Sonoma County tourism on the rise

Sonoma County's smoking-hot tourism industry appears on pace for another record-setting year, with visitors likely to spend more than a billion dollars on the Wine Country experience, however they define it.

"People said, 'How can we top 2013?' But it's happening," said Jennifer Buffo, owner of Pure Luxury Transportation in Petaluma.

Sonoma County collected a record amount of bed taxes in 2013 even as average room rates increased for another year. At The Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, suites going for $995 a night are gobbled up, reflecting particularly strong growth at the higher-end of the county's tourism market.

The luxury inn is undergoing an expansion that includes seven new rooms and a day spa. Owner Joe Bartolomei said Monday he doesn't anticipate having any trouble filling the additional space.

"Overall, we wouldn't be doing what we're doing if we weren't feeling confident about the future of tourism in Sonoma County," he said Monday.

Visitors to Sonoma County spent $1.55 billion in 2012, up 5.4 percent from 2011 and the most on record since the state began collecting such data in 1992, according to figures released Monday by Visit California.

Statewide, more than 235 million visitors to California spent $109.6 billion in 2013, an all-time high in both actual and inflation-adjusted dollars, according to Visit California. That spending generated more than $7 billion in local and state tax revenues.

Sonoma County continues to be a draw for people who work in technology industries in Silicon Valley and across the Bay Area. The county also for the first time attracted a noteworthy number of international visitors in 2013, in particular from China and Australia.

Ben Stone, executive director of Sonoma County's Economic Development Board, said barring another "tech-wreck," the region is headed for another "very strong," possibly record-setting, year in the tourism industry.

Sonoma County collected a record $27.5 million in bed taxes in 2013 after adjusting for inflation, according to county data.

The economic development board's draft report on the tourism industry found that payroll growth in the county's leisure and hospitality industries stalled since reaching an all-time high in June, a reflection of the way Indian casinos are categorized. Were the new Graton Casino in Rohnert Park factored in, tourism-related payrolls in February would be up 10 percent, as opposed to 1 percent reflected in the data. The casino employs 2,000.

"This marks the continuation of three years of growth in which tourism has outpaced the rest of the economy," the report noted.

Industry experts say the trend reflects the overall health of the economy and Sonoma County becoming better known nationally and internationally as a desirable tourist destination.

Tina Luster, a spokeswoman with the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, said the group's marketing efforts also are paying off. She credited one program, called Sonoma Sneakaway, with helping to drive up occupancy rates in the off-season months by 23 percent after the program was implemented in 2012.

"We're finding our voice. People are hearing about us," Luster said.

Last month, Sonoma County Vintners led an unprecedented two-week promotional tour in mainland China and Hong Kong to promote interest in the region's wine offerings.

Bartolomei will be in New York City later this week extolling the virtues of The Farmhouse Inn with major travel magazines, followed next week by a networking sojourn to Tuscany.

Bartolomei, who is a member of the tourism bureau's board of directors, said the group has set a goal of increasing transit occupancy taxes collected by the county by 25 percent by 2018. That growth is predicated on having more hotel rooms to market to tourists, he said.

"If we are going to compete with the likes of Napa, we're going to have to have more product available," he said.

Hotel occupancy rates rose 9 percent in Sonoma County last year, filling 73.4 percent of local hotel rooms, according to Smith Travel.

Occupancy rates from Jan. 1 through April of this year were 66.8 percent, compared with 62.9 percent for 2012, a 6.2 percent increase.

Over the same period, the average daily room rate increased from $115.90 for the first quarter in 2012, to $123.45 this year, a 9.8 percent increase.

Bartolomei said he's raised rates at The Farmhouse Inn without any pushback from the market. The inn's renovations reflect the changing tastes of visitors at the higher-end of the county's tourism market, he said. Whereas people used to inquire about the TVs in the guest rooms, or about the thread-count in the sheets on the beds, Bartolomei said his customers now seek a more personal connection, with an emphasis on health and wellness.

"People want to come and have a relationship with other people," he said.

Wine tasting and spa treatments aren't the only activities drawing interest in Sonoma County.

At Wine Country Bikes in Healdsburg, business has increased an average of 10 to 15 percent on an annual basis for several years, and is on track to do the same this year, owner John Mastrianni said Monday.

"Things seem to be continuing to roll along," he said.

Mastrianni said one change he's noticed is that more of his customers visit Sonoma County specifically because of the cycling.

"When we first started, we got a lot of wine enthusiasts who had an interest in cycling. Now, we're getting a lot of cycling enthusiasts who have an interest in wine," he said.

Tourism employment accounted for nearly 17,000 jobs in Sonoma County, according to Visit California, meaning almost one of every 10 jobs in the county is tied to hospitality and tourism.

Sonoma County ranks first in tourism employment against comparable counties, including Napa, which had 12,100 tourism jobs in 2012, and Santa Barbara, which had 16,700. Sonoma County's 2012 job figures showed a 4.7 percent increase from 2011, according to the Economic Development Board's draft report.

California's travel industry employed 965,800 people in 2013, the highest number recorded since 1992 when employment data started being tallied.