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Study finds 18.6 percent revenue gain in January; ‘upswing in spending’

SONOMA COUNTY – A steady increase in occupancy rates and revenue should have Sonoma County tourism returning to pre-2008 levels by the start of the second quarter, seemingly putting an end to a prolonged downturn, according to the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau.

In addition to announcing improved year-over-year results at its annual breakfast earlier this month, the bureau cited a report by Smith Travel Research that said 2011 is already off to a strong start.

Revenues are up 18.6 percent over the year and Sonoma County is number one in its competitive set, which includes Napa, Monterey, Lake Tahoe and Palm Springs, according to the report.

“The trend we really like to see is what happened in January,” said Kenneth Fischang, chief executive officer of the tourism bureau. Mr. Fischang noted that the 18 percent increase in year-over-year revenues was virtually the same increase that Horizon Air reported for its Santa Rosa traffic in January.

“It’s interesting. It’s been fairly consistent with what we’ve seen in increases in room revenue,” Mr. Fischang said.

Hotel stays were up 7 percent from 2009, the bureau said in early February, before the Smith Travel report.

Revenue per available room was up 17.9 percent overall, according the report, and average daily rates in Sonoma County were up 2.5 percent and 3.2 percent for full service – an indication that hotels didn’t have to lower rates to lure visitors, Mr. Fischang said.

“January is a pretty slow month for us, and we’re delighted to see those numbers,” Mr. Fischang said.

Aggressive marketing and increased staffing – particularly during the recession – has Sonoma County well positioned as the economy slowly rebounds, said Tim Zahner, the tourism bureau’s director of marketing.

“We’re seeing an improvement on a macro trend,” Mr. Zahner said. “We’re seeing an upswing in spending. From the numbers, we can see that people are spending more for hotels and meals. That’s good news. The trend is that business is returning.”

“What will follow is investment and new products,” he added.

Rather than scale back during the recession – like most tourism efforts – Mr. Fischang said Sonoma County added a staff position to oversee the Southwest region. Now, he said, Sonoma County is seeing the stepped-up efforts pay off.

“We added staff and trade show, so we’ve been out there in front of the planners and they remember us,” Mr. Fischang said, noting that weddings continue to be a strong tourist attraction to the county. “Those destinations that stayed in front of the planner benefited.”

A strong presence on the web, as well as the increasingly more important mobile applications, has also helped the county remain visible in a large variety of outlets, Mr. Zahner said.

“Travelers are using information from their phones to interact with locations,” Mr. Zahner said, particularly with sites like Gowalla and Four Square, which allow users to “check-in” publicly to places they visit. Facebook recently launched “Places,” where users can do the same thing.

The tourism bureau maintains a presence on such social networking sites, as well as on Youtube,Twitter , iPhone and Android applications and its blog, inside-sonoma.com.

“As much as can, we want to leverage what’s out there,” Mr. Zahner said.

The bureau also continues to do well in attracting international travelers, who stay longer and thus spend more money, Mr. Zahner said.

The Tourism Bureau also recently rolled out its “Visitor’s Chronicle,” essentially a collection of the array of events happening around the county, from Petaluma to Glen Ellen. The list is distributed to hotel staff, tasting rooms and other tourism and hospitality staff.

“We know people won’t come fully to us for information, but just like we’ve targeted travel writers, we can create content and influence people,” Mr. Zahner said. “We can not only put tips online, we can also move people throughout the county.”

The Visitors Chronicle is a monthly digest of what's happening in Sonoma County. Please forward to all tasting room, front desk, and concierge staff. To receive this e-mail directly, contact Tina Luster, tluster@sonomacounty.