Sonoma County tourism ‘ambassador’ program drives up visitor spending

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Sonoma County recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of the certified tourism ambassador program by awarding hospitality industry professionals who exemplify service.

No one was more deserving than Tony Bucklen, the former general manager of the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country that burned to the ground in the wildfires. He was awarded the Sonoma County Certified Tourism Ambassador of the Year award Feb. 22 at Soda Rock Winery in Healdsburg.

Bucklen said he received a call Oct. 8 at about 2:30 a.m. from a hotel employee saying that the power was out. He arrived at the hotel 15 minutes later to find shrubbery on fire. He quickly led the charge, looking after guests and making sure everyone was taken care of. He and his employees checked every single one of the hotel’s 250 rooms to make sure all guests were evacuated. Those who didn’t have vehicles were driven to safety by employees.

The fire department arrived and asked if everyone had been evacuated.

“I said, ‘Yes, I think so, we checked all the rooms,’” Bucklen said. “Then the fire department said they had to leave, they didn’t have the resources to fight the fire here.”

Bucklen was the last to leave the hotel, which by that time was on fire. Looking back, he saw the buildings burning and the historic Fountaingrove Round Barn next door was in flames.

“It was one pretty spectacular moment. It’s hard to describe. I was running on adrenalin. Then, and for weeks afterwards, it was most definitely the most stressful time of my life,” he said.

Bucklen is also Sonoma County’s nominee for the national ambassador awards.

Bucklen went through the CTA program in 2016. In 2017, 350 volunteers in Sonoma County logged more than 12,000 plus hours at 23 local events and festivals.

The service-oriented training immerses hospitality workers in all things Sonoma so they can offer advise, insights, and support to visitors. Positive visitor experiences lead to repeat business, and that’s the motivation behind the program.

Bucklen said all hotel employees were encouraged to take the program, and he noticed a huge difference in those who did.

“They were much more confident engaging with guests. They were proud to wear the CTA pin and proud and enthusiastic to speak about Sonoma County. There was definitely a shift in behavior,” Bucklen said.

The program is fairly rigorous. Industry employees attend a four-hour class followed by a one-hour open book test. Classes are offered once a month and cost $49.

Before the class participants are required to read a detailed 200- page reference guide on Sonoma County. It covers such things as the history of Chinese and Russian settlers, Catholic missions, Native American Indians and how towns in the county were founded, among other things.

“It is significantly detailed,” said Nicole Bradin, director of community engagement at Sonoma County Tourism.

Bucklen said he didn’t expect the program to be as comprehensive as it is.

“There is only so much information you can retain. The main point is not to memorize every detail, but how to use resources to find answers to assist customers,” he said.

After the class, ambassadors receive continued support and can earn points for attending tours and educational events led by industry experts. These include visits to wineries, bakeries, and the counties lesser-known assets like olive groves, and The Russia House in Jenner. This gives ambassadors first-hand experience they can relay to customers enthusiastically, Bradin said. Transportation is donated by Pure Luxury Transportation, based in Petaluma.

“It’s a win-win for businesses because the CTAs will refer customers there. I see more sharing of photos on social media from the tours. They love Sonoma County and the tourism industry,” Bradin said.

Millions of visitors travel to Sonoma County each year, where tourism is a $1.9 billion industry, supporting more than 20,000 jobs.

Tourism ambassadors are certified under a national program run by the Tourism Ambassador Institute. More than 17,000 hold that credential.

“The most wonderful thing about the thousands of CTAs in Sonoma County and across the nation is that they don’t do what they do to get awards,” said Mickey Schaefer, founder of the Tourism Ambassador Institute and an attendee of the event. “CTAs are noticed because they have big hearts, they care about visitors, and they consistently exceed expectations. In today’s fast-paced travel world, CTAs are an oasis of genuineness that is remarkable and refreshing.”

These ambassadors also are giving back to Sonoma County communities. In 2016, nearly 380 volunteers logged 1,600-plus volunteer hours at 22 local events and festivals.

Sonoma County Tourism is also actively engaging in workforce development by working with area colleges, high schools, and the Sonoma County Office of Adult Education to offer the the certification program as part of their curriculum.

Elsewhere in the North Bay area, Lake County has a tourism ambassador program, launched in 2015, with more than 400 ambassadors.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated former Sonoma County Tourism President and CEO Ken Fischang spoke at at the February Tourism Ambassador Awards. In addition, the story was updated with 2017 figures on volunteers in the program and hours spent in that effort.

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