Tourism industry grows as more travelers choose vacations in SLO County

Tourism is giving San Luis Obispo County an economic boost.

As unemployment falls, incomes rise and the housing industry picks up, would-be travelers are venturing out again, rediscovering places that offer good value and a diversity of family, even pet-friendly, options.

“We are an ‘easy’ trip for Californians,” said Lindsey Miller, director of marketing for the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce. “San Luis Obispo and SLO County often tend to be more affordable than some of our neighbors like Monterey and Santa Barbara, as well as having more activities to offer, especially outdoors.”

Following a statewide trend, San Luis Obispo County has enjoyed a tourism rebound across the board, due in large part to an increase in consumer spending by travelers from the north, south and Central Valley, said Jordan G. Levine, an economist. Levine is director of economic research for Beacon Economics, a Southern California-based economic research and consulting firm that presented the recent Central Coast Economic Forecast.

The county’s proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and the Central Valley makes it a prime vacation spot, particularly now that those regions have regained economic strength.

“More folks up there (in the Bay Area) have money to spend, and they are looking to take more holidays in Morro Bay and places like that,” Levine said. “It’s a confluence of things. The local assets of the county, with its diversity of tourist-type activities, the marketing efforts that are going on, as well as the fact that it’s just a nice place to be, all lend themselves to increased tourism in the area.”

Average daily hotel room rates have increased in the county year-to-date through September of this year, compared with the same period last year, particularly in Paso Robles and on the North Coast. Hotel occupancy has increased as well, most significantly in Pismo Beach and the on North Coast.

Meanwhile, hotel bed taxes increased in every city and unincorporated area in San Luis Obispo County in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Levine added that the leisure and hospitality sector, which includes categories such as hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues, is responsible for creating 1,100 of 3,300 jobs through this September.

“I think as the hotels improve, they will continue to add staff, and so we expect leisure and hospitality to be one of the driving sectors in SLO County,” he said.

Noreen Martin, chief executive officer of Martin Resorts and a member of the state’s Tourism Board, said 2011 was the year the county reached a “goal to pre-recession numbers.” This year is following a similar pattern.

“I am personally confident that 2013 will prove steady,” Martin said. “As for the economy overall, the tourism industry has been able to sustain and create jobs in the hard economy. I believe that tourism will stay strong, as long as our industry continues to see the value in collaboration.”

Making the investment

Another key reason county tourism has thrived is that the industry decided to invest in itself at a time when the economy was in the midst of a downturn, said Stacie Jacob, executive director of the county’s Visitors and Conference Bureau.

“It’s a great time to invest because when we start to come out of that, you see a faster return on that growth,” she said.

Jacob noted that Sunset Savor the Central Coast started three years ago when the region needed a “major branding” event, she said. The annual food-and-wine festival, sponsored by Sunset magazine and the Visitors and Conference Bureau, had a roughly 22 percent increase in economic impact in 2012 over last year, Jacob said.

“It’s a $1 million event (how much was invested), and our return was $3.5 million,” she said. “What we’re saying is that these are smart dollars that we’re investing, and it’s paying off as more people come here.”

At the same time, communities throughout the county organized TBIDs, or tourism business improvement districts, in an effort to pump more money into tourism marketing and promotion. As part of a TBID, hoteliers agree to collect a monthly assessment of 1 percent to 3 percent from hotel room receipts. The funds are used solely for marketing.

“Each community has various events and things happening, and all of those things start to add up,” Jacob said. “There’s the Paso Wine Festival, Morro Bay is investing in a new oyster festival ... there are you-pick farms, Hearst Castle and zip-lining. There are all of these events that people love when they come to our area. These are immersion experiences. When you come to SLO County, you don’t come to sit on the beach and drink Mai Tais; you come here to do.”

An added plus to the county, Martin said, is that tourists can drive anywhere within 20 minutes and “be in a different climate and atmosphere and experience our wonderful people with smiles on their faces.”

Teaching the tourist

Martin Resorts recently created a guide of reasons to explore the county called “101 Reasons to Exit Highway 101.”

Martin said, “It highlights our tourism partners and encourages the tourist to extend their stay and have an experience that is unique to SLO County.”

Putting a greater emphasis on tourism, the city of San Luis Obispo recently created the position of tourism manager. Molly Cano, who was named to the post jointly funded by the city’s promotional coordinating committee and the TBID, is responsible for developing a more robust tourism program.

Her role, she said, is to ensure that visitors understand the city’s unique qualities.

“We are focusing on the development of lifestyle, highlighting the cultural and culinary aspects, the outdoor adventure and open space we have here,” Cano said. “As the economy turns around, the city has positioned itself as a main destination and a tourism hub of the Central Coast.”

For Jim Throop, finance manager for the city of Paso Robles, tourism is a way to connect businesses and business owners to the area.

“By bringing in tourists, you also bring in owners of companies that want to move here or expand their business here because they see the growth potential,” he said.

He credits collaboration between various tourism partners on the Central Coast and events such as Savor for heightening greater awareness of his city and the county as a tourist and potential business destination.

“Paso Robles, actually all of the Central Coast, has been a hidden gem forever,” he said. “With the advent of the wine industry and now becoming known for our good food, people are wanting to come and see what ‘authentic California’ is all about.”