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Sonoma County tourism bounces back with boost in hotel stays, air travel lift

If anyone is bullish on a tourism rebound in Sonoma County, it’s Emily Glick.

Glick and investors from her family bought the Applewood Inn late last year and since then she has spearheaded revamping the 21-room Guerneville property set to open in August. It covers six acres amid groves of redwood trees complemented by apple, quince and fig trees.

The site now is called the Stavrand Russian River Valley, renamed after her mother’s side of the family whose previous generations worked in the travel sector.

The pandemic presented an opportunity as Glick found herself managing a boarded-up hotel in San Francisco, and the price of lodging properties got more affordable with the assist of a loan from the Small Business Administration. The refurbished inn includes a poolside bar cart, outdoor yoga and spa treatments, fireside evening aperitifs and outdoor lawn games.

“I had always wanted to operate my own property,” said Glick, who will be general manager. “This is the perfect size at an incredible location.”

At midsummer, her exuberance about the comeback the local tourism industry is making from the pandemic is supported by recent boosts in travel and hotel occupancy figures.

Airline passenger traffic has taken off at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. In June, the airport reported 49,186 passengers arriving and departing, surpassing the 45,822 travelers a year ago during the pandemic doldrums.

With discount carrier Avelo Airlines adding flights between Sonoma County and Las Vegas starting Sept. 16 and Alaska Airlines flying daily to John Wayne Airport in Orange County and San Diego International Airport beginning on Sept. 8, even more passengers could pass through local airport security gates in the coming months.

“This summer, it’s looking good,” said Claudia Vecchio, CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, the local agency responsible for promoting the industry.

Area hotel occupancy rates are close to 90% over the weekends. On weekdays it ranges from 70% to 75%, with those levels rising on Wednesday and Thursday, Vecchio said.

“We are very much to pre-pandemic levels in many ways with hotel occupancy,” she said.

Increased visitor activity also has been evident in short-term vacation rentals via websites such as Airbnb and Vrbo. There are about 2,000 vacation rental units in Sonoma County compared to about 6,600 hotel rooms.

For the latest available numbers from May, short-term rentals represented roughly 47% of overall lodging revenue in the county. But the vacation rentals had a much higher average daily room rate of $490.79 versus $194.68 for hotels. That means higher room tax revenue for the county and local municipalities. In May 2019, those short-term rental units represented 38% of the county’s overall lodging revenue.

While summer travel and visitor numbers are strong, those in the county hospitality arena are taking nothing for granted. They realize things could suddenly change given the rapid spreading of the delta coronavirus variant, as well as the potential for more wildfires prevalent in recent years.

For now, a deluge of visitors are turning up again at Russian River Brewing’s downtown Santa Rosa and Windsor brewpubs, co-owner Natalie Cilurzo said. The wait for a table at the original Santa Rosa brewpub can be up to an hour, although bar and inside service has resumed. Many people coming this summer are in large groups, suggesting a cadre of family and friends vacationing together for the first time since the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020, Cilurzo said.

“It’s kind of interesting to me how many people show up with a party of 16 or 20 wanting to be seated,” she said.

Another tourism barometer is Sonoma Raceway, the host of the National Hot Rod Association’s Sonoma Nationals July 23-25. The event is the first at the raceway since public health capacity restrictions were lifted.

“The demand for tickets is close to 2019, which is great,” said Jennifer Imbimbo, a spokeswoman for the raceway. “We are definitely encouraged by the fact that people want to get out and have some fun.”

Meanwhile, investors are putting their money into more local hotel development projects. Recent openings range from luxury Montage Healdsburg resort, where rooms start at almost $1,000 a night, to the budget-friendly La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Santa Rosa Sonoma next to Highway 101.

“I think the way Sonoma County has come out of the recovery and the kind of forward-looking projections for Sonoma County are very positive,” Vecchio said. “It makes sense for developers and others who are looking for transformative ... projects to be looking at Sonoma County.”

One area bustling with visitors is west county due to its proximity to various outdoor activities along the Russian River and the Sonoma Coast, while also being a short drive to restaurants and wine and beer tasting sites, she said.

For example, Crista Luedtke, who owns Boon Hotel and Spa and Boon Eat and Drink, took over ownership of The Highlands in Guerneville on June 1. As part of a reboot, Luedtke added 11 glamping tents that rent for $159 nightly. They come with king beds and charging ports for smartphones and other devices.

“It’s kind of back in the old days. That’s how the Russian River sort of started was these canvas tent cabins that would be up for the summer season and then down,” Luedtke said.

Her team has redecorated the lobby as part of its property revamp, though like other area leisure and hospitality business owners she’s short on staff and looking to hire.

“We are having a banner season thus far,” said Luedtke, despite the staffing struggle.

Innkeeper Glick said she’s positioned her Stavrand overnight rates between the AutoCamp Russian River with its novelty Airstream trailers and a luxury stay at the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville. Prices at her inn start at $446 on a property that dates to the early 1920s. It was originally owned by Ralph “Rooster” Belden, president of the former Bank of Guerneville.

“There is just a zillion things to do here,” Glick said. “In my mind, this makes Sonoma more dynamic than Napa.”

One challenge for county tourism operators will be to entice more visitors during the off-season stretch from mid-November to Memorial Day. Glick plans to court corporate retreats, as well as couples looking to get married in the spring when the calendar is less booked and the cost is cheaper than during the summer and fall.

“It’s a seasonal challenge in Sonoma, especially in the Russian River (area),” Glick said.

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

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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