, said Tim Zahner, director of public relations and marketing for the bureau.

An iPhone application, iVisit Sonoma County, was also introduced at the meeting. Available for free at the Apple App Store on iTunes, the application provides access to information on more than 300 wineries as well as area restaurants, spas, hotels, recreational activities, shopping and wine events.

“The social media helped tremendously,” Mr. Zahner said. “We saw it as another way to supplement traditional media, tailor it to individual needs, at a much cheaper cost.”

Added Mr. Fischang, “This year the travel industry was hit really hard. But we did something to leverage the bad economy to our advantage.”

Cost-cutting measures were undertaken by the bureau to help offset the losses, a move that kept the organization relatively solvent given the tough economy, said Jim Davidson, CFO of the bureau. The budget was reduced 15 percent in 2009, which Mr. Davidson said helped post a profit.

For 2010, the bureau said it will continue to seek out the international market, from the U.K., Australia, Germany and Japan, as well as target the LGBT community and ecological tourism.