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Sonoma County tourism rebounding with high hopes for future

Last year at this time, local tourism officials and hospitality gurus were slogging through one of the toughest periods in recent memory—doldrums that left many fearful about the prospect of survival.

Today, to put it simply, Sonoma County tourism is flying high.

No, that’s not to say visitation to the county has returned to pre-COVID levels. But there’s no question that as travel restrictions have loosened and more businesses across the county have reopened, visitors from around the Bay Area and beyond are flocking back to Wine Country in droves.

“From the lifting of restrictions in March, we have seen strong demand throughout the summer months and into the fall at our hotels and restaurants,” said Circe Sher, president of Piazza Hospitality, the company that owns and operates three hotels in downtown Healdsburg. “We are keeping extremely busy and feel optimistic for next year.”

Numbers don’t lie

You don’t have to take Sher’s word for it; the proof of this uptick is in the data.

According to statistics compiled by the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, hotel occupancy has recovered significantly between July 2020 and July 2021. Earlier this summer occupancy was reported to be just over 77%, while last summer the same research indicated occupancy hovering around 58%.

In the three Julys before 2020, occupancy rates fluctuated between 84%(July 2017) and 81% (July 2019).

Claudia Vecchio, President and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
Claudia Vecchio, President and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, the organization that markets Sonoma County as a destination, attributed part of this recovery to the amount of open space in Sonoma County, and to the way in which local people and local businesses are adhering to public health requirements.

“When it comes to safe travel destinations, Northern California is way ahead of most places in terms of safety protocols and vaccination rates,” said Vecchio. “Wearing masks, ensuring event attendees are fully vaccinated and wide-open spaces that offer natural social distancing all make Sonoma County a smart choice for travelers who want to enjoy Wine Country and protect their health.”

Customers wait to be seated outside Crooked Goat Brewing at the Barlow in Sebastopol. (Press Democrat file)
Customers wait to be seated outside Crooked Goat Brewing at the Barlow in Sebastopol. (Press Democrat file)

Anecdotal evidence across the county supports this claim.

At The Barlow in Sebastopol, parking is at a premium and queues at food-service establishments regularly stretch 10 people deep. In Petaluma, downtown businesses report steady streams of customers for the first time in a long time.

Even at the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, visitation is reportedly higher than it’s been at any time since before the pandemic began.

Marine Layer Wines in downtown Healdsburg. (Courtesy of Marine Layer Wines)
Marine Layer Wines in downtown Healdsburg. (Courtesy of Marine Layer Wines)

“Downtown feels alive again,” said Marissa Gilliland, director of hospitality for the recently opened Marine Layer Wines tasting room on the Healdsburg Plaza. “It’s exciting to be here and exciting to be a part of the action.”

New tourism options

Several new and refreshed options in and around Sonoma County certainly have helped draw visitors to the region.

Gilliland’s winery, helmed by Banshee Wines alums Baron Ziegler and Rob Fischer, is one such option.

The Lanai patio area of the Flamingo Resort in Santa Rosa on Thursday, May 13, 2021.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
The Lanai patio area of the Flamingo Resort in Santa Rosa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

In mid-September, the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport welcomed the return of non-stop flights to Las Vegas on short-haul carrier Avelo Airlines. Currently the flights are scheduled for Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays, and Mondays; inaugural and promotional pricing was as low as $39 each way.

Earlier this summer, the Art Deco-inspired Flamingo Resort in east Santa Rosa unveiled a $20 million renovation that has attracted hipsters and families alike.

In Sonoma, the 182-room Lodge at Sonoma Resort, Autograph Collection this summer rolled out an exhaustive and extensive renovation—an upgrade that paired with a rebranding from one tier of the Marriott corporate structure to another. The move came after the resort opened Wit & Wisdom, the first Wine Country restaurant from celebrity chef Michael Mina.

Hotel General Manager Chris Wingerberg said guest responses to the changes have been “positive.”

Even veteran wineries have innovated. At Comstock Wines in Healdsburg, for instance, wine club pick-ups no longer revolve around parties but instead around intimate seated tastings and food pairings with tables distanced appropriately on an open-air patio that in the middle of the Dry Creek Valley.

In Sonoma, the 182-room Lodge at Sonoma Resort, Autograph Collection this summer rolled out an exhaustive and extensive renovation—an upgrade that paired with a rebranding from one tier of the Marriott corporate structure to another. (The Lodge at Sonoma Resort)
In Sonoma, the 182-room Lodge at Sonoma Resort, Autograph Collection this summer rolled out an exhaustive and extensive renovation—an upgrade that paired with a rebranding from one tier of the Marriott corporate structure to another. (The Lodge at Sonoma Resort)

Just across the Napa County line, the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art—which formerly managed visitation by timed tickets—is now open to the public for drop-in visits on weekends.

“We’re trying to make everything more accessible,” said di Rosa spokesperson Jennifer Churchill.

Meetings still a question

Not everything about tourism is rainbows and unicorns—industry insiders say that event and meeting traffic is still sagging.

Tim Zahner, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, said his members are reporting that the delta variant is causing potential clients to postpone or reconsider meetings they had rebooked last year due to the first wave of COVID.

Tim Zahner, interim CEO, Sonoma County Tourism. (SCT)
Tim Zahner, interim CEO, Sonoma County Tourism. (SCT)

“Meetings and groups are a huge source of business for hotels, and people have interest but they’re still not entirely comfortable booking,” Zahner said. “Normally these types of customers book a year or more in advance. I don’t think anybody feels comfortable booking that far out at this point because of how things have been going overall.”

Zahner added that a lack of meeting business keeps rack rates lower for leisure travelers. He explained that demand from meeting groups diminishes supply and creates “upward pressure” on room pricing for leisure travelers.

Put differently, less meeting business often means lower rack rates for the rooms that remain.

“It’s a constant challenge,” Zahner noted. “Hotels want to make rates appealing, but if you drop rates too low, you start losing money.”

What’s next

For now, booming leisure demand is enough to sustain most properties. Many hotels at various price points are operating at or near capacity, and several hotels say they are on track for record-breaking autumns. Much of the interest is from Californians who are driving instead of flying to get away.

Farmhouse Inn co-owners Catherine and her brother Joe Bartolomei. Courtesy of Farmhouse Inn.
Farmhouse Inn co-owners Catherine and her brother Joe Bartolomei. Courtesy of Farmhouse Inn.

Joe Bartolomei, co-owner of The Farmhouse Inn & Spa in Forestville, said he usually considers November to April to be the “off-season,” but noted that the coming months show no sign of slowing down.

“Demand is higher than it’s ever been before, and I am anticipating less of an off-season this year,” he said. “The big unknown is what’s going to happen with COVID. Will we have more restrictions? Will we see higher numbers? Nothing would surprise me.”

Vecchio, the head of Sonoma County Tourism, was cautiously optimistic about the future.

Farmhouse Inn server Lori LaPorta serves guests Meryl Chase an Austin Creek Pear and Manchego Salad as she sits down for dinner with her husband Jonathan Chase and son Kyler, 7 months. (The Press Democrat)
Farmhouse Inn server Lori LaPorta serves guests Meryl Chase an Austin Creek Pear and Manchego Salad as she sits down for dinner with her husband Jonathan Chase and son Kyler, 7 months. (The Press Democrat)

“Sonoma County will continue to be a compelling destination for leisure travelers from across northern California and key markets around the county,” she said. “While the ongoing impacts of the ever-evolving COVID variants may impact groups and meetings, the venues in Sonoma County have stringent health protocols in place to help ensure both individuals and groups can visit safely.”

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