Wanting a glimpse of some of the attractions that draw tourists to Sonoma County, Brian Larsen visited long-fingered Lake Sonoma, then stopped by Alexander Valley's Soda Rock Winery and Healdsburg's new SHED restaurant and market.
Larsen, sales director at Bodega Bay Lodge, hopes his day in northern Sonoma County will prove useful when the guests at his coastal lodge want to know about "the ins and the outs of the county, and the secret places."
"It's always easier to recommend something when someone's been there," he said.
Larsen's journey was part of a new training program launched by Sonoma County Tourism to help hospitality workers show their guests the best of Wine Country.
More than 700 workers and volunteers have been certified as "tourism ambassadors" since the program began here last fall. By educating front-line workers, tourism officials hope to improve visitors' experiences in Sonoma County — and encourage them to return.
"We want to say 'Thank you and we appreciate you and we're going to take care of you,'" said Mo McElroy, who runs the program. "And that means they're going to come back and they're going to tell a friend."
Tourism has become a major force in the county's economy. Visitors spent $1.47 billion in 2011, supporting an estimated 17,000 county workers, according to tourism officials.
"It's the reason we have a job," Larsen said of hospitality workers. As such, he said, giving visitors exceptional experiences should be a priority.
The initiative is part of a 7-year-old national program that began in Kansas City. Sonoma County Tourism spent $100,000 to launch the program locally and estimates it will cost about $70,000 annually to operate it.
Tourism officials set a goal of training 500 ambassadors in 12 months. They reached that number in half the time and hope by year's end to have trained 1,000 people.
The trainees spend about four hours in class and another hour taking a test. Beforehand, they are expected to study materials on such topics as county history and historical landmarks, details of the various wine regions, major attractions and locations of the official visitors centers.
Besides the formal training, the certified tourism ambassadors, or CTAs, can take monthly tours like the one Larsen made to the north county in May.
Among those who enrolled in the training program are Mary and Peter Menth, volunteers who answer visitors' questions at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. The Windsor couple, both retired teachers, work out of a counter that looks a lot like Lucy's psychiatrist booth from the Peanuts comic strip.
"We are in a position to meet people who come in from all over the state, and the world for that matter," said Peter Menth, who taught biology at Santa Rosa High.
Mary Menth, who taught mostly at Kawana Elementary School, said the training helped her better understand the effect of terroir on wine grapes and "how a little bit of soil makes a difference."
The program is open to anyone who is interested in being a resource to visitors and learning about Sonoma County's history and culture. The cost is about $50 per person. For information, visit www.sonomacounty.com/partners.