Outdoor recreation is big business in Sonoma County
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.”