Outdoor recreation is big business in Sonoma County

A 2015 board survey found that two of the three top factors attracting tourists to Sonoma County were outdoor recreation and natural scenery.|

The notion of a Wine Country excursion is changing and it is starting to have economic ripples across Sonoma County.

In the typical telling, a couple would come up to visit primarily for wine, stopping at a few wineries, staying at a tiny place such as the Farmhouse Inn and then eating pricey cuisine at Madrona Manor.

But increasingly, there are millennials from San Francisco and the East Bay who visit without knowing the difference between pinot gris and pinot noir. That demographic - those born from 1981 to 1997, many of whom come from the well-paid tech sector - is behind a surge of people who visit the county primarily for its outdoor activities.

Call it ecotourism. Call it agritourism. Call it a fun-filled weekend. But many businesspeople and local officials are realizing that it goes by another name: big business.

“It’s a constellation of trends coming together,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. “There’s the health interest in being active. There is the sheer money that is in Silicon Valley and their workers. They want to come up here and recreate where they can be in an hour drive.”

The board is assembling an outdoor recreation and hospitality business council to promote the industry, identify issues that must be addressed and collaborate on opportunities to grow the sector. Stone said he hopes to undertake a study in the future to determine how much economic impact these businesses contribute to Sonoma County.

As part of the effort, Stone wants to enlist major companies that are headquartered in Sonoma County with a footprint in the outdoor apparel and equipment industry - such as Petaluma’s Athleta Inc. and CamelBak Products and Rohnert Park’s Marmot Mountain - to gain their expertise and help promote them.

A 2015 board survey found that two of the three top factors attracting tourists to Sonoma County were outdoor recreation and natural scenery.

In addition, the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department is working on a plan to create a strategic vision for the local outdoor recreation economy.

The activity has blossomed because the financial potential is enormous. Outdoor recreation was a $646 billion business in 2011 in the United States, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, outpacing such categories as pharmaceuticals and motor vehicles and parts.

“Clearly, more and more people are not coming here for one thing,” said Jim Nantell, deputy director of Sonoma County Regional Parks. The parks department has seen interest climb as sales of its annual park passes have increased from 5,000 to 25,000 in recent years, with much interest driven by local residents.

Outdoor providers are noting that visitors are looking to take advantage of many things. That can mean a bike ride on the Joe Rodota Trail, followed by a kayak trip down the Russian River. Then, they may want to take a hike at Taylor Mountain and later a trip out to Bodega Bay.

Getaway Adventures, a Santa Rosa tour company, offers all sorts of excursions. On Wednesday, it had friends from Wisconsin on its $175 per person Green Valley “pedal n’ paddle” tour that started out at Ragle Ranch Park in Sebastopol with biking on the West County Trail, including a stop at Iron Horse Vineyards. After lunch there was kayaking along the Russian River.

Owner Randy Johnson said he can tailor visits to a particular group, from families to corporate outings, and offer different events, such as stops at a creamery or a fishing trip, that highlight the county’s farm-to-table movement. He offers an introductory class on grapes held in a local vineyard, but tries to vary experiences on tours beyond wine because “there is so much more of this county.”

The efforts have turned visits that once were typically a day or a weekend into vacations that span up to week, filled with activities, good food and drinks interspersed between all the action. And that adds up to more economic activity across the county, from gas stations to coffeehouses to convenience stores. Johnson’s business now has five employees and 19 guides.

“Coming from a hotel business, my main goal was to get those people to stay for more than a day or two,” said Bill Carson, a former general manager at the Fountaingrove Inn who is now director of operations for three area golf courses. Carson, who used to be on the Sonoma County Tourism board, is pushing for more coordination so tourists as well as locals can learn all about outdoor activities through websites and brochures similar to what is offered for wine.

“They want to come back with more than a tan,” Carson said. “Vacations are interactive now.”

That could include activities such as skydiving. Jimmy Halliday has seen his NorCal Skydiving business increase in its eight years of existence to now handling up to 5,000 customers annually, with about 75 percent from the Bay Area. Costs start at $169 per person. Many don’t eat before their jump at the Cloverdale Municipal Airport and afterward they are off to nearby Hamburger Ranch and Bar-B-Que or Ruth McGowan’s Brewpub to eat, he said.

A major thing that would drive even more traffic, he said, is the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit train when its Cloverdale stop is completed. He has many customers call and ask what public transportation options they have to get to his business, whether they are San Francisco residents who don’t own a car or international visitors who are accustomed to traveling that way.

“We see a lot of customers renting Zipcars,” Halliday said of the hourly rental car service.

In fact, the SMART train is expected to be a major driver of tourism in the future as rail cars begin moving through Santa Rosa later this year. Besides taking passengers, many are excited about the trail path along the 70 miles of tracks that will attract many cyclists and visitors up here sans cars.

“We as a county need to be recreational friendly,” Johnson said. “SMART is going to be our ticket.”

Bike paths are a key inducement in Napa County, as well, where a private-public effort is underway to build a 47-mile hiking-and-biking trail that will go from the Vallejo Ferry Terminal in Solano County to the city of Calistoga. A 12.5-mile portion of the Vine Trail from Napa to Yountville will open next month.

In fact, one bike store has opened a location near a portion of the Vine Trail to capitalize on the expected number of riders, said Philip Sales, executive director of the Vine Trail Coalition, a nonprofit group that is spearheading construction. There also has been talk about having automatic stations where people can rent bikes, such as done in Paris and New York City, he said.

Sales does not have a projection on how much it will increase Napa County’s 3 million annual tourists, but the trail will provide welcome relief to visitors and locals who pedal along the increasingly dangerous and crowded major corridors such as Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. “We have a limited amount of road space,” he said.

Johnson, who started his business 25 years ago by giving private cycling tours around Calistoga wineries, said he is more bullish on the Vine Trail. “The Napa Valley tourism department should be pumped up to no end,” he said. “That will substantially drive some people to come up.”

With the increased demand will come public policy questions as well. They include how much public monies should be allocated to new trails, such as the proposed Sonoma Valley Trail from Santa Rosa to Sonoma, and how to handle an influx of tourists needing more hotels without turning the region into a Disneyland experience.

“You’re always trying to balance somewhat competing public interests,” said Nantell of the Sonoma County parks department, which oversees more than 50 parks and trails, campsites, a beach area and marina slips.

Meanwhile, business opportunities exist. Over at Rubicon Adventures, a half-day paddleboard excursion on the Russian River for $79 a person also has brought visitors to wineries due to some strategic partnering, said John Hadley, an instructor for the business.

By the time the class finishes, visitors are free to do other activities in the day.

The business has been aggressive about promoting itself, but Hadley noted there is only so much it can do as a small business to get the word out. He welcomes the coordinated effort to promote the county’s outdoor activities.

“I don’t think it’s marketed at all,” he said of outdoor activities. “Not everybody wants to go wine tasting.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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