Visitors flock to Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino counties; tourism boosters hustle to enliven the experience

Regional tourism by the numbers

80.2%: Hotel occupancy in June for Napa Valley

82.2%: Hotel occupancy in June for Sonoma County

$25,000: Amount Lake County received in brand funding from Visit California

78.3%: Hotel occupancy in June for Sonoma Valley

7,070: Number of jobs Mendocino County tourism supports

Source: Visit Napa Valley, Visit Lake County, Sonoma County Tourism, Visit Mendocino County

Summer is in full swing, and the region's tourism industry is pushing forward with new initiatives and goals to ensure its continued growth.

Visit Napa Valley's summer season is off to a strong start, according to Smith Travel Research data, which tracks a number of categories, including hotel occupancy and average daily rates (ADR). According to the firm's June data, the most recent available, hotel occupancy was 80.2%, a 4.3% increase from a year ago, when the figure was 76.9%. ADR was $360.47, up 3.1% from June 2018, when the ADR of $349.58. Revenue was $43.5 million, up 6.3% from June 2018.

The tourism bureau currently is involved in Napa Valley Forward, a two-year initiative aimed at reducing traffic, primarily in the congested areas of Highway 29 and Silverado Trail. Visit Napa Valley, along with Napa Valley Vintners, each contributed $125,000 in matching funds to support the first phase of the public-private partnership, which also includes the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Napa Valley Transportation Authority.

Meetings will commence the week of July 29 with tourism-facing hospitality businesses, including hotels and wineries, said Alfredo Pedroza, Napa County Supervisor and commission vice chairman. The MTC voted late last year to approve $1 million in funding for the project.

'The genesis behind this pilot program was acknowledging that when you look at the visitor profile data that Visit Napa Valley tracks, one of them is traffic and that also impacts residents,' Pedroza said, adding that 40% of the county's workforce commutes — in a region that welcomes 3.8 million visitors every year. 'This is the first time MTC is doing a program like this in a rural community, so it's a little on the forefront to use technology to change employees' behavior and shift commuting patterns.'

The project involves collecting data from participating employees in the hospitality industry, and then formulating recommendations to encourage commuters to travel to work in alternative ways, such as carpooling, using private and public transit, or electronic bikes.

'The tourism industry remains the second-largest employer in Napa County, and Visit Napa Valley is proud to support 'Napa Valley Forward' and partner with the (the other participants) to find a traffic solution that benefits both our visitors and residents,' said Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO for Visit Napa Valley.

Meanwhile, Visit Lake County California, which operates the Lake County Tourism Improvement District that was formed last fall, has been busy working on a brand-development campaign, said Michelle Scully, deputy county administrative officer.

The district board in June awarded a contract to Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Cubic Creative to develop the brand, Scully said. Cubic's creative team traveled to Lake County the week of June 10 to tour the region and begin what Scully described as the firm's data-driven process.

'They held four focus groups, flew over the county, boated on Clear Lake and Blue Lake, and met tourism stakeholders from all parts of the county,' Scully said. The focus groups represented a cross-section of people in Lake County's tourism industry, community colleges, city and county government, and hospitality representatives from each community, she said. Each focus group was comprised of approximately 45 people.

Cubic was scheduled to return to Lake County on July 25 to present its preliminary design, and Scully expects the branding to be finalized, presented for approval and ready for launch within the next couple of months.

This past spring, the county received $25,000 in brand funding from Visit California, the nonprofit organization tasked with driving domestic and international visitation to the state. Lake County qualified for the funds based on post-fires need, Scully said, adding that when Visit California CEO Caroline Beteta visited Lake County, she 'was astounded by the pillars of tourism that we have' and instructed the TID board to come up with a comprehensive brand that showcases the county's natural resources, wine region and outdoor activities.

Scully said she provides Visit California with updates and 'will let them know, along with everyone else, when the new branding is to be unveiled.'

Heading south, Sonoma County Tourism has hired the Coraggio Group, a business-management consulting firm out of Portland, Oregon, to help develop a Destination Master Plan for 2020, according to Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism. The process will focus on how to best promote the region to business and leisure travelers, both domestically and internationally.

Regional tourism by the numbers

80.2%: Hotel occupancy in June for Napa Valley

82.2%: Hotel occupancy in June for Sonoma County

$25,000: Amount Lake County received in brand funding from Visit California

78.3%: Hotel occupancy in June for Sonoma Valley

7,070: Number of jobs Mendocino County tourism supports

Source: Visit Napa Valley, Visit Lake County, Sonoma County Tourism, Visit Mendocino County

'Destination master planning is not for the faint of heart,' Vecchio said. 'This will require we make the hard decisions, put up some guardrails and create definition. We cannot continue to grow without a roadmap toward success.'

The plan will take shape through discussions with a diverse group of regional tourism, government, business, not-for-profit, education and local resident leaders, she said. The program will begin next month, with meetings scheduled throughout the late summer and fall. The entire process is expected to conclude in early spring.

Sonoma County Tourism also is in the process of transitioning from a destination marketing organization to a destination stewardship organization, emphasizing the region's agricultural and natural landscape.

'The destination stewardship platform enables us to change our focus from showing success through the number of visitors, to showing success through the revenue generated and the way travelers can give back to the destination,' Vecchio said. 'While we will talk about the number of visitors, it will be in the context of how those visitors and the revenue they generate can help protect the destination for future generations.'

Year-over-year hotel occupancy for the county in June was 82.2%, down 3.6% from 85.3% in June 2018; and ADR in June 2019 was $197.28, down 0.7% from $198.58 a year earlier. Revenue was $32 million, down 0.2% from June 2018.

The data reflects a period when Sonoma County's lodging properties were still hosting evacuees and 'second' responders, according to the tourism group.

'While down from last year, the 2019 numbers show a return to levels seen before the October 2017 wildfires. The addition of new hotel rooms is affecting the overall occupancy rates,' the tourism agency said.

Sonoma Valley, which has its own visitors bureau, headed by executive director Tim Zahner, is currently reaching beyond the North Bay to attract tourists.

'We've been targeting the fog-bound San Franciscans via a social media campaign that promotes SUNoma,' Zahner said. 'We are featuring the pools of Sonoma Valley and things to see in Sunny Sonoma.'

The Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau also recently rolled out a new service, called the Sonoma Greeter Program, to ensure visitors have a positive experience, Zahner told the Sonoma Index Tribune, a sister publication to the Business Journal, earlier this month.

'We want people to know that they're welcome here and that we can help them find places to go and things to see,' he told the Index Tribune. 'We hope they'll stick around a little longer than they expected to.'

Hotel occupancy in June was 78.3%, down 1.6% from 79.6% in June 2018; ADR was $317.59 last month, down 0.4% from $318.72 a year earlier.

Heading to the coast, Mendocino County's tourism efforts are heavily focused on marketing, according to Alison de Grassi, director of marketing and media, Visit Mendocino County.

'We're working with a marketing consultant from TheorySF in San Francisco, and a media-buying company, Media Matters Worldwide,' also headquartered in San Francisco, de Grassi said. 'We began a digital marketing campaign in December and continued through June 2019, which is when our fiscal year ended.'

The campaign, which garnered more than 34 million impressions, or viewers, will continue into the new fiscal year, targeting millennials, Gen X and Gen Y, with a focus on family-friendly cuisine, wine beverages and distilled spirits, she said.

Visit Mendocino County also relocated its main office from Fort Bragg — where it maintains a small, satellite office — to downtown Ukiah. Because the tourism bureau is contracted with the county, de Grassi said it made sense to be closer to the county's offices.

New restaurants also are popping up in the county. Fog Eater Café, a vegetarian restaurant in Mendocino Village, opened last month, as did Overtime Brewing, a new brewpub with a capacity of 1,500 barrels. Seafoam Lodge in Little River has been renovated after being closed for many years, and is expected to reopen in late summer.

The county doesn't track month-to-month occupancy or related data yet, though de Grassi expects that will change.

According to Mendocino's business improvement district's latest report, 'Tourism remains a notable employer within the county with the industry supporting 7,070 jobs and generating earnings of more than $214 million. Building and maintaining awareness of the county as a viable and vital tourism destination is top of mind for marketing efforts in 2019–2020.'

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at or 707-521-4259.

Show Comment

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette