County business expect moderate climb in tourism

Santa Cruz Sentinel

After a dismal winter in which lodging rates dropped to about 51 percent at year-end — the lowest level on record — tourism is making a moderate comeback, according to local small business operators.

“I still think there’s a bit of a struggle but I feel a positive energy momentum building toward a good summer,” said Paul Zech, general manager of the Santa Cruz Hotel Group. The company includes four hotels in the county and a fifth under construction on 41st Avenue. “There’s been a little bit of a surge in interest in business. I think people are tired of staying home.”

The county should see “a modest rebound,” said Maggie Ivy, chief executive officer of the Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council.

The council has been promoting more affordable, or free, regional attractions, strengthening retail alliances among burgeoning wineries and working to expand the season by targeting couples who aren’t dependent on their children’s school calendars. In addition to a possible joint venture with the state targeting international visitors, the tourism council may also be looking at spring and fall promotions for state parks.

“We’re realizing that perhaps they’re not as well-known as we might think,” Ivy said.

The recession has translated in recent years to more park visitors in general as families skip pricier adventures for “staycations” near to home. But this year’s cold, wet weather has affected the numbers, said Karl Tallman, sector superintendent of state parks. For example, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, which attracted 62,425 visitors in April 2009, counted just 46,400 in the same month this year.

Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton, which saw ticket sales climb 4 percent last year — a time when many attractions lost visitors — has seen an 8 percent jump year to date compared to last year and is forecasting a 5-7 percent increase year over year. Roaring Camp’s annual Thomas the Tank Engine event in mid-summer, the third largest in the country, has seen ticket sales jump 20 percent to date. All markets are up, from birthday parties to international visitors, said Paul Nakamoto, director of business development.

“We’re planning for a very good summer,” he said.

Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, which saw an unusual climb in first quarter sales from the fourth quarter, will be popping the cork on a new dry summer rosé at the relatively new tasting and retail collective Surf City Vintners on Santa Cruz’s Westside.

“It’s kind of new for me to be really working at getting tourists in the front door — because I have a front door now,” said Jeff Emery, owner of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard.

In addition to traditional advertising for hotels, Emery said he’s targeting outreach to the younger, millennial generation via social media.

“Wine buyers in their 20s are a very important part of our market now,” he said. “For years we’ve been selling wine to an aging demographic. It’s very encouraging young people are knowledgeable and seem to have the money for it, so I’m courting those people as much as I’m courting tourists.”

Tourism is a $650 million industry for Santa Cruz County and generates more than $15 million in locally collected taxes and 8,000 jobs, according to Ivy. If a countywide tourism marketing district is funded by a new lodging fee this summer, it would provide an estimated additional $1.1 million annually to the Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council.

“It’s looking very good that we will have that in place by July,” Ivy said.

“A lot of businesses are surviving on four to five months of the year,” Ivy said. “We’d like to see the trend of fall layoffs change.”

This fall, the Chaminade and Ocean Honda have added the Santa Cruz Concours d’Elegance car show in September and the Boardwalk is launching its first chili cook-off in October.

This article was first published here.

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