Thursday, October 26, 2006

Regional Destination

Regional Destination
Benicia Begins Intra-Bay Area Tourism Drive
By Barbara E. Hernandez/Contra Costa Times

First Street is one of the many shop- and restaurant-lined streets in Benicia's downtown area that draw Bay Area tourists. (Brad Zweerink/Reporter file)

It's one of the oldest cities in the Bay Area, with a rich history as a military outpost and former state capital. It has kept and restored many of its Victorian-era homes and buildings, provides scenic sea views, sumptuous meals and a thriving, walkable downtown of artisans.

So why don't more people know where Benicia is?

City officials are trying to change this with an intra-Bay Area tourism campaign - and the first volleys are billboards from San Jose to Sacramento.

"We can't compete with San Francisco, but we can provide a nice experience," said Amalia Lorentz, economic development director for the city. "It's almost like a getaway from the Bay Area in the Bay Area."

But unlike San Francisco, the city of 27,000 has a problem with name and geographic recognition, she said. Many mistakenly believe it's near Sacramento and others confuse it with Brentwood in Contra Costa County - cities respectively 61 and 32 miles away, Mayor Steve Messina said.

"I had someone tell me, 'I was up your way. I was in Angel Island,' " Lorentz said of the state park near Tiburon. "I think Americans in general are poor at geography."

The rotating billboards - featuring photos of Benicia's vistas and restaurants - are part of a deal struck with ClearChannel Outdoor a decade ago in exchange for a lease of city-owned land on Interstate 680.

Billboards are now just north of Roseville and on Telegraph Avenue near the Highway 24 onramp in Oakland, said Stephanie Christiansen, SEO and president of the Benicia Chamber of Commerce. In November, the billboards will be placed on West Grand Avenue, west of Market Street in Oakland and Interstate 5, north of Highway 113.

Messina, the mayor and owner of the Double Rainbow Cafe, said the city is always looking to promote itself around the Bay Area. Traditionally, the city spent its money on print ads in regional magazines.

"Once a year we get a clip from a magazine, like Money's '2005 Best Places to Live,' and I'm sure that's positive," he said. The city ranked 81st in the 2005 Money magazine survey. "It's easy to spend money on billboards and TV advertisements ... but we don't know the exact demographic we're trying to bring in."

Lorentz said that some initial research has shown Benicia visitors tend to be couples usually within an hour's drive with a dual income and no children.

"People (who) enjoy trips, eating out, art, that kind of thing," she said. "After you have children, you tend to put off those day trips."

But with other areas in the Bay Area competing for those same people, the city knows it has a lot of work to do.

"I don't see ourselves competing with Oakland or Berkeley," Lorentz said. "We're more oriented to the water and have more history than College or Solano Avenues."

Instead, Lorentz said that many of their visitors may be coming from Sacramento, Fairfield or Vacaville, those who would appreciate the Carquinez Strait waterfront.

Lou Silva, 55, of Berkeley stopped by downtown Benicia Tuesday afternoon to eat at the Sala Thai restaurant with his daughter, Ariel, 27.

"It's tranquil," Silva said. "Sometimes people want a change of pace and someplace not as frenetic as Berkeley or Oakland."

Benicia's annual tourism budget for 2006-2007 fiscal year is $22,005, a far cry from the $13.6 million budget of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Unlike other cities, Benicia has a handful of bed-and-breakfasts but few hotels. Its transient occupany tax is low and tourism is paid out of the city's general fund.

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