Building Bicycle Tourism: What Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition Is Doing Right

May 14, 2013

America’s rising interest in active travel and the recognition of cycling as an important cog in the travel industry is by no means a small factor contributing to the boom in bicycle tourism. Cities are starting to take advantage of the dollars doled out by the increasing number of bicycle travelers. Portland, Oregon immediately comes to mind when exploring cycling-centric destinations. Even Washington DC's Capitol Bikeshare provides tourists the opportunity to meander around the Capitol’s attractions by bicycle for the day. But cities aren’t the only places changing the landscape traveled on or with a bicycle.    

I had the good fortune of chatting with Gary Helfrich, the executive director of Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition (SCBC). Let me begin by outlining Gary’s massive amount of street cred. As if being a founding member of Merlin Metalworks and an inductee into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame isn’t enough, Gary’s experience as an acclaimed frame builder, tenure as an elected official, degree in transportation planning, and stint as a county transportation planner ought to round out his bona fides. This mosaic of experiences imparts Gary with keen insights on bicycle advocacy and how to attract two-wheeled tourism.

Gary shared what he felt the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition is getting right, and how others can do the same. Sonoma County has a vast array of resources elevating bicycle tourism to the second-largest tourism draw to Sonoma County, second to the infamous wine industry. The county's resources spawned the area's popularity as a winter training ground for professional cycling teams. Some of the stats include 1,400 miles of quiet, rural, paved roads (roughly enough to stretch from the Sonoma Coast to Colorado Springs if laid end-to-end), the county’s location at the confluence of several state and national bike routes, the Pacific Ocean, two mountain ranges, the red woods, and wine country. Leveraging these resources is where Gary’s organization steps into the fray.

Many of the secrets behind Sonoma County’s bicycle tourism success lies within the SCBC. Here are Gary’s six steps to attracting bicycle tourism to your neck of the woods.

1) Understand the local economy: What drives your local economy? In Sonoma, it is the wine business. Understanding what drives your local economy can help you understand where bicycle tourism fits in to the mix.

2) Share the wealth: Partnering is always a great idea. The SCBC really shines in this category. They work closely with their bureau of tourism, elected officials, wine makers, hotels, and several other stakeholders to make sure everyone is getting a piece of the pie.

3) Find local opportunity: Finding the local opportunity in Sonoma isn’t necessarily a difficult task for all of the resources previously discussed. While finding opportunity in small town middle-America may not be as obvious, places like Twin Bridges, MT certainly have made a difference.

4) Share local stories: Find stories of local shops, hotels, restaurants, and cyclists and share why bicycle tourism is important to them.

5) Identify the brand: What is your area’s brand? What do you want people to take away from your area? How can you leverage your area's resources? In a way, this is a wrap up of all of the previous steps.

6) Document what you are doing: Perhaps the most difficult step or the most tedious, but one of the most powerful. When Gary explains that Levi Leipheimer’s Gran Fondo, based in Sonoma, brings more money into the county than the sporting giant NASCAR’s Sears Point race, people tend to listen.

Beyond these steps, Gary also offered up some advice to which he attributes much of SCBC’s success. He says always be a partner and never an adversary. Build trust with your elected officials. And finally, always have fun. “If you aren’t having any fun, why do it?”

Photo by bgjohn on Flickr

BUILDING THE U.S. BICYCLE ROUTE SYSTEM is posted by the Travel Initiatives Department and focuses on news related to the emerging  U.S. Bicycle Route System (USBRS). During National Bike Month, Adventure Cycling is raising funds to support the creation of this national network of bicycle routes. This year, we hope to raise $100,000 by May 31. Donate today!

The USBRS project is a collaborative effort, spearheaded by a task force under the auspices of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Members of the task force include officials and staff from state DOTs, the Federal Highway Administration, and nonprofits like the East Coast Greenway Alliance and Mississippi River Trail, Inc.



Jackie Niles June 10, 2013, 8:01 AM

Love this! I'm already a member of Adventure Cycling.

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