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Sonoma County tourism took $1 billion hit last year; summer prospects bright

As the start of the traditional summer tourist season nears with Memorial Day weekend, the local hospitality sector has high hopes for the second half of the year.

As the coronavirus pandemic fades and people are making travel plans, hoteliers and restaurant owners are eager to look forward and put last year’s struggles and financial losses behind them.

A new study for the first time underscores the widespread economic damage the pandemic had on Sonoma County hospitality and tourism overall. In 2020, tourism spending plunged by essentially half to $1.1 billion from the previous year, because much of the county was locked down, forcing closures of tourism destinations, restaurants and many small businesses. Visitors had spent $2.2 billion here in 2019.

There was more bad news in the area study by Portland economic consulting firm Dean Runyan Associates. It found there was a $112 million decrease in tourist tax revenues to local governments last year and average per visitor spending fell by half to $1,037.

However, the prospects for the hospitality industry have greatly improved. Visitors are coming again since coronavirus transmission has slowed sharply and many people are fully vaccinated. A good test case to gauge a local tourism rebound will be at the Flamingo Resort in Santa Rosa. The hotel will finish a multimillion-dollar renovation next month. The mid-century structure offers a redesigned lobby and guest rooms, a revamped restaurant and bar and a greater focus on wellness programs.

“We’re optimistic. The next 45 to 90 days are very positive. We are selling out every weekend,” said Stephen Yang, co-chief executive officer of the Point Group, which operates six hotels including Flamingo Resort and The Sandman in Santa Rosa.

Like others in the industry, Yang said he is still trying to keep his optimisim in check. One key measure will be when the resort reaches 75% occupancy during slower midweeks, an indicator life is truly getting back to normal.

“We are seeing pent-up demand,” he said, noting the visitors range from a growing number of Los Angeles-area residents who want to get outdoors to hike, to locals who come to hang out and eat and drink around the pool. “Because our hotels are a little more design intensive and little more experiential and immersive, the LA crowd seems to come to our hotels.”

Visitors are expected to return to the county on a piecemeal basis, said Claudia Vecchio, president of Sonoma County Tourism, the agency responsible for promoting the sector.

“We're going see it come back in phases,” Vecchio said. “On the leisure side, people coming up from our drive markets, such as the Bay Area and Sacramento, are really going to drive this recovery first.”

While regional and other California visitors are expected to arrive this summer, eventually tourists from across the country will fly in as they become more comfortable traveling. Last month, it became a little easier to get here when Avelo Airlines started service between Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport and Hollywood Burbank Airport. Upstart Avelo is the fourth airline operating out of the airport in Santa Rosa.

Later this year, the local airport will increase to 20 daily flight departures, which will be more than the peak of 17 it had in 2019, said Jon Stout, airport manager.

“I was not expecting it to ramp up this quick,” Stout said. “I was anticipating a two- to three-year recovery.”

Another bright spot is Wine Country destination weddings put off over the past year are now being booked for this summer.

“We are seeing a lot of wedding leads,” said Steve Jung, general manager of Doubletree by Hilton Sonoma Wine Country in Rohnert Park and board chairman of Sonoma County Tourism. “We’re seeing things tick up, but certainly not at the 2019 level,”

The full-service hotel was shut down for two months at the onset of the pandemic last spring and still hasn’t completely recovered with occupancy rates hovering around 60%. Yet blocks of rooms reserved for wedding parties are a hopeful sign, he said.

Still, challenges remain for hospitality operators, namely hiring enough workers to fully staff restaurants and hotels and attracting business travelers.

International tourists and groups, along with business meetings that draw people here for a few days, are not expected to increase meaningfully until mid-2022, Vecchio said.

“When you look at the totality of tourism and all the different types of travelers we are accustomed to having in Sonoma County, that's probably not going to be back to normal until spring or summer of next year,” she said.

For example, The Farmhouse Inn is focusing its group bookings on next year, said Joe Bartolomei, owner of his family’s luxury hotel in Forestville. For the most part, travelers are not making long-range travel plans as of yet, he said.

“We're going to see a lot more peaks and valleys. That’s the kind of sporadic nature of how people are booking,” Bartolomei said. “I really don't think we're going see anything that starts to feel like 2019 until we're into 2022. I still feel like 2021 is going to be a bit of experiment on market conditions.”

Although more visitors are coming and booking future trips, hospitality businesses are still gradually reopening and in many cases struggling to find workers. Jung said his Hilton in Rohnert Park has brought back most full-time employees, but recruiting remains a challenge.

Even one of the county’s most popular tourist stops, Russian River Brewing Co., is not back to full operations. It only recently opened its Windsor beer garden for limited hours on Monday and Tuesday nights. Co-owner Natalie Cilurzo said she is having a hard time hiring since many people can earn more money on enhanced unemployment benefits than working.

“We are having a harder time finding employees than when unemployment (locally) was at 2.5%. It’s bad,” she said, noting pay for her kitchen staff can range from $17 to $22 an hour.

Before the pandemic, Russian River had 204 employees at its Windsor and Santa Rosa locations and it now has 130 workers. Cilurzo is trying to hire another 25 or so people, such as cooks, an accountant and brewer, but the payroll won’t return to the pre-pandemic level.

“We are going to change our approach to hospitality in general,” she said. “We are going to keep our labor costs low.”

Despite the obstacles, there will be many more summer activities available in the county for tourists than a year ago.

They seem to be taking advantage of that at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville. Pool reservations for wine club members there were the busiest ever once available for booking earlier this spring, said Corey Beck, chief executive.

“That was pretty impressive. Usually we get weekends pretty full, but we were able to get weekends and multiple days during the week (filled),” Beck said.

Visitors who work remotely are finding new ways to mix in free time with their families and friends to enjoy more activities, he said.

“People now are having a little more flexibility with their work schedule,” Beck said. “You don’t have to drive into the office and you can work from home, and take a day here and there.”

One thing Sonoma County visitors should not expect this summer or fall: discounts. “They are not going to find them,” Vecchio said, noting the renewed demand presents “an opportunity for these properties — whether it be hotels or motels or vacation rentals — to up their price to kind of make up for some lost revenue.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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