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Sonoma County Tourism details shift to touting Wine Country sustainability

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Sonoma County Tourism is moving away from marketing the county as being all about wine, to a place where travelers can satisfy their environmental passions. One deal already has been signed to give visitors a way to have their hotel stay be tied to a charitable donation.

The tourism bureau detailed its plans during its annual meeting, held Aug. 27 at the DoubleTree Sonoma Wine Country in Rohnert Park. SCT initially announced the change in July, in tandem with its impending work on a destination master plan, an approximately 6-month process that began in early August.

SCT has contracted with Coraggio Group of Portland, Oregon, to help develop the master plan — a roadmap for becoming a region that attracts travelers from around the world while at the same time safeguarding the needs of local residents and businesses.

Regarding SCT’s shift in focus, the bureau is formally transitioning from a destination marketing organization to a destination stewardship organization. The change in focus, from touting the attributes of Wine Country to one of sustainability and responsible stewardship to protect the county’s future, will not impact how SCT allocates its funds, said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO.

“Becoming a DSO doesn’t shift dollars,” Vecchio said. “Becoming a DSO shifts the messaging about the destination to both leisure and business audiences, and creates additional opportunities to appeal to potential domestic and international visitors.”

SCT’s total projected budget is $8,128,000 for fiscal year 2019-2020. Its fiscal year budget for 2018-2019 was $8,811,196. SCT’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.

Vecchio said during the annual meeting that the organization will be pursuing other avenues for additional funding.

“SCT is looking at a number of options — both traditional and nontraditional — for incremental funding, but none have been initiated yet,” she said.

The move away from a destination marketing organization won’t reduce SCT’s marketing efforts to drive business to the county, she said.

For the current year, 40% of SCT’s budget is allocated to marketing; 74% is designated for all programs designed to drive business to the destination: marketing, group business development and tourism. Approximately 6% of the budget goes to community engagement, and 20% is allocated to administration, Vecchio said.

The tourism bureau also has launched a 2-year initiative with Kind Traveler, a Manhattan Beach-based online travel agent that incentivizes visitors to give back to local organizations when they book a hotel stay. The recipient organizations are Redwood Empire Food Bank, Sonoma Land Trust and the Russian Riverkeeper.

“We do all of the negotiations ourselves with each hotel to make sure that they’re rewarding the traveler with a significant discount,” said Jessica Blotter, founder of Kind Traveler. She noted that participating hotels’ rates are typically between 10% and 15% off their best available rate. “You’re going to get a good deal but you’re also going to have a chance to give back. You can’t book the rate without the donation, so it’s a give and get.” A typical donation would be $10 for each night’s stay at the given hotel, she said.

Hotels participating in the SCT and Kind Traveler program are Farmhouse Inn, Timber Cove Resort, Vintners Inn, Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country, Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa, The Sandman Hotel, and Hotel E.

Kind Traveler also is partnering with hotels in Healdsburg and Sonoma, two cities that don’t contribute to SCT through the county’s transient occupancy tax. Those hotels are Harmon House and H2 in Healdsburg, and El Dorado Hotel in Sonoma.

“Sonoma County currently sees about 10.8 million day and overnight visitors per year,” Vecchio said about SCT’s shift to being a destination stewardship organization. “If just one-tenth of our visitors raise their hands for sustainability, we’ll reach our goal of 1 million within a year.”

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