|By Steve Hart, The Press Democrat, Santa
Rosa, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sept. 18, 2011--The Russian River has been a summer vacation hotspot for more than a hundred years, but it took a serious hit during the economic downturn.
Tourism fell more than 10 percent in 2009 as cash-strapped families cut their travel budgets. There was improvement last summer, but business still didn't return to pre-recession levels.
But now, the river's tourist industry is breathing easier as vacation season draws to a close this week. At Guerneville's Fern Grove Cottages, a 90-year-old resort in the redwoods, business was up 10 percent from last summer.
"We're almost back," said Michael Kennett, who's owned the bed-and-breakfast resort for a decade. "It was our best year since 2008."
The surge of tourists visiting the Russian River reflects a revival underway across Sonoma County's $1.2 billion visitor sector, said Ken Fischang, CEO of the county Tourism Bureau.
"We did much better than we thought we'd do," he said. "Even with all the ups and downs of the stock market, people are traveling."
Sonoma County's lodging business is up more than 11 percent so far this year, according to Smith Travel Research, a consulting firm that tracks the hospitality industry.
Occupancy and room rates are on the rise. In July, 78.5 percent of available rooms were full, the best performance in more than four years, according to Smith Travel.
The average room rate of $124.51 was up almost 6 percent from 2009, but still down 5 percent from its peak in 2007.
Meanwhile, hotels are investing millions in upgrades as they watch guests return, Fischang said.
Sonoma County's top-grossing property, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, saw business start to recover last year, said hotel spokeswoman Michelle Heston. This summer was even better, with revenue up 10.6 percent in June, July and August, she said.
"It's been a good, strong building year," Heston said.
More travelers are flying to and from Santa Rosa on Alaska Airlines. So far this year, ridership is up 13 percent from 2010.
At Safari West, an African wildlife preserve north of Santa Rosa, summer attendance grew strongly over last year, said spokeswoman Aphrodite Caserta. Safari West attracted guests with wine tasting and package tours, she said.
"We're trying to connect more to the Wine Country," Caserta said.
This summer, the Russian River was a particular bright spot, Fischang said. The resort area launched a major marketing campaign, and Guerneville added shops and restaurants.
There was plenty of water in the river, attracting canoeists, kayakers, sunbathers and swimmers, Kennett said.
The river is growing as an autumn getaway, he said, with guests exploring nearby Sonoma and Napa Wine Country. As a result, Fern Grove Cottages extended its high-season rates by a month, to the end of October.
"We're becoming much more of an all-year resort community," Kennett said.
Sonoma County attracts about 7.5 million visitors a year, and its hospitality sector employs more than 17,000 workers. City and county hotel taxes generate over $20 million a year.
Over the past year, almost 28 percent of tourist-related businesses expanded, according to a survey by Sonoma County's Economic Development Board. There are new facilities and upgrades at Petaluma's Sheraton Sonoma County, Rohnert Park's Doubletree by Hilton and Santa Rosa's Hyatt Vineyard Creek and Courtyard by Marriott.
"Hotel owners are investing after a couple of lean years," Fischang said.
Sonoma County tourism has recovered better than Napa, Monterey and Palm Springs, three destinations that compete for visitor dollars, he said. The county benefits from its diversity of lodgings, which range from campgrounds to luxury hotels, Fischang said.
Mendocino County also saw a rebound this summer, according to Scott Schneider, who heads the county's tourism promotion efforts. Businesses partnered on package deals and special offers that helped drive 10 percent growth, he said.
Still, lodging rates haven't returned to pre-recession levels.
(c)2011 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)
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