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Boutique Boom

New wave of Sonoma County hotels opening to meet rising demand

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Sonoma County is famous for its great wine, natural scenery and low-key vibe, a contrast to the denser, glitzier wine country tourist attractions in Napa Valley. One other contrast to Napa: there aren't as many boutique hotels to match the region's growing reputation as a wine country destination.

While Sonoma County has plush hotels, they are few and far between. But that looks like it's about to change.

Last year there were several hotel openings and more are coming this year in the boutique niche characterized by the hotel's small size, attention to detail, elevated approach to hospitality and, yes, high prices.

According to Sonoma County Tourism, the county's hotel assessment-funded tourist bureau, there are 34 new hospitality developments in the works. While some are big-name projects from the likes of Holiday Inn and Marriott, the majority, from Healdsburg to Sonoma, are smaller, independent projects with a hundred rooms or less.

According to Tim Zahner, Sonoma County Tourism's chief marketing officer, the average hotel occupancy in the county was almost 78 percent in 2016, "meaning 8 out of 10 hotels rooms were occupied every month." Investors see those numbers as an opportunity to step into the lodging market, says Zahner.

"I've been definitely getting more calls this year, from private entrepreneurs as well as 'boutique' arms of established hotel chains," he says.

Last year, tourism spending reached $1.82 billion, a significant increase from 2015.

"As more and more people discover Sonoma County, the need for unique lodging has been on the rise," says Liza Hinman, chef and co-owner of the popular Spinster Sisters restaurant in Santa Rosa.

Her solution? A plan to open the Spinster Inn above the restaurant later this year. The inn will include nine rooms, as well as a pantry selling foods prepared by the Spinster Sisters kitchen. Hinman says it's time to offer a chic alternative to Santa Rosa's booming Airbnb market.

"Our inn is looking to provide a new option for a traveler who wants to stay somewhere a little different," she says. "We feel like an inn is a natural extension of the hospitality business and will bring another dynamic to our neighborhood."

Combining a restaurant with a boutique hotel is a national trend and has already proven to be successful in the case of another Sonoma County newcomer, SingleThread Restaurant & Inn. Five rooms sit atop the Michelin-stars-bound, Japanese-inspired restaurant. Rooms include rarefied snacks and sweets from the kitchen, premium beverages as well as a range of breakfasts: Japanese, Persian or a vegetable frittata made with produce grown at the restaurant's nearby farm. All that pampering doesn't come cheap. Rooms start at $800 a night.

Other projects in the works will stand alone as hotels. Michael Marino, the owner of California Wine Tours, is opening the Hawker House on a historic site on West Napa Street in Sonoma. In Healdsburg, the Piazza Group is constructing its H3 Guesthouse. The hospitality company, which owns the Hotel Healdsburg and H2, is also developing the Hotel Sebastopol on the site of what was a tractor-supply business on the town's plaza, a sign of the times if there ever was one. The hotel received final design approval from the city this month.

"Following 2008, it was very difficult to get hospitality financing," says Circe Sher, a partner at Piazza Hospitality. "A lot of projects were stalled or never started due to lack of available financing. With the improvement of the economy, more financing has become available, and many projects have restarted or gotten underway."

Sher hopes its Guesthouse project will appeal to "younger, tech-friendly, eco-conscious, do-it-yourselfer types," while in Sebastopol the aim is to "attract visitors interested in eco-tourism and agri-tourism, who will be taking advantage of Sebastopol's unique location nearby many natural attractions, the great food and wine and healing community here."

Meanwhile, several hotels have attempted to redefine themselves with remodels to appeal to the growing tide of tourists. Up Highway 1 north of Jenner, the venerable Timber Cove Resort underwent a top-to-bottom renovation last year in an effort to freshen up its look and appeal to a new generation with a minimalist, Scandinavian-inspired redesign. From the portable turntables and vintage vinyl in each room to the hand-embroidered pillows with uplifting messages, the vibe is certainly more millennial-friendly.

HIGH THREAD COUNT SingleThread Restaurant offers five premium rooms at its inn above the two-month-old Healdsburg estabishment.
  • HIGH THREAD COUNT SingleThread Restaurant offers five premium rooms at its inn above the two-month-old Healdsburg estabishment.

Last spring, the Hotel Petaluma's courtyard and lobby underwent a major overhaul. The lobby is now connected to a winetasting room hosted by Barber Cellars and will soon include a bar operated by the newly opened Shuckery restaurant nearby.

"With the new owners stepping in in 2016, we're really aiming to bring the hotel up to the standard of what travelers expect," says Dustin Groff, the hotel's general manager.

Those travelers—the "younger generation and the social-media-savvy"—says Groff, are "interested in a unique experience of a modern yet historic hotel."

Of course, the growth of pricey new hotels raises the specter of rising housing prices, which are already out of reach for many residents.

"There's definitely a community discussion now about the ways tourism affects people's lives in the county," says Zahner. "Personally, I believe that, aside from the financial benefits, tourism also brings cultural and other assets that might not be originally cultivated by the community, and enriches it. I'm sure the positives will outweigh the negatives."

Let us sleep on it.

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