The best and brightest in Sonoma County’s tourism and hospitality industry gathered at the DoubleTree by Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Wednesday night to celebrate the 2024 Sonoma County Tourism Stars of the Industry Awards. Award-winning author, speaker, and host of KQED’s Check, Please! Leslie Sbrocco, known for her entertaining approach to wine and food served as host. During the celebration, five industry professionals and 13 awards were given to businesses and individuals that have excelled in, or have had a positive effect on, the Sonoma County tourism and hospitality industry.

The first-ever Stars of the Industry Awards took place in 2021 during Sonoma County Tourism’s now annual yearly gathering. The awards proved so successful Sonoma County Tourism elected to create a standalone celebration corresponding with National Travel & Tourism Week (May 19 -25). As with the previous year’s awards, Sonoma County Tourism solicited the local hospitality industry to submit nominations. A committee then pared the nominations down to three finalists in each category before inviting the industry to vote for the winners. During the voting window, online ballot submissions were limited to one per day, per email address, with 7,517 respondents casting 25,536 votes in all.

The 2024 Sonoma County Tourism Stars of the Industry are:

  • Front of the House: Liam Richardson, Torches Restaurant
  • Heart of the House: Jorge Garcia, DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Sonoma Wine Country
  • Rising Star: Chantal La Rochelle, The Stavrand Russian River Valley
  • Environmental Stewardship/Sustainable Practices: Sonoma County Farm Trails
  • Customer Experience: Reed Between the Lines Escape Room
  • Lodging Property of the Year: Farmhouse Inn
  • Community Enrichment: Out in the Vineyard
  • Best Tourism Partnership: Charles M. Schulz Museum and Russian River Brewing Company
  • Champion of the Industry: Aphrodite Caserta, Safari West
  • Visitor Center Program of the Year: Petaluma Visitors Program/Visit Petaluma
  • Visitor Center Volunteer/Staff of the Year: Diane & Dennis Mitchell, Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau

Special recognition was given to Renee Donmon-Chaussee of the Charles M. Schulz Museum for the Accredited Hospitality Professional Program Champion Award. Jennifer Buffo, CEO of Pure Luxury Transportation, received the industry’s highest honor, the Legacy Award, for her tenured legacy and leadership serving the hospitality industry in Sonoma County.

Brief Winners’ Backgrounds

Front of the House: Winner Liam Richardson may be a newcomer to the hospitality realm, but his flair is undeniable. As both host and busser, he warmly welcomes each guest to Torches Petaluma with an infectious smile and genuine greetings. Liam readily volunteers for additional shifts and has spearheaded initiatives like dance parties and other inclusive activities for his fellow community members with Down Syndrome. His presence brings joy to countless guests, and the staff consistently receives praise for Liam’s outstanding dedication and evident passion for his job.

Heart of the House: Winner Jorge Garcia has dedicated 23 years to his role as the Banquet Set-up Houseman at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Sonoma Wine Country in Rohnert Park. His responsibilities include arranging, dismantling, and reorganizing indoor and outdoor meeting and convention spaces. Beyond this, he handles the assembly of dance floors, risers, and stages. Frequently, Jorge transforms a grand ballroom set for a 500-person dinner into three distinct meeting areas, each tailored for separate group sessions the following morning. He goes the extra mile by locating misplaced items for guests, aiding with luggage, and pitching in with housekeeping tasks during staff shortages. Jorge consistently exceeds expectations and ensures tasks are completed with efficiency and excellence.

Rising Star: Even prior to advancing to the role of Assistant General Manager at The Stavrand, winner Chantal LaRochelle showcased her team-oriented mindset and leadership prowess by actively participating in tasks alongside the maintenance and understaffed housekeeping teams, ensuring rooms were promptly prepared for arriving guests. Joining the team amidst the challenges of the Covid era, Chantal’s tenure at the front desk was characterized by her diligent efforts to maintain a seamless and enjoyable guest experience. Transitioning into the role of Assistant General Manager, Chantal has tirelessly developed protocols and guidelines, including daily shift checklists, guest liability waivers, and an emergency procedure manual. Her unwavering commitment to her profession, the hospitality sector, and guest satisfaction exemplifies her as an outstanding leader and role model.

Environmental Stewardship / Sustainable Practices: For fifty years, the winner of this award, Sonoma County Farm Trails, a nonprofit entity, has been dedicated to championing local farmers and enlightening the public about the significance of supporting regional agriculture. Their overarching mission is to ensure the ongoing economic sustainability of Sonoma County’s agricultural sector while fostering an understanding of agriculture as an integral component of community and lifestyle. As part of their commemorative 50th anniversary fundraiser, the Gravenstein Apple Fair, the organization set an ambitious target to achieve 95% zero waste. Remarkably, this goal was successfully attained! Through the implementation of zero-waste stations and various other sustainable practices, the weekend celebration drew 14,500 attendees while generating a mere three cubic yards of trash – equivalent to the volume of the bed of a small pickup truck.

Customer Experience: Established in 2017 in Rohnert Park, winner Reed Between the Lines holds the distinction of being Sonoma County’s inaugural escape room venue. The ethos of Reed Between the Lines is to inspire patrons to embrace their inner child while enjoying puzzle-solving escapades with loved ones. The team exudes enthusiasm, with the owner displaying flexibility to accommodate customers’ preferences, ensuring a delightful experience for all. Moreover, Reed Between the Lines actively contributes to the community by regularly donating gift cards to support fundraising endeavors for schools and organizations in need, while also ensuring accessibility for individuals with disabilities. By fostering an environment of enjoyment and inclusivity, Reed Between the Lines aims to bring joy to every customer, whether local or visiting from afar.

Lodging Property of the Year: As a distinguished establishment within Sonoma County, this year’s winner, The Farmhouse Inn stands as a beacon of excellence, offering an unparalleled visitor experience steeped in a rich historical backdrop that epitomizes the quintessential charm of Sonoma Wine Country. Initially serving as a working farm, it underwent a remarkable transformation into a renowned Michelin-starred country inn. The Farmhouse Inn boasts luxurious barn accommodations, a serene spa, a refreshing pool and hot tub, picturesque gardens, guest hiking trails, and many amenities. The restaurant’s menu proudly highlights the abundance of Sonoma County’s local produce, while the wine program is nothing short of exceptional. With a focus on showcasing the finest wines from the North Bay, the program’s meticulously curated partnerships afford guests the opportunity to indulge in a symphony of outstanding wine labels – all within the confines of one remarkable location.

Community Enrichment: Winner Out in The Vineyard transcends the conventional Wine Country tour and event company label, offering exclusive itineraries tailored for the discerning gay and lesbian traveler. It serves as a shining exemplar of melding a passion for community, inclusivity, and philanthropy. By steadfastly supporting nonprofits like Face to Face and Positive Images, Out in The Vineyard not only showcases the region’s splendor but also extends crucial aid to the LGBTQ+ community. Through initiatives like Gay Wine Weekend and Pink Sonoma, the company has spearheaded fundraising efforts, amassing over $500,000 for LGBTQ+ nonprofits. This commitment to giving back epitomizes a holistic approach to business and social responsibility, affirming Out in The Vineyard’s dedication to making a meaningful impact within the communities it serves.

Best Tourism Partnership: For the past decade, the Russian River Brewing Company has maintained a steadfast partnership with the Charles M. Schulz Museum. In addition to financial contributions, the brewery, led by proprietors Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo, has graciously provided beer for numerous museum events and special programs. Further demonstrating their commitment, the company restored and situated two beloved Peanuts statues, Peppermint Patty and Marcie, at their Windsor tasting room and restaurant. Through these gestures and their renowned beer offerings, the Russian River Brewing Company continues to play an integral role in supporting the community. Their unwavering generosity and dedication transcend the typical expectations of a partnership, exemplifying a commitment to going above and beyond for the mutual benefit of all involved.

Champion of the Industry: For over two decades, winner Aphrodite Caserta has been a dedicated advocate for Safari West and the wider Sonoma County tourism and hospitality industry. As a longstanding board member of the Sonoma County Lodging Association, now known as the Sonoma County Hospitality Association, Aphrodite has played an instrumental role in promoting the region’s tourism interests. Renowned for her adept interpersonal skills, she forges meaningful connections with individuals and cultivates valuable media relationships spanning local, state, and national spheres, thereby benefiting both Sonoma and Napa counties. Actively engaged in community endeavors, Aphrodite has contributed significantly to the success of numerous regional and statewide events and initiatives, consistently delivering results with a cheerful demeanor. Widely regarded as a shining star and a diligent worker, Aphrodite’s unwavering dedication ensures that tasks are completed to the highest standard.

Sonoma County Visitor Center of the Year Program: Situated within the iconic Petaluma Train Depot, the Petaluma Visitors Program stands adjacent to the SMART train platform, facilitating travel for residents and visitors across Sonoma and Marin counties. Serving as a hub for information, the center provides a diverse range of resource materials, catering to the needs of hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. With a committed team of knowledgeable staff and volunteers, the center ensures a welcoming and exceptional visitor experience. In addition to its physical presence, the program boasts a comprehensive website and publishes an annual Visitor Magazine, further enhancing accessibility to information. Notably, the staff and volunteers are proficient in English, French, Spanish, and German, enabling the team to offer exceptional service to a diverse range of visitors.

Visitor Center Volunteer/Staff of the Year: Diane and Dennis Mitchell form an exceptional team during the Friday morning shift at Sonoma Plaza, consistently present to operate the cart stationed in front of the historic Carnegie library building. They address a wide array of inquiries, ranging from mundane requests such as restroom locations to more obscure queries like tracing ancestral gravesites in the cemetery. Dispensing maps and guides, they enthusiastically promote the Friday morning market and warmly greet passersby with genuine smiles. Dennis diligently replenishes the Plaza’s surroundings with Sonoma Valley Visitor Guides, while Diane engages with the diverse personalities who frequent the Plaza as their daily gathering spot. Their unwavering commitment and dedication to extending a warm welcome to visitors are evident in their steadfast presence and genuine interactions.

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About Sonoma County 
Sonoma County Tourism is the region’s official Destination Stewardship Organization. Through a multi-channel sales and marketing program, the organization promotes Sonoma County as a global visitor and meetings destination, where diversity thrives, and everyone is welcome. Leveraging the region’s unmatched assets, wine, culinary, wellness and sustainability continue to define its character. As the industry recovers, SCT will work with partner businesses to rebuild the tourism economy, regain critical revenue, and re-establish a vibrant workforce. For more information, visit sonomacounty.com

Media Contact: 
Chris Vomvolakis, Senior Manager, Consumer Public Relations 
[email protected] 

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