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Another strong year for Sonoma County tourism


Camille LeGrand originally opposed the 2 percent levy that financed the creation of the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau more than seven years ago.

"I didn't want any more taxes on my guests," said LeGrand, owner of Russian River Getaways, which books vacation homes from Santa Rosa to Jenner.

Now LeGrand not only sits on the tourism bureau's board of directors, but she thinks the work made possible by the surcharge on lodging revenues is producing good results for her Guerneville-based business and for the county.

Much of the United States remains in the economic doldrums, LeGrand said, but not local tourism businesses.

"We're ahead of the curve," she said.

The county's $1.4 billion tourism industry has moved into summer on an upbeat note again this year.

The industry is on track to exceed the travel bureau's forecast of 5 percent growth this year. For the first five months of the year, county hotel room revenue is up nearly 9 percent to $56 million, according to Smith Travel Research.

The county's other tourist businesses also report growth, said Ken Fischang, the tourism bureau's president and CEO.

"We're looking at a pretty strong summer," he said.

Each year the county attracts about 7 million visitors to view the coastline, walk among redwoods and enjoy tastings at wineries. Visitors come for cycling, agritourism and weddings, as well as for a chance to stroll small town squares and cruise country backroads.

A new report produced by the county Economic Development Board and the Tourism Bureau said the tourism industry is still outpacing the rest of the local economy.

One of the study's contributors noted that tourism businesses found it easier to grow in 2011 because the industry then was rebounding from recession.

"They're going to have to work a little bit harder than they did last year," said Eduardo Martinez, a senior economist with Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pa.

Since the creation of the 2 percent tax on hotels, inns, vacation rental homes and campgrounds in 2005, Sonoma County has significantly boosted its efforts to attract tourists. The tourism bureau, which operated on a budget of around $1 million before the 2005 surcharge, now spends about $5 million a year with funding from both the business improvement district levy and county bed taxes.

And supporters point to data suggesting the dollars are being well spent.

The bureau has offices in Sacramento, Houston and Chicago and its staff travels to about 100 tourism trade shows and other events each year. As a result of that outreach, 140 groups in the past 12 months booked hotel rooms and other facilities in the county, up more than 40 percent from a year earlier. Room nights from those bookings rose 33 percent from the previous 12 months.

"What you're seeing is the result of years of traveling to trade shows," said Keo Hornbostel, chairman of the bureau's board of directors and general manager of the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel & Spa.

It takes considerable time to develop relationships with the meeting planners and persuade them to book a group event in the county, he said.

The tourism bureau also ranked well in a recent study of similar groups in California that are financed with business improvement district revenues. The study, by San Francisco State University professor Patrick Tierney, estimated that for every dollar the tourism groups received from the new surcharges, they generated $70 in direct spending by travelers.

Sonoma County did even better, producing nearly $85 for every dollar raised by the levy. That amounted to $209 million in direct spending in 2010.

County hotel occupancy rates for the first five months of the year hit 59.3 percent, the highest figure for that period since at least 2005, according to Smith Travel Research. However, the daily room rate of $102 was still below 2008, when it averaged almost $116 for the five-month period ending in May.

Several hotel operators said business remains healthy this summer.

"One of our biggest international markets, and we're continuing to enjoy some nice growth there, is Canada," said Michelle Heston, a spokeswoman for the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa in Boyes Hot Springs.

About four years ago the tourism bureau started international marketing efforts to England, France and Germany. This year similar efforts began in Australia and New Zealand.

There's a strong financial benefit from such outreach, Fischang said. A typical U.S. visitor spends about $1,200 during a four-day visit to the county. An international visitor spends on average $4,500 during a 10-day visit here.

Such economic impact helps explain why the U.S. is gearing up its first national effort to attract more international visitors, Fischang said. The year-old Brand USA, a public-private partnership, this spring launched the nation's first comprehensive marketing campaign, starting with the United Kingdom, Japan and Canada.

However, Carlo Galazzo, manager of the Inn at the Tides in Bodega, noted that travelers still seem "very cautious" about expenditures and he thinks fewer European travellers are visiting the coast this year — partly because of economic uncertainty on that continent.

"We are doing okay, but you kind of wonder what's going to happen next month," said Galazzo, also a director on the tourism bureau's board.