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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Greg Guerrazzi wants North Bay tourists to take a hike, one that could lead them past beaches, redwoods and wineries, with stays each night at upscale inns and hotels.

Through his family-owned Wine Country Trekking, Guerrazzi offers “European style” walking and running adventures around the region to such iconic vistas as Muir Woods, Jack London State Historic Park, the Napa Valley and soon Bodega Bay. For these self-guided trips he will shuttle your luggage to your next accommodation, arrange breakfasts and lunches and provide detailed itineraries and maps with photos of those spots where you might wonder which fork to take in the trail.

“Honeymooners just love it,” he said of the various walking trips, which start at about $1,300 in summer for three or four nights. And while adventurous baby boomers make up part of his clientele, the future looks even brighter because “the next generation is definitely more active.”

The Glen Ellen-based business is another example of the region’s growing hospitality sector, which in Sonoma County employs about one in every 10 workers. While some businesses experienced temporary reductions in tourists due to last fall’s devastating wildfires, their outlook for the summer travel season is generally upbeat.

Tourism was among the first segments of the county’s economy to rebound after the recession. The lodging industry in particular has enjoyed eight years of growth, often amounting to double- digit gains from prior years.

And over the past decade the hospitality sector has benefited from a range of new offerings that regularly draw significant crowds to the area. They include the 6-year-old Green Music Center and its world-class symphony hall at Sonoma State University; Levi’s Granfondo, a cycling ride that attracts thousands and this fall will include a three-day festival in downtown Santa Rosa; and Russian River Brewing Co.’s annual release of Pliny the Younger, reputed to be one of the best beers in the world. Pliny’s latest release in February pumped an estimated $3.3 million into the local economy as guests lined up in downtown Santa Rosa for the chance to partake.

The travel sector contributed nearly $2.1 billion to the county economy last year, an increase of 2.3 percent from a year earlier, according to Sonoma County Tourism, the county’s official travel marketing organization. That impact included nearly $178 million in state and local taxes.

Enter the October wildfires, the most destructive infernos in state history. The blazes claimed 40 lives in a four-county region and burned 6,200 homes. Residential insurance claims have exceeded $9 billion.

The fires had different impacts on different parts of the hospitality sector. Hotels quickly filled, first with fire evacuees and soon thereafter with those who came to offer aid and begin cleanup operations.

The extra business has carried over into 2018. Hotel revenue for the first quarter jumped 26.2 percent to $67 million, according to travel research company STR, which tracks nearly 6,300 rooms in the county. The average daily room rate for that period increased 12 percent to $154.56. The average occupancy rate rose to 76.7 percent, compared to 67.2 percent a year earlier.

The county’s hotels are expected to house construction workers for the next several years as rebuilding takes place. But lodging managers report a shift toward travelers as the summer season approaches, said Sonoma County Tourism President/CEO Claudia Vecchio.

“It’s beginning to be more balanced than it has been in the past six months,” Vecchio said.

While the hotel business has grown, some other hospitality companies report different results.

The Charles M. Schulz- Sonoma County Airport reports the total number of passengers grew nearly 12 percent in the first four months of 2018, compared to a year earlier. But that increase was due to the airport gaining new airlines and routes.

In contrast, Alaska Airlines, which carries the most passengers and was the airport’s first operator, saw ridership at the airport decline 4 percent in the same period.

“We do still see some softness because of the fires, but it’s getting better,” said airport manager Jon Stout.

As evidence, he noted the airport recently built a new parking lot over an old gravel area and gained roughly an extra 130 parking spaces, bringing the total to more than 700. On a recent Friday afternoon, only 30 spaces remained.

By early summer the airport plans to boost the total parking to more than 900 spaces, he said.

Guerrazzi, the trekking company owner, said his business has declined about 10 percent since the fires. He has heard similar results from owners of the restaurants and lodging businesses he partners with.

“I think the fires have certainly dampened tourism here,” he said. Even so, he said the county seems well on the road to recovery.

Vecchio acknowledged that some wedding-related businesses and those that rely on longer- term reservations may have seen a reduction in business this year, especially for events that would have been booked last fall for the coming spring and summer. Right after the fires, brides and event planners may have looked to other counties because of the uncertainty here.

But she suggested such reservations have returned and any impact isn’t expected to extend past late summer.

Both state and local tourism officials have stepped up efforts to ensure that visitors come back.

Visit California, the nonprofit arm of the state Office of Tourism, last fall announced a $2 million advertising campaign for the wine regions of Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties.

And Sonoma County Tourism’s board of directors also designated $750,000 to provide extra marketing after the fires. Along with increased advertising, the agency has offered groups that book meetings here with both a cash discount and with a donation that will be made on the visiting group’s behalf to fire relief efforts.

Vecchio called the outlook strong for summer tourism and said that travel research company STR is forecasting lodging sector gains here that typically range from 7 to 9 percent for much of the summer and early fall, compared to a year ago.

Travel officials and entrepreneurs said the county’s longtime strengths include its scenic beauty, its food and wine scene, a wide array of summer arts and entertainment offerings and a growing number of outdoor travel companies.

“Our diversity is our strength,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

His agency this spring released a report that estimated the county’s outdoor recreation companies employ 4,300 people and add $731 million a year to the economy. Among those 300-plus outdoor companies is the Ranch at Lake Sonoma, which is about to start its second summer of trail rides. The business also will host its first wedding next month at its new, red-roofed barn.

The Ranch at Lake Sonoma is located within the federal lands around Warm Springs Dam. It offers a variety of public and private rides, including those that offer vistas of the Dry Creek Valley, The Geysers and Mt. Saint Helena.

“It’s all about the views,” said Nikki Baxes, who owns the business with her husband David.

Baxes said this spring she asked her customers about their decisions to visit the county after the fire. She said the common answer was “they heard that Sonoma was still beautiful.”

At Safari West wildlife preserve near Santa Rosa, holiday events for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are fully booked.

“We’ve definitely rebounded,” said Aphrodite Caserta, director of marketing and communications. The volume of phone calls seeking reservations has grown significantly.

At the El Dorado Hotel & Kitchen on the Sonoma Plaza, “the bustle is back” around the town square, said hotel manager Brian Montanez.

For the hotel, he said, “we’re already seeing great numbers on the books” for the peak season of July through October. An annual draw involves the chance to watch the town’s Fourth of July parade from the hotel balconies, a celebration for which patrons book a year in advance.

When the guests check out after the holiday, Montanez said, “they’ll say, ‘We’ll see you next year. Can we get the same room?’”

Along the Russian River, hospitality businesses “are looking forward to a really great summer,” said Jennifer Neeley, president of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce.

One reason for the optimism is Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville is holding two days of music in early June, including the resumption of a separate Russian River Blues Festival.

“We always need more things to draw people in the beginning of the season,” Neeley said.

It’s been at least a dozen years since the river area hosted separate blues and jazz festivals, said Johnson’s Beach owners Dan Poirier and Nick Moore. The Russian River Jazz Festival will continue to take place in September.

The two said they want the blues festival to become an annual event. “Our hope is to bring business to the river early in the season,” Moore said.

The June 10 blues festival will be preceded June 9 by a celebration of Johnson’s Beach centennial anniversary. The performers for “Johnson’s Beach Feel Good Beach Party” will include Grammy award-winning reggae artist Shaggy, who in April performed with Sting at the 92nd birthday celebration for Queen Elizabeth held in London’s Royal Albert Hall.

“We felt it was important to do something big,” Poirier said of the 100th anniversary.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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