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Sonoma County sees opportunity in growing demand for 'agritourism'Tourism and hospitality industry representatives gathered in early May to discuss recent travel trends and how they affect Sonoma County, with a heightened focus on social media, evolving county demographics and "agritourism."

The Sonoma County Tourism Bureau held its annual forum on travel trends at the Mary Agatha Furth Center in Windsor, as part of a national marketing campaign that highlights the industry. Tourism generates $1.8 trillion in economic output nationally and $1.2 billion in Sonoma County.

Among important trends that Sonoma County tourism businesses should be aware of is the aging and diversification of the population, according to the Tourism Bureau.

“Sonoma County is becoming more ‘brown’ and ‘gray,’” said Tim Zahner, the bureau’s director of marketing and public affairs. “This is crude shorthand to say our population is becoming more diverse ethnically. Also, we’re aging. This mirrors what’s happening in California, as well as the U.S.”

So what does that mean for the tourism industry?

“Boomers are optimistic about travel in the next year, but younger travelers are the ones itching to open their wallets,” said David Bratton, a tourism economist with Destination Analysts, a San Francisco-based market research firm that tracks the industry. “This group, the 'post-boomers,' are also the most likely to perceive themselves as being too busy to travel.”

While that demographic may be busy, reaching them is made easier by the fast-moving world of social media, which post-boomers increasingly rely upon.

“How do we, as marketers, adapt to the user-generated content?" Mr. Zahner asked. "This fast-paced, ever-changing landscape means we have to be nimble to stay ahead of the next wave of technology.”

Troy Thompson, a travel technology consultant with Travel2.0, a tourism consulting group, said social media can help reach key audiences if used properly.

“In today’s environment, you need to focus on the ‘social,’ not the ‘media,’” he said. “You can use these tools to seed a relationship, not sell something to someone. Relationships matter. After viewing a social site, 40 percent of travelers change at least one element of their trip.”

In addition to being more adept at leveraging the power of social media, travelers are also increasingly more curious about some of the fine points of service, according to Mr. Zahner.

“Consumers have gone from ‘does that restaurant serve delicious food’ to ‘who grew this food,’" he said. "Travelers want to see beyond the plate, past the kitchen, and into the field.”

Enter “agritourism,” which allows travelers to experience the farm and its fruits for themselves. Such tourism has recently seen a revival and is increasingly being explored by farmers across the region, from Marin to Del Norte, according to Ellie Rilla, director of the University of California Cooperative Extension.

“Any income-generating activity conducted on a working farm or ranch for the enjoyment and education of visitors is agritourism,” she said. “This gives farmers and providers opportunities to work with tourism entities to provide an authentic experience for travelers.”

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Submit items for this column to Dan Verel at dverel@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4257 or fax 707-521-5292.