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Tourists flocking to wellness activities within Sonoma County since pandemic struck

As he walked around the grounds of the Osmosis Day Spa and Sanctuary in Freestone, owner Michael Stusser noted the wave of tranquility that typically embraces visitors who set foot upon the secluded property nestled among the redwoods of the Sonoma Coast.

Many are lured by the cedar enzyme bath and follow-up massage that can start at $290 per person. The meditation garden is another attraction, a place where people can practice mindfulness away from the temptations of smartphones and urban life. The facility has recently added picnic tables with a catered lunch option from Gravenstein Grill to go with a vista that overlooks pinot noir vineyards.

“Time stands still for people when they come here,” said Stusser, who opened the spa in 1985 and has refined its services and products ever since.

Visitors have been coming in greater numbers since the pandemic — with weekend bookings now available about seven weeks out. “I think the pandemic has totally awakened people to levels of importance (of their well-being) that were just under the radar and now they are in front and center stage,” Stusser said. “People have come to a realization of what is most important in their lives.”

That’s been the experience of many in the hospitality field of Sonoma County as more visitors and tourists are coming to seek out wellness services and products to de-stress and detox from the last two years of COVID-19.

The industry ranges from traditional spa services to aromatherapy to acupuncture. It also includes those that offer various yoga classes and forest bathing, a Japanese-inspired practice of seeking mindfulness and serenity among trees. The services complement local businesses that specialize in herbal medicines and treatments, such as Rosemary’s Garden in Sebastopol and Herb Folk Medicine. The latter recently closed its Petaluma storefront but still operates online.

“We used to be known as a wine destination and the redwoods. That always will be the case. But there is a deeper connection that these folks have come up with in terms of how people find well-being in Sonoma County. We just think that’s great,” said Todd O’Leary, vice president of marketing and communications at Sonoma County Tourism, the agency responsible for promoting local tourism marketing efforts.

The interest in wellness had picked up in previous years, but the pandemic sped up the growth as locals and visitors sought to get outside and placed a greater priority on their physical and emotional health. In fact, Sonoma County Tourism had been promoting such activities in its marketing campaign “Life Opens Up” to showcase other options outside of the traditional food-and-wine activities in a category that brought in almost $2 billion in overall visitor spending in 2021.

The most noticeable change? Wineries have realized they can have an edge if they also offer wellness services. Some have adapted to take advantage given the interest. That has been the experience at Red Car Wine Co. in Sebastopol, where Jenny Harrow-Keeler leads guests for forest bathing at its vineyard near Occidental.

Harrow-Keeler has a unique perspective on the topic as she served as director of hospitality at the winery and later obtained a master’s degree in integrative health studies and became a certified nature therapy guide. She jokes that at the beginning of a session her clients are not going to undress, but she wants them to open up their sense of smell, sight and touch.

Jenny Harrow-Keeler, a certified nature therapy guide, walks in a vineyard where she hosts forest bathing activities for guests.
Jenny Harrow-Keeler, a certified nature therapy guide, walks in a vineyard where she hosts forest bathing activities for guests.

“It’s part of opening the senses, especially in the vineyards,” Harrow-Keeler said. “You taste the chardonnay … and this is from the land.”

In a post-pandemic environment, she said Sonoma County has an advantage over typical spa destinations, such as Scottsdale, Arizona, or Palm Springs, because of its wide variety of wellness practitioners who have taken advantage of the natural beauty that surrounds the area.

“People are not looking to escape in the same way,” Harrow-Keeler said of travelers before the pandemic. “They are sort of looking for travel to recharge.”

Deacon Carpenter also agrees as he leads yoga sessions at Bricoleur Vineyards in Windsor, including one class entitled “Zen, then Zin.” Carpenter has noted that since the pandemic many yoga practitioners prefer classes in an outdoor environment.

“People are still a little bit hesitant going back inside a yoga studio or gym,” he said.

There are 16 local yoga studios that made it through the pandemic, out of almost 40 locations at the beginning of 2020, he estimated. But the demand for yoga still remains popular.

He created his Yoga Van service that provides for outdoor pop-up yoga classes. His business also offers forest bathing and sound healing, where a practitioner strikes gongs and bowls to create vibrations to help clients enter into a meditative state.

“Anything we can do in a yoga studio, we can bring into nature in Sonoma County,” Carpenter said. “It’s been very well received.”

The services have been mostly targeted for out-of-town visitors, but both Harrow-Keeler and Carpenter said one potential untapped market will be corporate retreats to help stressed-out executives manage their well-being. Carpenter said he is working with one Fortune 500 company and its C-suite personnel to have an aromatherapy experience and meditation class as part of its Sonoma County retreat.

“I think corporations are realizing that you can’t put your employees in a cannon and shoot them against the wall without giving them a little bit of relief,” he said.

The overall wellness industry also is expected to have an added boost in future years as cannabis tourism becomes more mainstream. Local marijuana growers and retailers have highlighted the therapeutic benefits of the plant, especially as the prime cultivation area for cannabis is the nearby Emerald Triangle, which is located in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties.

Visit Mendocino County, the agency responsible for tourism there, noted such opportunities in a news release in July and highlighted the Plantshop in Ukiah, a dispensary that offers a medicated yoga session and a half-acre consumption lounge. “Whether seeking to reconnect, ramp up wellness, boost creativity or chill in an ancient grove of redwoods, cannabis-related tourism is on the uptick,” the agency’s release said.

Stusser of Osmosis can see the growth with younger customers who are more aware of his facility as a result of TikTok videos in contrast to their parents who would have found out about the spa from coverage in publications such as the New York Times.

“I’m honestly just so glad to see the tourism bureau … opening their eyes and realizing what an incredible, richly diverse community this is with so many smaller businesses that have offerings that are completely out of the box,” he said. “This is what we need to be protecting.”

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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