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.