Trying tasks for county’s tourism chief
Susan Sutton’s job as El Dorado County Tourism Director is at once challenging and frustrating. the county, says Sutton, has so many things to offer – but the average person doesn’t realize that.
“Reporters come visit all the time, and of course I tell them about the big attractions,” said Sutton. “They want to see Apple Hill, Coloma and Lake Tahoe. But the thing is, they want to do it all in one day.
“Well, of course, we never get out of Apple Hill in the first day. It takes a long time to look at all of this county. People just don’t realize how much we have.”
Sutton herself didn’t appreciate all that El Dorado County had to offer until she landed the job as Tourism Director two years ago. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area (Concord), but never stopped on the West Slope during frequent drives to Lake Tahoe.
“The main stop was Sacramento, and then it was on to Tahoe,” she said. “We never saw the stuff in between.”
It wasn’t until Sutton spent a vacation in Germany that things began to be placed into motion for an eventual understanding of the back roads of El Dorado County.
“In Germany, I went on every tour that was available,” she said. “I learned to live in Europe on a shoestring, and I liked that. But the main thing that impressed me was the tour guides. I decided that was what I wanted to do.”
When she got back to the U.S., she got a job doing ad sales with the Sacramento Bee. Part of her territory included El Dorado County, and she soon began discovering all that it had to offer.
El Dorado County -or at least the bulk of it – is easy to miss if you’re shooting along U.S. Highway 50. The bounty of agricultural, historical, ranching and recreational points of interst are almost too numerous to mention … but hold on. Sutton will mention them if you give her time.
“It wasn’t long before I found all of these wonderful wineries, and I took my first trip to Apple Hill,” she said. “I discovered whitewater rafting. I went crazy. I didn’t even know it was there. We used to drive by all this stuff.”
When the job as Tourism Director opened, she applied. Now, she calls herself “Director of Fun. I get to go out and have fun all day. It’s great.”
But Sutton is also focused. One of her main strategies in her game plan for El Dorado County tourism is to link the West Slope to the Lake Tahoe Basin.
“Lake Tahoe is a part of this county,” she said. “For years they have been thought of as a separate entity; you either went to Tahoe, or you did gold panning in Coloma.
“What I’m trying to do is promote the West Slope as Lake Tahoe’s wine country. San Francisco has Napa, and Tahoe has the West Slope. When we put together vacation packages, we want to market the East and West Slope as one vacation destination. Both places have so much to offer. Where else can you get all this stuff?
“We have this mountain between us; the West Slope people and the Tahoe people really don’t know each other,” she said. “I want to change that. A lot of people here think of Tahoe as just the casinos. It’s more than that, of course.”
According to Sutton, the tourism industry has been tracking a definite trend over the past decade – call it a return to family values.
“People are getting tired of the theme park experience,” she said. “According to the statistics, people are desperately looking to get back to old-time values. Nearly 80 percent of the leisure travel market are nuclear families who are looking for bonding experiences. They’re tired of the cost and the crowds associated with big-time theme parks.”
Of course, this line of reasoning can seem a bit self-serving, coming as it is from the Director of Tourism of a county which doesn’t have a major theme park.
But it cannot be denied that El Dorado County’s family-friendly appeal has been a hit in recent years – more than 500,000 tourists roamed the Apple Hill area in 1998, and whitewater rafting tours on the West Slope bring in about 90,000 people per season.
The county’s burgeoning wine industry alone is enough to make the rest of teh state sit up and take notice. El Dorado County’s 18 wineries are responsible for about $50 million to the local economy on an annual basis, with retail wine sales alone accounting for about $15 million last year.
“Tourism (at the wineries) is up, and it’s increasing all the time,” said Frank Latcham, owner of Latcham Vineyards and Granite Springs Vineyards in the south county area near Fairplay.
“Most of the people coming in these days, you can’t really call them tourists anymore,” he said. “A lot of them are coming in from the Sacramento area for day trips. And about 25 percent of out business comes from Lake Tahoe and Nevada, just making a day out of it.”
A merger of sorts between the West Slope and Tahoe would help both economies, according to Sutton.
“People staying in Tahoe could come down and do a wine tour,” she said. “Or someone visiting Gold Rush towns could drive up and go boating on the lake. It seems to me that there’s a huge market out there for vacation packages of this sort.”
It might also help residents of the two slopes to better understand each other in regards to county government issues.
“That’s my job,” Sutton said. “Bringing people together. When I take people out on drives I say ‘Fasten your seat belts and get ready for some fun.’ And they do.”
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