SANTA ROSA --  The county's $1.3 billion tourism industry turned in solid growth in 2011 despite a persistent recession, with year-over-year occupancy rates up 8 percent at lodging businesses and room revenue up 10 percent,  the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau said today in its annual report.

Speaking to hoteliers, other hospitality professionals and public officials, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Shirlee Zane said the county has benefited from the growth, noting that the industry employs some 16,500 people.

"One bright revenue spot has been tourism. When visitors spend, the money is injected right away," into the local economy, she told the crowd, gathered at Santa Rosa's Hyatt Vineyard Creek. "It has immediate returns."

Total revenue for the bureau is projected to be up by more than $550,500 greater the amount budgeted in 2011, a 13 percent increase. The industry grew 15 percent over year and should grow by another 5 percent in 2012, said Kenneth Fischang, president and CEO of the tourism bureau.

Revenue reached approximately $4.35 million in 2011. A county-wide business improvement area assessment of 2 percent accounts for 62 percent of revenue, while 33 percent comes from the county transient occupancy tax. For 2012, the bureau projects revenues totaling roughly  $4.85 million.

The county attracts some 7 million visitors per year, and they spend about $1.3 billion on hotels, dining and other attractions.

The tourism bureau saw an 83 percent increase in leads over the previous year, with a potential economic impact of $23.5 million, according to Mark Crabb, director of sales. Additionally, leads turned definite showed a 21 percent increase over 2009-10, with an economic impact of $4.2 million.

The bureau's marketing capacity has also shown significant improvement -- $9.5 million in destination spending was directly attributable to online marketing, according to Tim Zahner, director of public relations and marketing. 

The county also saw a marked increase in destination weddings -- a 390 percent increase over the year with a potential economic impact of $1.7 million, according to Mr. Crabb.

"I don't know if it's because of Napa and the permitting," Mr. Crabb said, referring to neighboring Napa County's ban on weddings in its Agricultural Preserve. "But they found us." 

Like its neighbor to the east, Sonoma County has fared better than most other destinations, much of it the result of aggressive marketing.

Going into 2012, the bureau intends on launching a tourism ambassador program, wherein hundreds of county employees and other stakeholders will become trained and certified in ways to enhance a visitor's experience from start to finish. It also intends to allow non-BIA businesses a marketing "opt-in" program, which could boost revenue for the bureau  while increasing the BIA's exposures to beyond lodging businesses.

New markets will be aggressively pursed, as well, in particular foreign markets like Australia and New Zealand. The expansion of Charles M. Schulz--Sonoma County Airport should also play a significant role in opening new markets -- San Diego, for example, was just added to the airport's reach, and other domestic destinations are expected in the near future.

"While we saw the economy start to recover in 2011, our staff is ramped up to make 2012 even more successful," Mr. Fischang said. "The new programs and initiatives we are pursuing will ensure we exceed our goals."