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Destination Sonoma County

Author: Nancy Sands Johnson
March, 2013 Issue

Sonoma County named the number one wine destination in the United States—and second in the world—by TripAdvisor.

High-fives, Facebook posts and more than a few raised glasses accompanied news in October 2012 that Sonoma County had been named the number one wine destination in the United States—and second in the world—by TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel website.
“We were so honored,” says Ken Fischang, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, the official organization dedicated to promoting Sonoma County as an overnight destination. “This type of amazing recognition comes from the best source: our customers.” 
TripAdvisor bestowed its Travelers’ Choice Wine Destinations award based on millions of travelers’ reviews and opinions for local wineries, restaurants, attractions and accommodations.“The award affirms who we are and how we share it with visitors,” says Wendy Peterson, executive director of Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau. “It tells us, ‘We did it. We’re the authentic Wine Country experience.’”
The TripAdvisor award isn’t the only recognition the county has received lately. National Geographic included Sonoma County in its list of the top 20 places to visit in the world for 2012. USA Today picked Sonoma County as a top destination for the 2012-2013 winter. Wine Spectator featured Sonoma County as its cover story in its June 15, 2012 issue. And in an online poll, Northern California readers of Sunset chose Sonoma County over Napa Valley as their favorite wine-related destination.
People are drawn to Sonoma County,” says Honore Comfort, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners. “They love the scenery, the wonderful food and the laid-back vibe. And, of course, they love the wine.”
These attributes certainly factor into the increased attention. But another piece of the story lies in how tourism and wine professionals have been promoting Sonoma County over the past seven years. In true Sonoma County fashion, they’ve taken more risks and collaborated more often. Thanks to their efforts, Sonoma County has entered the highly competitive destination marketing arena and grabbed the spotlight.

Discovering the magic of Sonoma County

Sonoma County is unique among other wine-growing regions in both size and topography. A tad larger than the state of Rhode Island, it boasts not just one but two coastlines, along with mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and forests. This landscape inspires bliss—and plenty of fun.
“You can stroll through a vineyard and, 45 minutes later, hike at the coast. Or zipline through the redwoods and then canoe along the Russian River,” says Beth Costa, executive director of Wine Road, a membership association that promotes wineries and lodgings in Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys. “Whatever you want to do, you can do it here.”
Numerous soil types and microclimates contribute to the diversity of wines produced here. Sonoma County boasts 13 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), each with a compelling story and an abundance of excellent wines to share with visitors.
“No other county in America matches what we offer,” says Corey Beck, general manager and director of winemaking at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville. “The diversity in what the different subappellations here grow is unparalleled.”
Another plus is Sonoma County’s proximity to two metropolitan areas and its well-developed amenities within county borders. Only have a few hours? It’s easy to get to Sonoma County and then return to San Francisco or Sacramento. Want to stay overnight? The county offers a wide range of lodging and dining options in just about every price range. Spa experiences and a sophisticated arts scene make the case to stay particularly compelling. So does the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport, which connects Santa Rosa to many parts of the world in two flights or less.
“It’s a huge perk that Horizon Air serves some of our bigger markets,” says Costa. “Now people can take a 9:00 a.m. flight from San Diego and be wine tasting by noon.”
Big city conveniences aside, Sonoma County maintains lots of country charm thanks to its vibrant agricultural heritage and commitment to land preservation. Family-owned wineries, in particular, keep Sonoma County’s wine vibe relaxed and authentic. “Our multi-generational wine families have a commitment to the land and to agriculture here in Sonoma County. Our farming roots drive the laid-back attitude and also inspire the spirit of independence and innovation found here,” says Comfort. “We strive to make wines that are reflective of this place, and we want to show people what makes it special.”
Many visitors discover their Sonoma County through organized events that blend wine tasting with food, education and outdoor activities. Thousands of people, some from as far away as Florida and New York, participate in each of Wine Road’s six weekend-long events annually, including a barrel-tasting extravaganza in March. Other visitors sign up for specialty events like food-and-wine pairings or attend smaller gatherings like winemaker’s dinners.
With so much to offer, wineries become destinations in-and-of themselves. For example, Matanzas Creek Winery in Bennett Valley features bocce ball courts, picnic grounds and lavender gardens in addition to its tasting room and vineyard. Each June, the winery hosts Days of Wine and Lavender, a weekend celebration that draws more than 500 visitors from the Bay Area and beyond. Though Matanzas Creek is located within a few miles of downtown Santa Rosa, it feels a world away, according to Tyler Plant, Matanzas Creek’s director of business operations.
“We encourage our guests to relax and enjoy themselves,” says Plant. “Whether visitors want to sit down for a tasting in our VIP room, wander through our lavender gardens or learn more about our history and wines, we have something for everyone.”
Often, it’s the impromptu meetings, whether at a larger operation off the main highway or a tiny winery at the end of a country road, that make the strongest impression. “It’s not unusual for visitors to interact with the winemaker or the winery owner during a tasting,” says Nick Frey, president of Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. “And that creates a connection. Even if it’s just a 15-minute conversation, the visitor gets insights into what happens in the vineyard and how that’s translated into the wines.”
Comfort tells the story of a writer who stopped to ask directions from a woman working in her garden. The “gardener,” who just a minute before had been pulling weeds, stood up, brushed the dirt off her hands and introduced herself as the nearby winery’s owner and winemaker. “People who come here want to see behind the façade. They want to get dirt on their boots,” says Comfort. “We throw open our doors and give them a taste of what Wine Country is all about.”

Welcome to paradise

Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa reveals the magic of Sonoma County on a micro level. The winery is on Thomas Lake Harris Drive, less than 10 minutes east of busy Highway 101. But drive past the assisted living facility and the condominium development, and you’ll find yourself under a canopy of California buckeye, bay laurel and willow trees. Sculptures of plaster and metal, part of the winery’s rotating art exhibit, peek out from the native foliage. Coyotes often romp on a hillside above the parking lot, while an acorn woodpecker drills holes in a coast live oak next to the tasting room’s entrance.
From a deck that overlooks the vineyard, Rene Byck, Paradise Ridge Winery’s proprietor (along with his father and four siblings), gestures to a sweeping view of west Sonoma County. On a clear day, you can see the contours of hills and valleys from Point Reyes and Petaluma to the south, out west to Sebastopol, the entire Russian River Valley to the north and all the way to the coastal mountains near Jenner.
“My parents wanted to buy a piece of property where they could enjoy the land with their five kids and eventually their grandkids,” recalls Byck. “One day in 1978, my dad saw a for-sale sign on this hillside. He came home that night and told us all he’d found paradise.”
Down below the tasting room, the aforementioned father—Walter Byck—hoses remnants of an earlier mudslide off the road. Rows of neatly tended Pinot Noir vines stand behind him, while a nearby vineyard populated by a mix of Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Grenache and a bit of Alicante Bouchete is punctuated by signs from a self-guided tour sponsored by the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.
Rene’s brother-in-law, Dan Barwick, makes wine from these vines and also from other small vineyards around the county (most particularly Rockpile). Reflecting the county’s diversity, the eight wines on the tasting list incorporate 11 varietals grown in four different Sonoma County appellations. “At Paradise Ridge, you can get a little family, some art and history, an amazing view and fine wines,” says Byck. “It’s the Sonoma County Wine Country experience in one stop.”

Marketing Sonoma County

Paradise Ridge evolved from a family’s dream of a rural escape into a thriving business in part because of the Byck family’s willingness to grow as a company. For example, it began hosting weddings in the 1990s after recognizing a market need for winery wedding venues. It added the sculpture garden, Marijke’s Grove (named for family matriarch Marijke Byck-Hoenselaars, who died in 2006) and the Nagasawa historical exhibit as a way to share a love of history and art with others. Now it offers wine and cheese pairings, an herb and wine experience and Wednesday Wine and Sunsets, a weekly event during the summer that combines music, food and wine. Naturally, as they’ve expanded their offerings, the Bycks have upgraded their business approach.
“It used to be that my parents would look at the books and say, ‘This is what we started with and this is what we made. It looks like we’ve done well,’” says Rene Byck. “Now we do a lot more planning and marketing.”
In the same vein, Sonoma County’s wine and tourism industries have needed to step up their game to compete with other wine growing regions. Ten years ago, most of the county’s numerous tourism and wine industry groups worked in isolation and with limited financial resources. Wineries, too, had small marketing budgets. The county lacked a unified brand identity, and that kept visitors from knowing what it had to offer.
“Historically, multiple groups independently marketed Sonoma County or one of its AVAs,” says Frey. “Those multiple messages may have confused the market about Sonoma County as a premier wine region.”

Financing change

Eventually, several family wineries were sold to corporations, bringing more marketing dollars into the county.
“That was bittersweet,” recalls Christine Hanna, co-owner and president of Hanna Winery and Vineyards. “I run a family winery and I believe in them. But I also recognize the power of corporate wineries, with their bigger advertising budgets, to reach out across the country and bring more people here.”
At the same time, many winegrape growers added “winemaker” to their résumé, a change, Hanna says, that’s contributed to a steady improvement in wine quality. “Our wines have always been good, but now they’re great,” she says. “There’s been a grassroots explosion of quality in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. They’re the finest Pinots in this country if not in the world. No matter where you live, if you’re a wine lover, that’s awfully hard to ignore.”
New efforts to finance county-wide promotional efforts also prompted change. In 2005, a business improvement assessment (BIA) district was formed, which provided visitors pay a 2 percent assessment (applied to lodging rooms within a newly formed Sonoma County Tourism Business Improvement Area). This led to the creation of Sonoma County Tourism (formerly known as Sonoma County Tourism Program), which is funded by the 2 percent BIA assessment as well as the first 2 percent of the transient occupancy tax (TOT) collected annually in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County.
Similarly, other trade groups reinvented themselves and found new funding channels. For example, winegrape growers voted in 2006 to turn what had been a voluntary membership organization into the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission and to collect mandatory assessments on all grapes sold to unrelated wineries. That decision put more money into efforts to promote Sonoma County and its unique AVAs to wine consumers.
“Growers recognize that creating market value at the consumer level is critical,” says Frey. “Wineries can buy grapes from anywhere. But they’ll only buy grapes from us—at the prices we need—if they can differentiate their product and charge more in the marketplace because it’s from Sonoma County, one of our AVAs or perhaps one of our vineyard designates.”

The power of collaboration

Also in 2006, Sonoma County Tourism, Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Winegrape Commission—the county’s three largest groups representing tourism, vintners and growers—began to partner with each other. They moved into the same office space, pooled funds to undertake extensive research and also began to use the same public relations firm. Together, they defined a brand and identified a target market.
“During our research, the words genuine, independent and adventurous came up over and over to explain what we are and who we are in Sonoma County,” says Fischang. “We learned that what we offer resonates most with people who are experience-seekers.”
In 2012, Sonoma County Tourism launched a sophisticated communications campaign built around this new brand and market focus. Asking the question, “Do you speak Sonoma?” the campaign includes media placements and paid advertisements in lifestyle magazines like Sunset. Sonoma Vintners and Sonoma Winegrape Commission jointly launched their own campaign, “We are Sonoma County,” which shares the brand mark and positioning of Sonoma County Tourism’s campaign.
“For the first time ever, we have a world class marketing campaign for the entire region of Sonoma County,” says Comfort. “We’re reaching out to consumers, trade and media and articulating what makes this place unique with the right mix of disarming humor and useful information. By showing the people and places here, we’re establishing an emotional connection with potential visitors.”
Today, numerous trade and tourism groups across the county make an effort to be more collaborative. They share market insight, cosponsor press tours and promote each other’s events. And even as they sing the virtues of individual AVAs and cities, they stick to the more global “Sonoma County” brand identity.
“We partner with as many people as we can to ensure consistency in messaging,” says Maureen Cottingham, executive director of Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, a trade organization representing Sonoma Valley, Bennett Valley, Los Carneros and Sonoma Mountain AVAs. “The more we can work together, the farther our message can reach.”

Napa neighbors

This spirit of collaboration extends into Napa Valley, which has revved up its own marketing engine in the past three years by passing a tax on tourism and establishing its own destination marketing organization, Visit Napa Valley.
“Napa Valley and Sonoma County together make up the heart of Northern California Wine Country,” says Comfort. “We’re like siblings. We have a lot in common, but we’re very different.”
The Concierge Alliance of Napa Valley and Sonoma (CANVAS) offers networking opportunities, education and other resources to bring the two regions together (See “Wine Country Welcome,” Special Wine Issue 2011). Its website, for example, lets hospitality professionals search for resources in Sonoma County and Napa Valley: a concierge in St. Helena, for example, could use it to help a guest find a dog-friendly winery in Russian River Valley. “The two destinations really complement each other,” says Colby Smith, executive director at CANVAS. “We provide tools to help them cross-promote.”
Fischang works closely with Clay Gregory, president and CEO at Visit Napa Valley, and says the two wine-growing regions share more than a mountain range and a border. “Napa Valley and Sonoma County compete with wine destinations all over the world,” says Fischang. “So we win any time a visitor travels to either place.”
“At heart, we’re all farmers,” adds Comfort. “We know we need to work with and support our neighbors.”

The visitor profile

Holly and Jason Knoeller, of Meridian, Idaho, heard the “Sonoma County” message loud and clear. They chose to stop in Sonoma County—rather than in one of California’s other wine regions—as part of a family road trip to Southern California. With their kids in the car doing homework, the Knoellers sipped wine in the tasting room at Cline Cellars and explained the reasons Sonoma County appealed to them.
“Friends and family who’ve traveled to this area and our own research indicated that Sonoma County wineries are really friendly,” says Jason Knoeller. “That fits our style. We’re not about the flash. We just want to have a good time and enjoy wine and conversation.”
The Knoellers fit the profile of the ideal Sonoma County visitor. They seek experiences, not status; they’re well-off, but not wealthy; they might bring kids or leave them at home; and they’re already planning a return trip. “We’re coming back for a longer stay this summer to celebrate our wedding anniversary,” explains Holly. “We want to take a cooking class, and we might stay in a different part of the county, closer to other wineries we’re familiar with.”
Another important fact: They booked their hotel on TripAdvisor.

The TripAdvisor fishbowl

TripAdvisorbranded sites make up the largest travel community in the world, with more than 60 million unique visitors monthly, more than 75 million posted reviews and opinions and 32 million marketable members. It serves both as a trusted source of content and as a forum for sharing experiences, both good and bad. The result is what Fischang calls the “TripAdvisor fishbowl.”
“In the old days, you told five people when you had a good experience and 20 people when you had a bad one,” says Fischang. “Today, you can tell 5,000 people—or 20,000 people—in seconds.”
Registered users and site visitors on TripAdvisor, for example, have the opportunity to write and share reviews and provide ratings. TripAdvisor ensures the trustworthiness of this feedback by vetting it and by letting reviewed companies respond.
“Nothing is more important to us than the authenticity of our reviews,” says Julie Cassetina, public relations specialist at TripAdvisor. “We have a team of employees who spend 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, making sure our reviews are real.”
Matanzas Creek Winery doesn’t advertise with TripAdvisor or have active marketing initiatives focused on the site. But, thanks to positive reviews from winery visitors, it’s a featured attraction on TripAdvisor’s Travelers Choice Award webpage.
“The feedback from TripAdvisor users is completely organic and based on their experience at Matanzas Creek,” says Gabriela Becker, brand manager. “Our tasting room staff periodically responds to comments on the TripAdvisor site.”

Combining technology with the human touch

For hospitality and wine industry professionals in Sonoma County, success in the TripAdvisor fishbowl means being able to anticipate customer needs and exceed their expectations more effectively than ever. That means combining technology with good, old-fashioned, face-to-face customer service.
Sonoma County Tourism, for example, enhanced its website with applications that automatically size content based on the type of device being used and show advertisements based on prior search history. Yet the group also employs a dedicated professional staff that helps visitors, meeting planners and tour operators find the best experience Sonoma County has to offer.
“We have to supply technology tools to people who want to do things on their own, online,” says Fischang. “But when people come here, they have to be greeted appropriately, and they have to be served well.”
In that vein, the county’s many trade groups and wineries offer mobile apps and online booking options as well as printed maps and 13 visitor centers. The two visitor centers in Sonoma Valley—the county’s largest—welcome more than 70,000 walk-in visitors per year.
“People often use websites to do research but then call or walk into the visitor centers,” explains Peterson. “They want to talk to a real, live person who can offer referrals or help them finalize an itinerary.”
Wine Road staff experience the same phenomena. “Our concierge frequently helps people fine-tune their plans before they arrive,” says Costa. “And nine times out of 10, they want to have a glass of wine with her when they get here. Or, somebody will win a small prize through our Facebook page, I’ll send out the package and then, months later, that person shows up at our office and wants to meet us. It’s fun.”
Facebook and other forms of social media enable wineries and trade groups to engage directly with customers in a way that feels more personal and authentic than a newsletter or an email blast. When unbiased, trusted sources share their own Sonoma County experiences through social media, the effect is even more meaningful.
“During one of our wine dinners, a journalist posted photos of every dish and the wine we served with it on his Facebook page,” says Beck. “Several of his 4,000 followers commented on these posts while the dinner was going on, saying they’d had the wine before and it was great.”

Improving customer service

During their stay here, visitors interact with a cross-section of the community—not just in the hospitality and tourism industries but also in government, medical and business settings. Sonoma County Tourism’s Certified Tourism Ambassador program helps everybody who comes into contact with visitors develop excellent customer service skills.
“The program teaches people how to create memorable experiences,” says Fischang. “It’s front-line customer service training combined with events, networking and volunteer opportunities.”
Rene Byck earned his Tourism Ambassador certification just after the program was launched in late 2012. “I want people to have a great time here,” he says. “The more knowledge and skills I have, the better the experience I can offer to visitors.”
These positive experiences translate into memories—and dollars. More than 7 million visitors come to Sonoma County annually, and overnight visitors spend $1.3 billion. The average stay for a domestic visitor is 3.8 days and they spend $1,200. The average stay for an international visitor is 10 days and they spend $4,500.
“When guests have a great experience, they spend more money. And then they go home and plan a return trip—or a corporate event, perhaps—or tell their friends how hospitality in Wine Country went above and beyond,” says Smith. “So hospitality professionals have a real influence on the economy of Wine Country.”
It’s important to remember that tourists aren’t the only ones evaluating service levels. Tour company staff and meeting managers form strong impressions based on how they themselves are treated and what they hear from their own clients. So far, Sonoma County is making these influencers happy, too.
Backroads, Inc., the number one active travel company in the world, has been leading luxury cycling trips in Sonoma County and Napa Valley for 30 years. Michael Flaherty, North America regional manager at Backroads, says his guests often book the trips because of the Napa Valley name, but are delighted to discover what Sonoma County offers.
“People who don’t know the area are surprised that Sonoma Country has such an amazing coastline, exquisite wine and redwoods to boot,” says Flaherty. “It offers luxurious accommodations yet retains its charm and doesn’t feel over-commercialized. And I find the hospitality staff in Sonoma County to be highly approachable and customer service-oriented.”
Feedback like this affirms the direction Sonoma County’s promotional teams have taken, as well the fundamental allure of the land and its people.
“Something magical happens when people enter Sonoma County,” says Peterson. “They see the beautiful rolling hills and the picturesque farmland, and their cares drop away.”



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