Tim Zahner, COO of Sonoma County Tourism, says businesses are open, despite recent fires. // © 2018 Sonoma County Tourism
Feature image (above): Out of 425 wineries in Sonoma, only one was destroyed. // © 2018 Sonoma County Tourism
At the end of last year, the news was rife with images of Sonoma County’s wine country being razed by disastrous wildfires. Despite all of the destruction, Sonoma County’s tourism industry remains open and operating. With more flights landing there than ever before, and the Sonoma Marin Area Region Transit (SMART) train running along the central corridor, the area is becoming increasingly accessible.
TravelAge West talked with Tim Zahner, chief operating officer of Sonoma County Tourism to find out what has changed (and what hasn’t) in one of California’s signature tourism and wine-producing destinations.
How did the fires that burned in late 2017 affect tourism to Sonoma County?
Speaking from a tourism standpoint, we’re open for business. The experience is the same. I know there were images of buildings burning, and many people construed those to be tourism assets or attractions. The reality is that out of 425 wineries, we only lost one. All of the vineyards are still there. The redwood forest is still there.
What everyone saw on the news was the section of the fires that went into a residential area. That, of course, made the news and is newsworthy. But from a tourism standpoint, we weren’t affected in that way.
This is how the tourism industry was affected: A lot of the people who were affected by the fires work in the hospitality industry. We’re stressing that we are open because we want people to have the jobs that come with visitors traveling here.
Were there any hotels damaged by the fires?
There were two hotels destroyed that are of interest to readers. One was called the Fountaingrove Inn, and the other one is Hilton Sonoma Wine Country. But we also have new buildings: Astro Motel in Santa Rosa and Holiday Inn Windsor. I think we actually netted up 14 available rooms for the year. There are more hotels either under construction or about to break ground, so I expect to see more growth happening.
Places such as Astro Motel are also revamping older buildings into really hip and cool lodging. The Astro is a cycling hotel, made cool-retro-hip with local artists. You get these awesome bikes from Shinola out of Detroit, and you can ride along the bike trails and explore. But, if you are a serious cyclist, they have what they are calling the bike concierge. They will put your bike together for you if you ship it to them. They have a tune-up area right there in the lobby where you drink your free coffee in the morning with some amazing pastries.
Apart from the typical wine experience, what itineraries does Sonoma County offer?
We are a world-class cycling destination, so a lot of people come here to train for the big races.
In May, we’re going to be doing our first Sonoma County outdoor month, where we encourage people to go experience nature.
From our research, the No. 1 motivating factor for visitors is scenic beauty. We are lucky that we have so many parks as well as open space. So, we’re going to begin promoting more about not just coming here and seeing the beauty, but getting actively out into it by hiking in the redwoods, kayaking the Russian River or cycling the backroads.
Is Sonoma County Tourism currently working on any other campaigns?
We’re in the midst of relooking at our brand and what it means for the Sonoma County message out there and have hired MMGY Global to begin the branding process. Right now, we’re running a “Sonoma Passion” campaign, which is really fun.
It’s amazing that once people come here, many of them come back — to the tune of around 60 to 70 percent. We saw the passion that people have for Sonoma County and realized that we can draw that into a campaign. In the campaign, we talk about not only the passion that people have for coming here, but also the passion that people who live here have for Sonoma County.
Whether it’s the winemakers, the beer-makers, the craft distillers or the farmers, the word is passion. People have this certain spirit. Going out to the coast, there will usually be a person with binoculars just waiting for you to come by so they can show you the migrating whales.
That’s what the campaign is about — really showcasing all the different aspects of Sonoma County and how that passion is expressed through food, wine, agriculture and outdoor adventures. It’s not like some places that are more conspicuous. This is a much more authentic representation of who we are; this is the lifestyle we lead.