Sonoma Valley attracting globetrotters
By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
People who live in the Valley of the Moon tend to think of it as an earthly paradise, discreetly removed from the rest of the world. But with increasing frequency, travelers from around the planet have been joining them.
On one single day this month, the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau greeted 241 out-of-town visitors, “and they included a large cross-section of international visitors,” said Wendy Peterson, the Bureau’s executive director.
“That day alone there were people from Canada, Australia, France, Switzerland, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Austria, South Africa and Germany. We always get a lot of French-speaking people, about 50/50 from Canada and France, and lately we’ve started getting a big influx of travelers from Brazil, Sweden, Belarus.”
Sonoma County’s 2011 Annual Tourism Report indicates that the top three international visitor origins are Europe, Canada and the United Kingdom, followed by Australia/New Zealand, Japan, Mexico, and other nations or geographic regions.
That fits right in with the observations of pedicab entrepreneur Adrian Palenchar. Over the last year, while waiting for customers throughout the day on Sonoma Plaza, he has witnessed a definite uptick in non-English speakers.
“What I’ve noticed more and more,” Palenchar said, “is the wide array of languages on the Plaza these days. I can detect Spanish and French, they’re familiar, but I’m hearing things now where I just have to take a wild guess at what the language is. That’s been true for a while.”
The globe-trotting visitors appear equally drawn to luxury and medium-priced accommodations.
“We’ve always attracted international travelers,” said Bill Blum, general manager of high-end MacArthur Place. “But our international business, particularly group travel, is bigger than ever before. We’re seeing guests from Canada, the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Australia. We’re getting nice business from Brazil. And Mexico’s starting to grow.”
Kendall Comfort, Sales Manager at the medium-priced Best Western Plus Sonoma Valley Inn, said “We’ve been seeing quite a few international visitors, lots of families–mostly from the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, Scotland, Ireland. They’re so friendly, so incredibly nice. It makes our job really fun.”
And Greg Guerrazzi, co-owner of Wine Country Trekking, noted that “We’ve had a 10-15% increase in international travelers recently–mostly Canadians.”
But what accounts for this increase?
For one thing, incoming travel to the U. S. as a whole has been rising steadily for the last two years—which, happily, translates into increased spending. The U. S. Commerce Department reported in August that, in the first six months of 2012, international visitors spent an estimated $82.2 billion on travel and tourism-related goods and services–an 11% increase over the same period in 2011.
Another reason: a strong marketing effort by Sonoma County Tourism Bureau. “We’ve been very active in attracting international travelers to Sonoma County,” said Tim Zahner, the Bureau’s Director of Marketing and PR.
“We have representation in the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Australia/New Zealand and have been able to increase bookings from these countries. This year we’ll also be adding Asia to our markets for growth.”
Zahner noted that this month alone his staff was scheduled almost every day to show the county to travel media and wholesale travel buyers, “and ninety percent of those people are international.”
Yet another reason, says Wendy Peterson, is that “Sonoma Valley’s proximity to San Francisco is a key driver.”
Peterson said that San Francisco is one of the top three travel markets in the United States (along with Los Angeles and New York City), and that “research shows that one out of four visitors to San Francisco, whether traveling for leisure or on business, makes a trip outside of the city. We’re the first wine country they encounter after leaving San Francisco.”
Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau maintains a popular second office, located in the Carneros at CornerStone Sonoma. “It’s a gateway to our Valley,” Peterson said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity. People come in there and say, ‘What can we do here?’ We tell them that they’re in Sonoma Valley, only 10 minutes from our historic downtown, and gently encourage them to remain in the Valley.”
Asked what draws international travelers to Sonoma Valley, the Bureau’s Laurie Dry said that they “like the European feel of our wine country, the small-town charm and friendliness. They like the history, the downtown plaza, the wine and food.
“A lot of them say that they’re walkers, and that they want to walk to the wineries. So we give them maps and send them off to Sebastiani or Ravenswood. Or if they want wineries with beautiful scenery, we send them everywhere from the Carneros to the northern end of the Valley. There is just so much here.”
“It’s exciting,” says Peterson, “to know that visitors from Belarus or South Africa or Tobago or some little tiny speck on the other side of the earth choose to come to Sonoma. We get to welcome them and share what we know of the Valley.
“Once people experience this place, they inevitably picture themselves living here. Every single day people tell us we’re so lucky to live here. And here’s what we say: ‘Please come back.’”