If you aren’t a part of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, you might not know Sonoma County’s nickname: “The West Coast’s gay vacation playground.” But you should. The facts are plain: Gay men and lesbians travel more, spend more and have the largest amount of disposable income. They make up 10 percent of the travel and hospitality industry’s income—or more. Most critically, their travel dollars go to suppliers and destinations that recognize their unique buying preferences and offer them differentiated value.
And the numbers extend beyond just travelers. According to Gary Gates, a researcher at UCLA’s Williams Institute, a think tank on sexual-orientation law, who based his findings on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey, the Santa Rosa metropolitan area—in effect, Sonoma County—is second in the nation (behind San Francisco) when it comes to same-sex households. With 7.63 gay couples per 1,000 households, Sonoma County’s LGBT population is 56 percent greater than the national average. And while Guerneville has long been viewed as a desirable getaway destination, the results underscore that Sonoma County isn’t just a vacation spot for large numbers of gays—it’s also home.
When it comes to tourism, the gay community has established many measures to assure that when people travel, they’ll have a positive experience. San Francisco’s Community Marketing, Inc.
(a marketing company that specializes in gay travel) has helped business leaders successfully connect with the LGBT communities since 1992. In 1997, it developed the Travel Alternative Group (TAG) approval system to help accommodations effectively reach and sensitively serve the LGBT community. More recently, it conducted a survey that showed 93 percent of respondents had visited Sonoma County.
Today, more than 1,800 hotels worldwide are involved in the program. Any LGBT-owned or genuinely LGBT-welcoming accommodation (from small boutique hotels to large, flagged chains) may participate, as long as the property meets TAG’s acceptance standards. (Any venue interested in becoming TAG-certified can go to the website
or contact the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau
Ken Fischang, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, has been with the organization since its inception in 2005. According to Fischang, there are 7.5 million annual visitors to Sonoma County, spending an average of $1.3 billion per year. A recent study shows that LGBT travelers comprise 6 to 8 percent of those travelers, which equates to more than 500,000 visitors annually.
The tourism bureau, which is open to everyone, has always had a LGBT marketing program, including a dedicated web page and a Facebook page for gay travel. Just returning from a LGBT Tourism Conference and hearing about some of the smaller towns across America that are reaching out assured Fischang that we’re on the right track and, in some ways, an example for others.
In the past, the Russian River has been known as the “gay summer camp” but, according to Fischang, that perception is expanding to include all of Sonoma County. Businesses here are recognizing that the LGBT market is revenue-generating and people are becoming more accepting. To assure LGBT visitors a welcoming and safe visit, the bureau has listings for gay-welcoming facilities. Many Sonoma County hotels are TAG-approved, including the Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa
, the Hyatt Vineyard Creek
, the DoubleTree Hotel Sonoma Wine Country
and Sheraton Sonoma County
in Petaluma. (See below for a more complete list.)
An additional resource to help people discover what’s available and make decisions that will enhance their Sonoma County experience is Inside Sonoma Wine Country Unfiltered
, which lists destinations that are both enjoyable and welcoming. And about.com includes “A Guide to Gay-Friendly Sonoma County: Gay Travel in the Sonoma Wine Country,” listing many gay-friendly hotels and resorts. Both of these sources also have special sections for “gay Sonoma,” “gay Healdsburg,” “gay Russian River” and “gay Santa Rosa.”
Among the many sites that provide information for LGBT travelers is Betty’s List
. This comprehensive online directory makes it easy for gay travelers to find events, services and products. Owner Betty Sullivan started the list in 1996 for her own personal use, only to find out that she could share what she had learned with others. Betty’s List now has more than 8,000 subscribers, with a reach of 10,000 to 15,000 contacts per message. List subscribers include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender contacts as well as their non-gay family members, friends and colleagues. Business owners, civic leaders and media contacts also rely on Betty’s List for information about the LGBT market and news and events of interest to their customers, readers and viewers.
Sullivan recently purchased the San Francisco Bay Times
, a LGBT newspaper and calendar, and she also hosts The Smart Women Business Network
, an informal network of Betty’s List subscribers and contacts. Its networking events take place on the third Thursday of each month at Pelican Art Gallery & Custom Framing Shop
in Petaluma. Pelican’s owner, Linda Postenrieder, came to Sonoma County 11 years ago with partner, Donna Hinshaw, because, “I was attracted to Sonoma County because of the diversity and scenic beauty—plus it has so many outdoor activities" [the two are avid golfers]. Last year, she hosted an event for the Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, which has highlighted Sonoma County as a great place to visit because of its known acceptance of the LGBT community.
Business support and outreach
In 2005, Charles Pendergast moved from Los Angeles to Sonoma County and opened his RiskPress
art gallery and studio in Sebastopol. He finds the community to be “humanistic” and finds no barriers to the diversity of people in this area. “What attracted me was the support that’s given to people in spite of their differences—and the beauty, wine and good food are pluses, too” he says. Pendergast built an art studio on his property in Sebastopol, and he makes it available to artists in one-month stretches (anyone is invited to apply for the space). “They hang their own show, write and distribute their own advertising, arrange their own openings, and post and manage their own hours,” he explains. “RiskPress receives no commissions or fees. Our mission involves allowing artists to create their own unique experience of being a gallery, and networking with other artists who have either already displayed their work, or are scheduled to show in the future. It becomes a collaboratively driven experience generating enthusiasm, support and a vital transmission of strategies for our community’s creating and exhibiting its art.”
Windsor Arts Council
President Mikala Kennan believes Sonoma County is an attraction because it offers so much, cross culturally, and is an open and supportive environment, which encourages people to be “fully and comfortably themselves.” Kennan additionally hosts two shows on KRCB
radio. One of the programs, “Outbeat Radio,” which airs every other Sunday and 8 p.m., features programming relevant to the North Bay’s LGBT community; Kennan cites it as another example of the county’s openness to diversity and inclusivity. In 2000, she moved to Sonoma County with her partner and enjoys the fact that it’s a gay-friendly community rich with artisan culture and activity. Plus, she adds, “it’s in easy proximity to other word class wine regions, the Pacific coastline and San Francisco. It all adds to the benefit of living here.”
For 26 years, Gary Carnivele has provided a voice for the local LGBT community, first as editor of We the People
, a LGBT-targeted newspaper that published from 1988 to 2007, and now through www.gaysonoma.com, an online source for news, features, opinions, events, personals and listings of businesses, services and community organizations of interest to the North Bay’s LGBT Community.
Carnivele also hosts KRCB’s “OutBeat Collage: Out in the Arts,” which covers LGBT artists. According to Carnivele, one of the centers of gay tourism in the mid to late ’70s and throughout the 1980s was the Russian River. However, things have changed over the years, and all of Sonoma County is now considered a LBGT destination. He attributes this change to the welcoming attitude found here. Another factor is the awareness that the LGBT culture is important to the tourism industry. “It’s always refreshing to see organizations that are welcoming to the LGBT community,” says Carnivele. He’s proud that Sonoma County was one of the first to recognize the importance of this.
A history of tolerance
In the late 1970s, Guerneville became home to one of the first Sonoma County resorts to attract gay tourism from the greater Bay Area (and beyond). A family-oriented place called Hetzel’s Motor Lodge, renamed the Russian River Resort in 1980, is an example of a place that’s been gay-identified for a long time. The resort has had several owners, including Ray Allen and his partner, Paul McBride, who ran it from 1992 until 2006, when they sold it with plans to retire. However, when it fell into foreclosure and was shut down in 2011, Allen and McBride decided to repurchase it.
Following a major remodeling, it reopened in December 2011 as the r3 Hotel
. The new place features 23 deluxe guest rooms with all the modern amenities, a full bar with state-of-the-art sound and video monitors, free Wi-Fi and a restaurant that serves delicious American comfort food at very affordable prices. The restaurant also features a piano bar on Friday and Saturday nights. The very popular pool bar/barbecue area will reopen this coming spring.
According to general manager Jeff Bridges, the resort was is a natural jaunt for the LGBT community, since it’s located in the middle of a redwood forest yet only 20 minutes from the beach and within 30 miles of 50 wineries.
Gena Jacob is marketing director for Fountaingrove Lodge LGBT Retirement Community
in Santa Rosa, the nation’s first retirement community that caters to LGBT residents and provides continuing care when needed. Jacob agrees that Sonoma County is a welcoming place for the LGBT population. According to Jacobs, when owner Bill Gallaher of Oakmont Senior Living
was approached with the idea to build a retirement community for the LGBT community, he was excited to serve yet another senior population. He was aware of Sonoma County’s large population of same-sex couples and knew people love coming to the area for recreation and vacations, so the idea blossomed and the project has been in the works for six years.
In 2010, Gallaher got approval from the city of Santa Rosa to build the complex on 10 acres at 4210 Thomas Lake Harris Drive. The area will have six freestanding homes, a main building of 64 apartments and a memory care building providing 22 units. Independent active retirement living, licensed continuing care and memory care for dementia/Alzheimer’s patients will provide multiple options as residents “age in place.” The target opening is mid-2013 and, after a ribbon cutting in June 2011, 50 percent of the units have already been reserved.
Everyone is welcome
Since 1990, Sonoma County has hosted its own Gay Pride celebration each summer in Guerneville. This year’s event, themed “Gay By Nature,” will take place June 3. In addition to a parade, highlights of the day-long festival will include live entertainment, wine and food tastings, an interfaith service, a separate children’s area and a large commitment and recommitment ceremony. If your business is interested in sponsorship opportunities or for more information, go to www.sonomacountypride.com
Of course, the pride festival isn’t the only organized local attraction for LGBT tourists. Charles Kimball’s boutique travel concierge business, Gay Getaways Napa Sonoma
, helps gay visitors experience everything they’ve dreamed about in a Wine Country adventure. Kimball is also a wedding planner and legal officiant who takes great pride in helping his gay clients create a stress-free dream wedding, whether it’s a large event or an intimate elopement. In the past four years, he’s planned many weddings in Napa and Sonoma, taking full advantage of the beauty of the area and abundance of wineries; he also booked many Wine Country hotel rooms and vacation home rentals for wedding parties and guests.
Writer Gary Saperstein is founder of Out in the Vineyard
, a luxury wine tour and event company. In 2011, he established the three-day Gay Wine Weekend
, which will take place this year June 15 to 17. It’s a fund-raiser for Face to Face
(the Sonoma County AIDS Network). So far this year, he reports, wineries are enthusiastically signing up to participate (see sidebar below for a list as of press time). This event attracts people from all over the world and is a good opportunity for businesses that want to attract the LGBT market.
Saperstein also organizes Sonoma GayDar
, a social networking group intended to bring the LGBT community (and its supporters) together. The group meets each month at a different local establishment for a fun, casual time. Carnivele, who’s attended several GayDar gatherings, estimates between 40 and 150 people have shown up to individual events, many coming from the greater Bay Area to attend. Hosting a meeting is definitely a way to let the LGBT community know you support it, he says, adding that the group is always looking for new venues.
LGBT tourism is thriving in Sonoma County because the community is gay-friendly. To affirm that attitude, on May 5, 2010, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors issued a resolution commending the LGBT community for its contributions to the county. The Sonoma City Council also issued a similar proclamation on the same day. (Both proclamations were cowritten and sponsored by Saperstein.) Together, the proclamations declared the county and city both “gay friendly” areas, stating they embrace legal equality, fair treatment and the personal dignity of all its residents, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
So no matter who you are, you’re sure to find the vacation (or new home) of your dreams in Sonoma County Wine Country.