OAKDALE -- Agritourism is an interesting niche market for attracting visitors to Stanislaus County, said Bill Geist, a tourism consultant. But there's a bigger picture with broader appeal: the food itself.
"Culinary tours are more interesting," Geist told about 100 tourism industry representatives at the ninth annual Winter Forum of the Stanislaus Regional Tourism Roundtable on Thursday.
Geist, from Madison, Wis., has served as president of the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, president of the Wisconsin Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus and vice chairman of the board of the Wisconsin Tourism Federation. He is the author of "Destination Leadership for Boards," and is the host of a teleseminar series for destination marketing and management professionals.
"Foodies," people who appreciate food and look for food experiences, are more interested in the arts and culture and spend three times as much as tourists who aren't food-oriented, according to Geist.
The food doesn't have to be high-end gourmet fare, he added, but it should offer a unique experience.
An example, according to Geist, is the Ground Hog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pa. The parties last into the wee hours of the night, and they end with the local delicacy: fried baloney sandwiches.
Christie Camarillo, executive director of the Oakdale Cowboy Museum, offered up a local example: the Oakdale Testicle Festival. "It's part of our ranching and cowboy heritage, and it's unique and funny," Camarillo said. "People have fun."
That's the key, Geist said. People are looking for unique experiences, something they can talk about over the water cooler at work Monday.
"It's ultimately about experience," Geist said. "Unique things, different things, something new. What is it you can create that's a showstopper?"
The aim is to boost the tourism dollars coming into Stanislaus County, which already top $400 million.
The Regional Tourism Roundtable is a group of agencies and businesses that have been meeting for nine years to find ways to boost tourism in Stanislaus County. It includes chambers of commerce, visitors bureaus, motel operators and tourist attraction venues such as the Sierra Railroad, Hilmar Cheese Co. and Stanislaus River Parks.
The roundtable conducts research, distributes brochures up and down the state, sponsors informational kiosks at Vintage Faire Mall, offers self-guided driving tour CDs and has a Web site, www.connectingstanislaus. com. According to the roundtable, from its inception in 1999 until 2005, visitor spending has increased 28.6 percent. The annual meeting highlights the year's accomplishments and summarizes plans for the future.
So why is tourism important to Stanislaus County?
Because it brought an estimated $411.6 million in revenue to the county in 2006, according to Keith Boggs, Stanislaus County deputy executive officer for economic development.
According to numbers from 2005, the last year for which detailed information is available, tourism employed 5,280 people in the county and generated $403 million, according to Kelvin Jasek-Rysdahl, an economics professor at California State University, Stanislaus, who works with the tourism group.
When local suppliers to tourism businesses and the money spent locally by tourism employees are included, the industry employs 6,500 people and adds $580 million to the economy, according to Jasek-Rysdahl.
Tourism is an export industry, he said, in the sense that it brings outside dollars into the local economy. Like other aspects of economic development, tourism improves the quality of life by creating jobs, building businesses and increasing incomes.
But tourism often is ignored or even disparaged by many, Geist noted.
"We are the Rodney Dangerfield of economic development," he said. "We are the invisible industry. People don't notice the hotels, the restaurants and retailers. ... How can something so fun be profitable?"
Some disparage what they see as low-wage, low-impact jobs. That's an elitist view, Geist said. The economy needs entry-level jobs, and the tourism industry promotes people into management at a faster rate than most other industries, he said.
A lot of people in the tourism industry make six-figure incomes, Geist said. "There are opportunities for all of us."
Tourism also brings in tax dollars, said Oakdale Mayor Farrell Jackson. Shrinking or stagnant city revenues in the face of rising costs for services such as public safety mean city officials have to raise revenues or cut those services, he said.
In addition to the loss of jobs from the closure of the Hershey factory, Oakdale lost a major tourist attraction with the closure of the Hershey Visitors Center, Jackson said.
"We need to find a way to fill that void," he said.
Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2349.