Sonoma County Tourism hopes virtual tours will boost business

More than 750 locations in the county have been captured in virtual tours in just over a year.|

The rhythm of moving a 360-degree camera 10 feet forward at a time and hiding from its view before its shutter clicks is a familiar one to Japhy Altenhein. Wednesday morning, that’s just how he worked to capture the scene at Bricoleur Vineyards in Windsor.

After the shoot, he or another worker with the Tampa-based company Threshold 360 will stitch those images together to create a seamless “tour” of the vineyard, one that will soon be available for anyone from tasting room visitors to event planners to view from the safety of home.

“I hope it helps,” Altenhein said. “I’m going where people aren’t right now, showing them that it’s safe. It’s better than ever.”

Bricoleur Vineyards isn’t the only venue that can be explored this way in Sonoma County; over 750 locations in the county have been captured in virtual tours in just over a year, thanks to a deal between Threshold 360 and Sonoma County Tourism. The effort is just one way the organization is trying to bolster business for its partners in the tourism and hospitality industries as local establishments grapple with either ongoing closures or an uncertain winter ahead.

“It’s just a super engaging way for people to discover businesses,” said Katja West, marketing data and systems specialist with Sonoma County Tourism. “Because right now or up until recently, travel has been pretty restricted. It’s a really nice tool to dream about places you want to go to.”

The marketing organization keeps a finger on the pulse of its partners in the tourism and hospitality sectors, including most recently through a single-question survey that explored their short-term viability under ongoing restrictions.

About 160 partners responded to Sonoma County Tourism’s survey, which asked “If Sonoma County does not see reduced COVID transmission rates and a loosening of restrictions, or additional economic stimulus aid, my business cannot survive beyond,” offering a few time range options.

Though the sample size is small, the results were alarming, said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism.

About 28% of the responses from businesses indicated they were stable “for the foreseeable future.” But the other 72% of respondents said they would only be able to last another zero to 12 months.

Looking ahead to the new year, 32% of respondents said they wouldn’t be able to survive much beyond that — two to three months.

“It’s not a gigantic sample by any stretch, but of that sample, it was pretty stunning to see where our businesses are in terms of their projection for survival,” Vecchio said.

Vecchio, in partnership with the Sonoma County Hospitality Association, sent a letter to the county Board of Supervisors and Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase with the results of the survey and earnest pleas to contribute to new solutions that can ease the pressures on these businesses. They offered to help officials find solutions to move the county out of the most restrictive tier, purple, in the state’s four-stage coronavirus reopening plan.

“The fact that Sonoma County cannot get out of the Purple Tier is unacceptable,” the letter said. “Maximizing the incredibly smart, progressive, committed group of business professionals and residents can accomplish almost anything when given a clear plan of action.”

The virtual tours, which Sonoma County Tourism first began offering as a free resource to partner businesses last summer, are expected to help while travel remains low and restrictions tight. Business owners agree, however, that those benefits remain somewhat long-term as clients planning events from weddings to corporate retreats look to 2021 or even 2022.

“It’s better than nothing,” said Sarah Citron, co-founder and vice president of marketing at Bricoleur Vineyards. “We are hopeful that we can book for next year.”

After four years of restoring and preparing the 40-acre property to welcome guests, a grand opening event was scheduled for May this year, Citron said. It had to be scrapped.

Now, with the outdoor tasting area open at least, Citron hopes a visual aid to how distanced the tables are will help put visitors’ minds at ease.

“A lot of people are more visual, so if they’re skeptical, we can send them the link (to the video),” she said.

Sonoma County Tourism underwrites the cost of creating the virtual tours, a deal that includes the video being posted on the nonprofit’s website and also to the business or facility’s Google results page. It also goes on a map hosted by Threshold 360. The arrangement, which the nonprofit just renewed for a second year, costs $18,000 annually.

Customers also have access to online analytics that show them how often people are engaging with their virtual tours. In the past month, Sonoma County’s destinations have been viewed for a total of 317 hours, West said.

“The amount of time that people are watching all the way through (the tours) is really quite high,” she said. “That, to me, says it makes an impression.”

Not all clients have been so impressed, including Larry Willis, owner of The Gables Wine Country Inn in Santa Rosa. After declining to pay Threshold 360 an additional fee in order to host a copy of his tour on his inn’s website, Willis said he never heard what happened to the video.

“I frankly had forgotten all about that,” Willis said. The tour of the inn remains available on Sonoma County Tourism’s website, but he can’t be sure about its impact on his business. Bookings have been way down, he said.

“We’re probably seeing something in the neighborhood of 25% to 30% of what we would normally see in a year,” he said.

Nationally, though, there are other reasons to believe that virtual tours of hotels and meeting spaces will continue to factor into tourism and destination marketing. Daniel Kraus, CEO of Threshold 360, said his company has witnessed the demand rapidly increase during the pandemic.

“It’s absolutely exploded,” he said. In addition, he said, “our traffic indicates people are really looking to understand more intimately where it is they’re going before they go there.”

And despite the relative novelty of being able to explore a space from the comfort of your couch, Kraus said, being flashy isn’t the point.

“We’re not trying to leverage new technology,” he said. “We’re trying to tell a story.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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