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Jenn Ireland

Jenn Ireland / The Californian Alec Johnson gets some air Saturday afternoon while riding his dirt bike at Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area.

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Jenn Ireland

Jenn Ireland / The Californian Tommy Hansen takes a photo as fellow dirt bike rider Alec Johnson gets some air Saturday afternoon at Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area.

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Casey Christie

Casey Christie / The Californian Experienced river guide with Whitewater Voyages and a Bakersfield firefighter Dave Seibt takes a group of commercial rafters down the Kern over the Memorial Day weekend.

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Casey Christie

Casey Christie / The Californian River raft guide Dave Seibt, right, leads a trip down some big water on the Kern River above Kernville.

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John Harte / The Californian

Bakersfield Christian's Aryton Oliver tries for a steal against Chaminade's Anthony Daniels in the first quarter of their CIF playoff game at Bakersfield Christian in March.

Lacrosse, anyone? No? Well, it’s worth a shot. A sport like lacrosse could really help the local economy.

Just ask Bakersfield tourism chief Don Cohen. He’s so anxious to bring lucrative lacrosse tournaments to town that he’s out trying to recruit local players who would help build up the city’s “lacrosse infrastructure” (that is, convertible soccer fields).

It’s no joke: Sports events have become the star of Bakersfield’s tourism and hospitality industry, which now supports the city’s economy to the tune of more than $20 million a year. (To be clear, that figure is based on 44 events drawing 110,000 delegates and resulting in 71,000 Bakersfield hotel room bookings in the fiscal year ended June 30.)

Lacrosse is only an example, albeit one foreign to many Californians (it’s the sport with netted sticks). Recently Cohen’s team at the city-run Bakersfield Convention & Visitors Bureau has scored several visitor-heavy events centered on basketball, BMX racing and bowling, among other sports.

And that’s not counting what’s happening at the county level, where the focus is not so much on attracting big events as it is on bringing Southern Californians to Kern County’s great outdoors for activities ranging from dirtbike riding to river rafting. There, too, an emphasis on recreation is producing strong results made stronger by the dollar signs behind them.

Together, the initiatives are putting a new face on local tourism. They build on the area’s historical strengths while also providing a unifying theme to what was, in the city’s case, a marketing organization that lacked clear direction.

In both cases, too, the push toward more sports and outdoor activity has won support from businesses that stand to benefit.

To the general manager of the DoubleTree Hotel Bakersfield, Bill Murray, in-town sports competitions are attractive for two reasons: They tend to fill rooms on weekends, when the business travelers aren’t usually around, and they generally draw entire families, which raises their per-room spending.

“I think the amount of money spent (by sports event attendees) not only in the hotel industry but also in the general market is equal to or more than the typical traveler,” said Murray, who is also a member of the nonprofit board that oversees the city tourism bureau.

A question of focus

Something worth noting is that sporting events were not the obvious choice to be a focus of the bureau’s marketing activity when it was reborn as a city operation in 2007 after a period of inconsistent leadership. And it may not be a major emphasis going forward.

Bakersfield has long gone after sports competitions, though perhaps no more so than other “SMRFs” — industry parlance for sports, military, reunion and fraternal organization events. The primary alternatives to this strategic focus are association gatherings and trade shows, both of which are sometimes considered unsuitable for the city because of its relatively small convention center and dearth of nearby hotel rooms.

When Cohen, a former real estate executive, was appointed bureau manager close to two years ago, he undertook an assessment of the city’s tourism strengths and weaknesses. Local sports venues were deemed a strong point, and so athletic competitions were embraced — but not, Cohen emphasized, to the exclusion of other types of events.

Even now, the bureau does what it can to attract bigger events — conventions, for example — that are the mainstay of big cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. The problem is, such groups typically insist on entertainment-intensive, almost vacation-like getaways — a measure on which Bakersfield cannot hope to compete.

“We’re not Disneyland,” he said.

It may be that the bureau turns away from sports in favor of another kind of event more appropriate for Bakersfield.

“I think we’re about a year away from that decision point,” Cohen said. In the meantime, he said, “we’re not going to walk away from business that we have a chance at just yet.”

Mike Raja, a bureau board member and general manager of Bakersfield’s Days Inn, expressed faith in Cohen’s progress and focus as head of the tourism bureau, which he credits for bringing in sports events that benefit his and others’ business.

“I’m happy with the way the whole team is working,” he said.

Looking east

Over at the Board of Trade, the county’s tourism agency, east Kern is where the action’s at these days. Sure, out-of-towners still pitch tents up and down the Kern River Valley, and they continue to flock to Kernville and the surrounding areas for outdoors fun like hiking and river rafting. But much of the agency’s attention lately is dedicated to an area where it sees tourism potential, in places like Jawbone Canyon, California City, Red Rock Canyon State Park and Ridgecrest.

Why there? Because according to Board of Trade officials, that’s where a new wave of Southern Californian tourists are driving their RVs and off-highway vehicles. It’s as much an economic trend as a recreational one, and the county wants to make sure east Kern is at the forefront.

Board of Trade executive director Rick Davis said many families are taking shorter trips, often lasting two to four days. That, combined with travelers’ recent preference for staying closer to home, means Hawaiian vacations are out for many Southern Californians. As a result, a desert dirtbiking trip in the late fall or winter, when it’s not so hot, can be just the thing.

This also makes it a different kind of hospitality industry than what Bakersfield sees. Hotel stays are less common, for one thing, Davis said. But there’s still money to be made.

“While (east Kern visitors) come up more self-contained,” he said, “they still spend money. They buy groceries, they buy gas, they go to restaurants.”

Data from the latest Dean Runyan Associates California tourism report suggest that visitors are indeed spending more money in Kern, though the numbers don’t pinpoint where.

According to the Runyan report, total direct travel spending in Kern reached $1.2 billion in 2007, the latest year for which data are available. That’s almost double the total in 1992.

Making the most of it

Cities and businesses in east Kern are doing more to get their share of that money. Among the more proactive measures taken recently by a few desert communities is to extend dirtbike trails to commercial areas, complete with signage and maps, so riders no longer have to travel into town illegally on major roads for fuel, food and drinks.

Locals have learned to tap the growing popularity of weekend off-highway vehicle trips, said Cindy Velador, manager of the Friends of Jawbone Bookstore, part of a desert information center run by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

“Some of the towns know. They’ve been doing this for quite a few years,” she said. “They know that when riding season comes, to stock up on firewood and T-shirts and ice cream and food and all that.”

The Board of Trade is doing what it can to support that kind of activity. About a year and a half ago it set up a satellite office in Ridgecrest. The office’s full-time staffer offers guidance to tourism-related businesses from Boron to Lake Isabella.

The agency also promotes the county’s wide-open spaces to travelers from down south. It maintains a Web site, visitkern.com, which last year got 1.4 million hits. It also performs direct marketing through various travel events, talks with tour group leaders and advertisements in visitor guides.

The agency even promotes a non-county dirtbike destination, Gorman’s Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area. But that’s only because visitors to that area have proved they can be persuaded to spend dollars in Frazier Park and other parts of Kern’s Mountain Communities.

“We’ll gladly take that money,” Hook said.