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Sonoma County Tourism Rebounding, but not Roaring Back
July Experienced 78% Occupancy Rates

By Steve Hart, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sept. 05, 2010--Safari West, an African wildlife preserve north of Santa Rosa, found a new way to draw visitors this summer as it faced a third year of recession.

It launched "Winos and Rhinos," a package that includes a jeep tour, dinner, overnight stay and private tasting of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola's wines.

"A lot of people booked it," said Aphrodite Caserta, Safari West's marketing director. "We're letting people know we're right in Wine Country."

Sonoma County's visitor industry saw a modest summer rebound from last year's dismal season, when families cut back sharply on vacation spending.

"We don't ever want to go through what we did last year," said Ken Fischang, who heads the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau.

Business was better this season, but tourism still isn't back to where it was in 2007, according to surveys of hotels and visitor attractions. The businesses had to work harder to attract customers, they said.

Sonoma County hotels saw yearly revenue grow each month since March, according to Smith Travel Research, a consulting firm that tracks the lodging industry. July was the industry's best month, up 12 percent from last year.

The county's full-service hotels were 78 percent full in July, better than Napa, Monterey and Lake Tahoe, three destinations that compete for tourist dollars.

Data aren't available yet for August, but hotel owners said it also was an improvement over last year.

"We were definitely up in August," said Michael Kennett, who owns Fern Grove Cottages in Guerneville, a bed-and-breakfast in the redwoods near the Russian River. "It was really good for us."

Guests also are staying longer than they did last year, he said. The resort lured guests with midweek specials, a golf package and discounts for multi-night stays. Fern Grove rents 1920s-vintage cottages for $89 to $259 a night.

Sonoma County hotels were forced to cut room rates to attract business this summer, according to a survey by PKF Consulting, a research firm that follows hospitality trends.

The average daily rate was $133.06 in June, down 1.3 percent from the same month last year, PKF said.

Sonoma County attracts more than 7 million visitors a year, who spend about $1.3 billion at hotels, inns, campgrounds, restaurants, wineries and other attractions, according to the county's Economic Development Board.

The sector employs about 17,000 county residents.

After record spending in 2007, tourism declined for the past two years as the economy slid into recession, according to county data.

The slump reflected what happened to travel nationwide, said Fischang. "The last two years were probably the worst in the history of the hospitality industry across the country."

Three large hotels in Santa Rosa and Petaluma -- Days Inn, Courtyard by Marriott and Quality Inn -- fell into bankruptcy or foreclosure in the past year, although they continue to operate.

Tourism-related employment in Sonoma County is down almost three percent from last year, according to Moody's Economy.com, which tracks the local economy.

But there are signs of a turnaround. In March, hotel revenues rose 2.8 percent, and sales have grown each month since.

Horizon Air, which operates daily flights between Santa Rosa and Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland and Las Vegas, reported more passengers in June, July and August than a year ago.

The tourism bureau stepped up its marketing this year, using Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and other social media, Fischang said. "We really pushed Facebook -- we have 20,000 fans now," he said.

The bureau's Web campaign highlighted package deals and discounts offered by hotels, attractions and restaurants.

In early July, Healdsburg's $20 million h2hotel opened its doors, the county's first new hotel launch in nearly two years. The eco-friendly, 36-room hotel is aimed at young, casual travelers who don't want to shell out for full-service, luxury accommodations.

Also in July, film director Coppola reopened his Geyserville winery following a multimillion-dollar renovation.

This year's tourist season got off to a slow start, with a cool, wet spring.

"We were very worried when the rain didn't go away in May," Caserta said. "The minute the sun came out the phones started ringing."

Safari West hosts about 60,000 guests a year.

The wildlife preserve also partnered this year with Santa Rosa's Flamingo Conference Center and Spa, in a package that included hotel accommodations and a jeep safari.

As part of the promotion, some of Safari West's baby flamingos visited the Santa Rosa hotel.

Package deals with Safari West and the Sonoma County Fair helped the Flamingo make up for a downturn in its convention business, said Dan Brown, the hotel's marketing director.

"We feel good about it, especially in light of the economy," he said.

Wine Road, an association of 170 northern Sonoma County wineries, saw a rebound in tourism this summer, said director Beth Costa. Online sales of its tasting pass doubled, she said, and map requests were up 25 percent.

But visitors are spending less, Costa said. "They're coming for a shorter period of time, and they're looking for deals," she said. "Their wine buying has scaled back from cases to bottles."

Wine Road also is using Twitter to get out its message.

Mendocino County's lodgings and attractions were busier this summer, said Scott Schneider, who heads the county's tourism program. "The late rains impacted some travel in June, but it has been better than last summer," he said.

More people are camping, enjoying small-town festivals and riding the Skunk Train, he said.

Lake County resorts also saw an improvement in business, said Debra Sommerfield, who runs the county's destination marketing program. Tourism was up despite last year's closure of Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa, one of the county's biggest attractions, she said.

"The numbers are higher than we had anticipated," Sommerfield said.

This summer's performance gives the industry hope that next year will be even better, Fischang said. "We're cautiously optimistic right now," he said. "We've got a long way to go to get back to where we were, but at least we're headed in the right direction."

You can reach Staff Writer Steve Hart at 521-5205 or steve.hart@pressdemocrat.com.

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To see more of The Press Democrat, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.pressdemocrat.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.

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