Don’t be fooled by the puff pastries and windmills. The whimsically Danish town of Solvang is a lot stronger than it looks.
The Santa Ynez Valley community of 5,000 is defying the recession, roping in more and more visitors — and tourism dollars — as the economy sinks.
“Tourism is our bread and butter — it’s absolutely vital to the existence of Solvang,” said City Manager Brad Vidro. “Our income may be down a bit, but as long as people are still coming, the tourism business will keep us afloat.”
Vidro estimates that two-thirds of the city’s general fund is generated by tourism, while Tracy Farhad, executive director of the Solvang Visitors Bureau, puts the figure at 54 percent. Any way you slice it, the tourism industry accounts for a big piece of the financial pie.
Half of Solvang’s visitors are from California, while Farhad said 32 percent are domestic travelers spending close to $90 daily on dining, shopping and other activities. The 18 percent who are international travelers, however, tend to stay longer and spend more.
“We don’t have a Costco or a Sears or anything like that in Solvang, but that’s part of our charm,” said Chamber of Commerce President Lana Clark. “You can find unique things here, and that’s the message we’re trying to get out.”
In recent years, Solvang has adopted a more aggressive marketing strategy, and for good reason. Every dollar the city spends on advertising sees $150 in return, according to Farhad, who said “the marketing is more of an investment … it pays off significantly in the long run.”
Marketing the 2.2-square-mile Danish town as “a trip to Europe without a passport” has worked extremely well in the past, but in 2005 the city cashed in on another facet of its appeal when the Los Angeles Times called Solvang “something of a cycling Mecca.”
“Cyclists started asking event organizers to put Solvang on their tours because they loved it so much,” Farhad said, “and before long, we had landed Amgen.”
For the past three years, Solvang has hosted a portion of the 650-mile Amgen Tour of California cycling race. Amgen “brings a great amount of notoriety, so the city is getting state, national and international exposure. It is a boon in that respect,” Vidro said. “We’re getting coverage that would cost a lot if we had to pay for it.”
In 2008, roughly 15,000 fans lined the 15-mile route through Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley, but in 2009 the number of spectators jumped to more than 25,000.
“This year, businesses and restaurants did much, much better than they did last year because of the massive amount of people,” Vidro said. “It was a big day for most local businesses.”
He said the hundreds of media representatives and thousands of race enthusiasts who pack Solvang-area hotels every year make for “a major source of lodging revenue.”
The 2009 statistics have not been finalized, but officials expect to see a big increase over last year’s numbers. In 2008, hotel rooms reserved for Amgen cyclists, support staff and organizers generated approximately 463 room nights in Solvang, infusing more than $81,000 into local lodging coffers.
“Because of events like Amgen, hotels are doing great,” said Linda Johansen, whose family owns Solvang’s King Frederik Inn and the iconic Pea Soup Andersen’s in Buellton. “When hotels get as much business as [Solvang’s], they do fairly well. We’ve been doing some major renovating, like most of the hotels in the area.”
Renovating is an understatement; hotels in Solvang seem to be undergoing complete makeovers.
The Storybook Inn & Bacchus Restaurant is now the 10-room Mirabelle Inn & Restaurant, while The Vagabond Inn has been revamped as the Hadsten House.
The Santa Ynez Band of the Chumash Indians completely gutted the Royal Scandinavian Inn last year, transforming it into the much-anticipated Hotel Corque, a portion of which opened April 3.
When construction is completed, the 73,300-square-foot Hotel Corque will have 134 rooms and a 14,000-square-foot restaurant that boasts celebrity chef Bradley Ogden as a consultant. Vidro said the fact that Ogden is aiming for a five-star rating for the restaurant will help put Solvang on the culinary map.
“We wanted both the hotel and the restaurant to provide guests with a sense of place,” said David Brents, chief operating officer of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. The location “presents guests with a perfect sense of escapism and an opportunity to explore all that the Santa Ynez Valley has to offer.”
“My passion is my town. I love it. I love my little town,” Johansen said. “We [Solvang residents] can be very stubborn, but we’re starting to be more progressive in our thinking and promoting, and I think we’ve done very good job of selling our little community.”