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.