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First came the tourists. Now come more hotel rooms to accommodate them.

With the arrival of the Memorial Day weekend, the summer travel season is poised to get rolling in Sonoma County. Travel officials and hoteliers are expecting plenty of business and say demand is prompting hospitality companies to build new hotels and enlarge existing properties.

“We feel it is a really good time to expand,” said Percy Brandon, general manager of the Vintners Inn just north of Santa Rosa.

The inn’s management is seeking permits to add 34 rooms and a full spa to the existing 44-room hotel, which is home to John Ash & Co restaurant. Brandon said demand remains strong for the inn’s lodging units even in the off-season, with occupancy rates averaging better than 80 percent this past winter.

Developers and hotel groups are pursuing roughly a dozen lodging projects around the county. They include the renovated Timber Cove Lodge in Jenner, which will open this summer as a new, luxury 46-room coastal resort named simply Timber Cove.

Also opening this summer in the “glamping,” or glamorous camping, segment is AutoCamp Russian River. The Guerneville resort will offer campers a chance to sleep in one of 23 new silver Airstream trailers or 10 luxury tents.

“This is camping for those who don’t like to get dirty,” said general manager Mark Belhumeur. Rates start at $175 a night, with the top units going for about $335.

Other lodging projects expected to open in the fall or winter include three hotels under construction around Rohnert Park and Windsor. The largest of those is the $195 million hotel at the Graton Resort and Casino.

In Healdsburg, Piazza Hospitality plans to break ground by next month on its third lodging property in the town, the $24 million H3 GuestHouse. The 39-room hotel will be built about a block from the main square and near Piazza’s other two businesses, the Hotel Healdsburg and H2 Hotel,

And Santa Rosa’s Hyatt Vineyard Creek hotel has plans to begin construction next year on a new building as part of a 99-unit expansion for the city’s largest conference hotel.

Tourism leaders in various businesses say the construction is a testament to a major sector of the economy and to the county’s power to attract visitors.

“Sonoma’s on the map,” said Jennifer Buffo, chief operating officer for Pure Luxury Transportation in Petaluma. “People think of Northern California Wine Country and they know Sonoma.”

Tourism spending increased 2.3 percent last year in the county to $1.82 billion, according to Visit California, the state’s main travel marketing organization.

The hospitality industry here employs roughly one out of every 10 workers. And state data suggest that since the last recession, employment in the local travel industry has grown at a much faster pace than for the total workforce.

Tourism ‘booming’

“Tourism in the county is booming,” said Michelle Heston, regional director of public relations for Fairmont Hotels and Resorts and a member of the executive board for the group Sonoma County Tourism.

Hotel revenues jumped 75 percent during the five years ending in 2015, according to STR, Inc., a national travel research company. And to date this year, such revenues have climbed 9.8 percent compared to a year earlier.

In April, the average daily room rate for the 6,100 county hotel rooms that STR tracks climbed to $153.29, an increase of 9.2 percent from a year earlier.

Overall, the county has an estimated 11,500 lodging units, according to Sonoma County Tourism. That includes hotels, motels, campgrounds and vacation rentals.

Beyond the lodging segment, other hospitality businesses also expect more customers in the coming months.

“We’re looking forward to a very busy summer,” said Aphrodite Caserta, marketing and communications directors at Safari West.

In the past two years the African-themed wildlife park has increased its number of daily tours but still expects to sell out this summer. It remains one of the county’s most popular tourist attractions with 70,000 visitors annually. That figure doesn’t count the 10,000 schoolchildren who take tours during the academic year.

Better economy

Reasons for the larger crowds include better economic times and an increase in international and baby-boomer tourists. Officials also point to new means of arriving in the county and to a plethora of attractive things to see and do once people get here.

Five years ago, international travelers made up about 5 percent of the county’s tourists, said Sonoma County Tourism CEO Ken Fischang. Now that figure is 10 percent or better.

Among U.S. residents, baby boomers entering retirement represent a growing group of visitors.

“They’re not working and they want to travel while they’re younger,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

New air routes

The county this year is benefiting from three new air routes to the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. That includes service twice a week to the Phoenix area and Las Vegas on Allegiant Air, as well as daily service on Alaska Airlines to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana.

For local wineries, “Orange County is a huge market,” said Fischang.

Officials also point to national and local marketing efforts to attract visitors. Of the local program, Heston of Fairmont Hotels said the county “has done a really exemplary job of setting ourselves away from the pack.”

The message to visitors, she said, is the county provides “more of an authentic experience.” And guests at the Fairmont’s Sonoma Mission Inn show they value such activities as hotel-sponsored nature hikes, culinary classes with executive chef Bruno Tison and tours of local cheese, wine and other food producers.

This summer, the first new lodging property to welcome guests likely will be the new Timber Cove resort, which currently accepts reservations for July 1 and beyond. Built on the site of the former Timber Cove Lodge, the new resort will incorporate some of “the original ’60s vibe,” co-owner Michael Barry of Ironwave Hospitality said in a statement.

“We wanted to preserve the character of this historic property while creating an updated space for guests where they can unwind to the sound of the wind and ocean waves, savor our local wine and cuisine, and explore the natural landscaping on our property,” Barry said.

Rates begin at $300 a night, but can run $1,000 a night on summer weekends for the largest suite, which includes a double balcony, sitting room and soaking tub.

Soft opening in July

AutoCamp is planning a soft opening in July and an official kickoff in August at its location on Old Cazadero Road, less than a mile from central Guerneville. The resort features custom-built Airstream trailers with carrara marble in expanded bathrooms.

“They’re designed as a boutique hotel room,” said Belhumeur, the general manager.

Santa Barbara’s Prospect Hotels developed the first AutoCamp in Santa Barbara in 2013 with five vintage Airstreams in a 1920s trailer park, he said.

In Santa Rosa, the Hyatt Vineyard Creek hotel is adding nine rooms this summer and plans to start renovating all 155 existing rooms late this year. But its biggest project is slated to begin in the spring of 2017, a 90-room addition to take shape near the north edge of the property along West Third Street.

Accommodating conferences

The Hyatt can accommodate more conference guests in its 20,000 square feet of indoor meeting space than it can house in its current lodging rooms. The extra rooms will make the hotel more attractive to organizers of larger conferences, said Michael Russell, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.

“It’s going to give us a huge competitive advantage,” he said.

For Healdsburg-based Piazza Hospitality, construction of the H3 Guest House in Healdsburg is expected to begin within a few weeks, even as the company seeks to develop a fourth county property in Sebastopol.

The H3, with rates starting in the low $300s, will feature a rooftop terrace, swimming pool, creek park and an unusual parking garage more often seen in big cities, where guest cars will be stacked above each other via what the company describes as “valet-served parking lifts.”

The hotel is slated to open at the end of 2017, said Circe Sher, a principal with Piazza.

Meanwhile, Sher said, the company plans this summer to file an application with the city of Sebastopol for a hotel of about 60 rooms.

The city’s Barlow center, with its food, wine and art offerings, is just one of the attractions bringing in travelers, Sher said. Many would spend the night if there were more places to accommodate them.

“We do know a lot of visitors are coming to Sebastopol and staying elsewhere,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.