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Efforts at home, abroad afoot to rein in tourism to Auburn

From China to Bay Area to the hotel front desk, Auburn seeks exposure
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Whether it’s a city official rubbing elbows in Beijing or an Old Town restaurant’s business savvy, efforts are picking up at home and abroad for attracting more tourists to the Auburn area.

Auburn City Councilman Mike Holmes is hoping to tap into the lucrative Chinese tourism market that Visit California, a nonprofit company marketing the state as a travel destination, pinpointed with its China Ready initiative in 2012.

Holmes leaves Monday on a two-week trip to China offered through the Auburn Placer Performing Arts Center as a fundraiser, and he plans to meet with Visit California officials in Beijing to pitch Auburn as a place that should be included in tours.

Meanwhile, Bootleggers Old Town Tavern & Grill has teamed up with various tour companies to have bus loads of travelers stop in Old Town Auburn for an hour or so of lunch and shopping.

Since October 2012, the restaurant has coordinated about a dozen bus stops amounting to about 500 people stopping in Auburn, Bootleggers owners said. The restaurant and the Old Town Business Association has also coordinated bus tours of the area and its attractions for Auburn’s hotel front-desk workers, many of which live outside of the city.

 Foreign or domestic, the goal of Holmes’ mission and Bootleggers is along the same vein of bringing visibility to Auburn’s attractions and making it more than just a gas-stop town on Interstate 80.

 

Reaching out abroad

In 2011, California had 517,000 visitors from China – 48 percent of the U.S. market share and a 29 percent year-over-year increase, according to visitcalifornia.com. By 2015, visitors from China to California are expected to double to 1 million.

“The thing that we know about the Chinese market is that they have a lot of money to spend,” said Jan Decker, executive director/CEO of the Placer County Visitors Bureau and California Welcome Center.

The average Chinese tourist now spends about $6,000 per trip, up from $3,000 two years ago, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“It’s a very lucrative market, and I just think that we’re ripe for it,” Decker said.

Chinese tourists typically enter California through a gateway city such as Los Angeles or San Francisco for their first trip, and if they return, they’re looking to experience more of the state – opening the door for the lesser known commodities, he said.

Decker and Holmes think Placer County and Auburn has an opportunity to draw interest with its Chinese heritage dating back to the Gold Rush.

“A lot of the Chinese worked in the gold fields here in Placer County and elsewhere as well, but also the Chinese came to work on building the Central Pacific over the Sierra Nevada, and their contribution I think is something that we need to recognize more,” Holmes said. “Because it’s something I think the people in China can be proud of – their contribution to the development of the West and so forth.”

Holmes served as a naval attaché in China, where he spent “a lot of time” in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and he lived there for about five years, he said. It gave him insight into the culture and its people.

“I think they’re anxious to learn more about the U.S. – particularly the older families, because during the Mao era (1949-76), the U.S. was the enemy,” he said. “So my approach is – and this has to do with some of the work that I did during the 1980s in developing relationships with China – my feeling is the more we can understand each other, the more friendship can be developed between our two countries.”

 

Right hand, meet left hand

Richard Yue’s great-grandfather emigrated from China to the Auburn area sometime around 1868, a few years after the railroad work had finished and a couple decades after the Gold Rush.

He settled on a ranch by Wolf Creek between Auburn and Grass Valley, rearing a large family, farming and raising small animals that would be sold to the various area communities.

The Yue family ran the iconic Shanghai Restaurant and Bar from 1896, the year Richard’s grandfather opened it, until its 2005 closure. The building now houses the Auburn Alehouse.

Richard Yue is the president of the Joss House Chinese Museum, which he says is the only place along the I-80 corridor from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe where the public can learn about how the Chinese people lived in California.

He said he’s not sure how Chinese nationals would view California as a tourist destination, coming from a 4,000-year-old civilization with many dynasties to a place where the peoples’ history is still relatively fresh.

“It’s almost like there’s a newer generation that is taking an interest in it,” said Yue, who has hosted an exchange student from China.

He said when a busload of Chinese tourists had planned to stop at Bootleggers for lunch in November he had been asked by Old Town Business Association President Dave Johnson to have the Joss House open, but to his disappointment, none of the tourists dropped in.

“The right hand is going to have to know what the left hand is doing if you bring them in here, because tourists are going to go where you point them,” Yue said. “It’s kind of a bummer, because it would have been kind of nice to have them see that there is some Chinese history here in town.”

 

 Wheels on the bus run through Old Town

Ty Rowe, Bootleggers executive chef, said the coordinated bus stops do not feature a guided tour and it simply allows the visitors to stop in for lunch and then wander at their leisure before getting back on the road.

“We’ve been working with some tour groups out of San Francisco and Malaysia to kind of get some of the bus traffic that goes back and forth between the Bay Area and Lake Tahoe,” said Rowe, a former president of the Old Town Business Association. “Basically, just trying to give them the option of being able to stop and have a nicer dining experience and a little more history than the McDonald’s parking lot.”

A lot of the trips are company-related, the biggest of which was a Malaysian insurance company whose owner paid for “several hundred” of his top producers to visit California, Rowe said.

Nell Curran, Rowe’s partner and also an Old Town Business Association board member, said that’s an example of a group that had “fallen into our lap.”

“The owner of that company had been in Auburn a year before they came, and he liked what he saw, and that’s why we connected,” Curran said.

That group spent a couple hours in Auburn shopping and taking pictures, she said.

While some are planned in advance, others come with little forewarning, such as the most recent group to come through early in April. The busload of more than 40 people from the Bay Area on their way home from skiing had its lunch destination fall through and they rescheduled with Bootleggers at the last minute, Curran said.

She views it as a good way to increase exposure to the city, and it has been a boost for their business, as well, she said

“Any time you can put 40 to 50 people in the restaurant at a time when you’re not normally busy, it’s beneficial,” Curran said.

Rowe, Curran and the Old Town Business Association has been working on educating more people at the local level about what the city has to offer, as well. Already they’ve coordinated one bus tours for two Auburn hotels’ front-desk workers, people often asked by guests for recommendations.

“Most of the people that work at the front desk of the hotels here don’t live here and have no idea of what Auburn has to offer,” Rowe said. “You can hand everyone a brochure; they may read it, they may not. But if you offer free lunch and wine tasting, you’ve got them hooked.”

The tours operate on donations from businesses and with some funding from the Old Town Business Association, and Rowe hopes to have them every three months so that when new hotel staff comes in, they get the experience as well.

The tour takes them to museums, such as the Joss House, across Foresthill Bridge, showing them where different trails are through the canyon and near the confluence, shopping areas in Downtown and Old Town and the golf courses, before ending with wine tasting and lunch, Rowe said.

After covering Auburn’s hotels, they plan to cover ones in the Roseville and Rocklin area, Curran said.

“There are a lot of people in California who think of Auburn as just pass by it on the way to Reno or Lake Tahoe,” Holmes said. “What our objective is, I think, is to make Auburn a destination, and specifically for the people in our region, a recreation destination or an adventure destination.”

 

Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews