An increase in Sonoma’s Transit Occupancy Tax (TOT – commonly called the Hotel Tax) is on the ballot this November, an increase of 2% from 10% to 12%. This is still below Healdsburg’s or San Francisco’s 14%, and it’s long overdue; Sonoma’s TOT has not changed in 20 years. How potential increased dollars coming into the city will be used is a current topic of conversation.
There’s another fee charged tourists staying at Sonoma’s lodgings, however; 2% is added to each hotel bill and that revenue goes into Sonoma’s Tourism Improvement District (TID). Sonoma’s TID was formed around five years ago, and won’t expire until 2026. It currently collects about $750,000 each year, and that money is used to promote tourism, especially to attract overnight guests to Sonoma’s hotels and other lodging establishments, or what’s called “heads in beds.” The non-profit TID board is made up of representatives from the major hotels, some smaller lodgings, and the Mayor of Sonoma.
In its promotional efforts the TID runs radio and printed advertising, posts overhead posters in BART trains, and markets to meeting planners. This promotional program is managed by the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, which also collects one hundred thousand dollars in financial support each year from the City of Sonoma.
It’s questionable that the Marriott Corporation, owners of the 175-room Lodge in Sonoma and the largest hotel chain in the world needs promotional help, nor does it seem that the new owners of MacArthur Place, who paid tens-of-millions to acquire the hotel in 2017 are short on cash. Setting that aside, however, it’s worth exploring the ways in which some of the $750,000 in yearly revenue the TID receives could benefit something more than just hotels.
Besides boosting hotel occupancy and TOT, the current TID “heads in beds” approach is very one-sided, and does little to directly benefit Sonoma residents. Moreover, it does not adequately address the tourist experience once tourists arrive nor the stories they tell about visiting Sonoma when they return home. Positive word-of-mouth recommendations are worth 100 times the value of a BART poster.
Accordingly, TID funds would be better spent enhancing and improving the visitor experience, while bringing direct benefits to residents as well. Some potential examples include: contributing funds to an electric shuttle service offered free of charge to tourists and residents alike, helping to fund improvements in bike lane striping and development (many hotels offer bikes to their guests), and kicking in funds to improve parking in and around the Plaza. These efforts would directly benefit both tourists and locals.
This speaks to what visitors will say to their friends when they return home. Will they say Sonoma is a “cute little town but a real pain when it comes to parking”? Will they say the hotel gave us bikes to use but we were almost killed on Sonoma’s streets?
“Heads in beds” is not enough, and may even be counter-productive. Unless the visitor experience is positive once visitors have arrived, they won’t come back and their friends won’t ever visit. And unless residents begin to see some real benefits from tourism, selling the community on the idea of new hotels and tourist-serving uses will be increasingly difficult. The current TID program is short-sighted, and its efforts need to be realigned to a much more balanced and broadly beneficial approach.
— SUN Editorial Board