San Luis Obispo County’s tourism industry is rebounding.
With the economy slowly turning the corner, some consumers are feeling less anxious about spending, and that bodes well for vacation destinations along the Central Coast.
“You can’t say that we’ve regained our full health, and there’s still a long way to go, but it’s definitely improving and on the road to recovery,” said Jordan G. Levine, an economist and director of economic research for Beacon Economics, a forecasting firm based in San Rafael that annually studies the county’s economy.
A positive trend is emerging in local leisure and hospitality, one of the county’s largest industries.
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Occupancy, average daily room rate and revenue per available room is up at hotel properties countywide through May compared to the previous year, according to the latest information from Smith Travel Research, which provides data for the hotel industry.
Several cities — including San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, Paso Robles and Morro Bay — have had increases in bed tax (transient occupancy tax) year-to-date through April, compared with the same period last year.
Tourism is big business in the county, generating $1.1 billion in travel spending, resulting in an estimated $69.8 million in state and local tax revenues in 2009, according to an analysis by Dean Runyan Associates, which does market research and economic analysis on tourism and travel. That direct spending in the county was responsible for creating more than 15,500 jobs in 2009.
“The economy is coming back, and people are beginning to travel again,” said Lindsey Miller, director of marketing for San Luis Obispo’s Chamber of Commerce. “And many of them are not ready for that big vacation, so they are doing more driving trips.”
Susan Slayton, administrative services director for Morro Bay, is encouraged by the city’s modest 2 percent to 3 percent increase in transient occupancy tax through April of this year, compared with 2010.
“Lots of people are coming to see us, and that’s good at this particular time because the economy is kind of tough,” she said. “We had quite a wet year, and surprisingly the rain didn’t drive people away.”
Improvement in county tourism is falling in line with a state and national recovery, following “steep declines” in 2009, according to Dean Runyan.
International travel has helped to fuel local tourism as well, with an estimated $17 billion of international travel spending occurring in the state last year. The weak dollar has made traveling in the U.S. a good value for those from abroad, local tourism experts say.
Noreen Martin, executive director of the county Visitors and Conference Bureau, said the recession dealt a tough blow to tourism in recent years as travelers experienced a decrease in disposable income.
While the two-night stay is still not as common as it was in 2007 and 2008, hoteliers are finding an increase in weekend traffic, Martin said.
Martin believes the county has been able to weather the recession better than others because of its “natural beauty and the general good value we have at our hotels, restaurants and tourism experiences,” she said.
“In SLO County, we have multiple free or low-cost experiences for our tourists, such as hiking and biking trails, wonderful beaches, the Atascadero zoo, farmers markets, as well as wine tasting,” Martin said.
Peter Candela, chief executive officer of the Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce, said the city is in the business of developing new and innovative ways to attract people year-round, including starting a farmers market every Wednesday.
The city also continues to draw big crowds to its annual marching band review, clam festival, car show and this weekend’s Fourth of July celebration, which is expected to attract 30,000 to 50,000 people.
“When you look at the overall picture, Pismo Beach has a lot to offer, and people are utilizing its convenience,” said Candela, adding that the city’s “huge exposure” off Highway 101 is a bonus.
In the North County, Mike Gibson, CEO of the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce, said he’s hoping the burgeoning art scene and expanded car show will give his town even more recognition as a top tourist spot. But there’s no denying that Paso Robles’ connection to wine gives it a significant boost.
“As far as the wine industry, for us, it’s still the primary tourism source,” he said. “The quality (of wine) just keeps getting better, and with some of the major corporations like Fiji coming into Paso, that has to bode well for us.”
In December, Justin Vineyards & Winery, one of the oldest and best-known local wineries, was sold to Roll International Corp., owner of Fiji Water.
San Luis Obispo County is attracting more attention as a tourism destination, and that is helping to drive traffic to the area, say those familiar with the industry.
The county has looked to events such as the Amgen Tour of California and Sunset Savor the Central Coast — a food and wine event that had an estimated economic impact of $2.4 million in its first year in 2010 — to provide exposure.
The city of San Luis Obispo’s designation as the “Happiest City in America,” as noted in the recently published book “Thrive,” has given the county a boost, not only nationally, but also worldwide. The city was featured in stories for Parade magazine, NPR, Yahoo! Travel, Delta Sky magazine and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Miller said anecdotally she’s heard from wineries, restaurants and hotels that traffic is up because of the recent media attention. Many of them have added the information on their websites, and they are seeing high returns on people clicking the links, she added.
“The happiness press has done so much for SLO,” Miller said. “It has definitely put us on the map in a whole new way. When Oprah says you’re the happiest town in America, everyone wants to check it out.”
The county VCB and individual cities say that increased marketing and promotion efforts are starting to pay off.
The unincorporated jurisdictions in the county, as well as the cities of Morro Bay, Paso Robles, Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo, have business improvement districts, where a monthly assessment ranging from 1 percent to 2 percent collected from hotel room receipts goes into a fund used solely for marketing purposes. That’s on top of the transient occupancy tax levied on rates at hotels, motels and other lodgings.
The San Luis Obispo chamber, in conjunction with the city, recently debuted its interactive, touch-screen kiosk that allows visitors access to tourism information 24 hours a day. outside the Visitors Center downtown. The project was a result of a partnership between the chamber and the city’s hotel group, the SLO TBID.
Martin noted that the VCB works with an alliance of business improvement districts to collaborate on marketing efforts. Collaboration and coordination with local partners resulted in a 24-page editorial and advertising piece in April about the county in US Airways magazine.
Craig Schmidt, CEO of the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce, said the city’s tourism BID, formed 18 months ago, has resulted in work on a website, bringing in an outside marketing firm and money to support a visitors center along with the city.
“What we’re experiencing in Morro Bay is more cooperation and leveraging of resources,” he said. “We’re unifying the message and sending out a more powerful message seen by more people.”
The county, ultimately, must be about the business of branding itself and all it has to offer, Martin said, from its beaches and campgrounds to its children’s museums and lavender farms. She said the VCB’s approach is to market the “Made in San Luis Obispo County” brand, incorporating artisan products, local farms, wine, restaurants and local businesses. Branding ideas will be presented to the Farm Bureau, chambers of commerce, and Cal Poly Recreation Parks and Tourism Association.
The VCB also has plans to redesign its website and expand its countywide co-op advertising efforts.
“We not only have the value here in our county, but we have everything people are traveling for,” Martin said.