Each year, Sonoma County draws 7 million visitors, who spend more than $1.2 billion at hotels, restaurants, wineries and other attractions.
Two new programs are teaching businesses how to keep them coming back.
"A one-on-one encounter can make or break a visitor's experience," said Mickey Schaefer, who is leading Sonoma County's Certified Tourism Ambassador program.
The program will train 500 hospitality workers and others who regularly meet visitors, including taxi drivers, gas station attendants, police officers, airport employees and retail staff.
They'll learn about local attractions and resources, polish their customer service skills and help travelers enjoy their time in Sonoma County.
The county's destination marketing arm, the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, is spending $100,000 on the training program over the next two years.
Meanwhile, Healdsburg's visitors bureau is rolling out a service skills program next month tailored more closely for hotels, shops, restaurants and wineries.
Such efforts are essential in a highly competitive market for travel dollars, Schaefer told a tourism conference in Santa Rosa last month.
"I can't tell you how many destinations are struggling," said Schaefer, an Arizona consultant who helps local visitor programs improve their results.
With the rise of social media, visitors' good or bad impressions of a place can spread quickly, Schaefer said.
"You're in a fishbowl now," she told the group.
Excellent service pays dividends, said Will Seppi, who owns Costeaux French Bakery in Healdsburg, a favorite destination for Wine Country visitors. About half of his customers are tourists.
"We want them to leave our town with a positive experience," he said. "They'll go home and tell their friends what a great time they had."
Key employees at the bakery will attend the Healdsburg program, and they'll train the rest of his staff, Seppi said.
Visitors are a mainstay for businesses around Healdsburg's downtown plaza, said Cynthia Zizzi, owner of Zizi, a designer clothing shop.
"We all love our locals, but I don't think any of us could survive without the tourist business," she said.
There's always room for improvement in customer service, Zizzi said. "We all need to do a better job," she said.
Tourism supports more than 16,500 Sonoma County jobs, or nearly 1 in 10 workers in the area, according to the county bureau. After declines in 2009 and 2010, the travel sector rebounded strongly last year, said Ken Fischang, the bureau's executive director.
County hotel occupancy rose more than 8 percent in 2011, according to Smith Travel Research, which tracks the hospitality industry. Revenue per available room increased nearly 11 percent, the largest margin since 2006. Bed taxes, which provide most of the funding for the county's destination marketing program, climbed 15 percent.
The bureau expects visitation to grow another 5 percent this year.
Healdsburg's service skills program will be held April 30 to May 9, with different two-day workshops for hotel and restaurant, tasting room and retail employees. They'll learn tips for remembering customers' names and faces, how to establish credibility, the role of teamwork and other ways to ensure visitors return.
The Healdsburg program is led by Eric Weiss, who heads Service Arts Inc., a New York consulting company that advises top hotels, restaurants, retailers, airlines and wine companies.
It's the first time he's trained an entire community, said Mo McElroy, president of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. More than 30 businesses will take part in the program, called Excellent Service Workshops.