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Southern California Resorts Eye More Guests
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By Sandi Cain
Orange County Business Journal Staff

May 2008 - There’s leisure travel and then there’s high-end leisure travel.  Orange County has both.

A variety of vacation experiences bodes well for OC during this uncertain economy. Visitors can spend the day with Mickey at Disneyland or Snoopy at Knott’s or indulge themselves at the spa at St. Regis Resort, Monarch Beach. 

While some tourism officials in other cities are crossing their fingers that summer business will save a slow 2008, resorts in OC are still humming along.

Whether that pattern will continue was a hot topic at a recent conference by the Hotel Sales and Marketing Association International. Attendees included several people from independently operated resorts not affiliated with a major hotel chain. 

A big point by speakers: Resorts need to be mindful of travel and consumer trends in order to meet the needs of an increasingly demanding market. That could include using social networking sites as part of their marketing efforts.

Also, hoteliers need to realize that even high-end travelers may be under some economic stress, according to keynote speaker Peter Yesawich, president and chief executive of Orlando marketing and research firm Y Partnership. 

Yesawich, whose firm conducts regular travel surveys, said heavy household debt and upside-down mortgages are two things that could dampen high-end travel, but not kill it. “Those with heavy debt are still showing up at your resorts,” he said. 

With average household credit card debt hovering around $9,000 and as many as a third of all homeowners under some pressure due to a slow housing market, those visitors may show up less often.

Twenty-nine percent of U.S. travelers are expected to take fewer trips this year, according to a Y Partnership survey. And if they don’t cut back on trips, they may cut back in other ways. 

“People will probably begin trading down (in hotel class) if things get worse,” Yesawich said.

Hotels often are the last to feel the effects of an economic pinch, but OC resorts still believe they’ll have a good summer.

“We were expecting the booking pace to slow, but it hasn’t yet,” said Blaise Bartell, vice president of operations at the Surf & Sand in Laguna Beach. “We’re 15% to 18% ahead of last year for July and August,” he said.

Bartell said booking trends are starting to look a little bit like they did after the terrorist attacks of 2001, when the drive-in market boomed while cross-country travel was almost at a standstill. “I suspect Laguna Beach is replacing Hawaii or other (fly-to) destinations,” Bartell said.

The question not yet answered, Bartell said, is how long visitors will stay and how much they’ll spend.

It’s also a question of when they’ll book.

“We see guests who decide on a Thursday or Friday that they want to get away for the weekend and are making reservations for the next day,” said Bruce Brainerd, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, in Dana Point. 

But at the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, general manager James Bermingham said some regular guests book their summer dates a year in advance to make certain they can get their favorite room or suite. 

Resorts also have plenty of other ways to connect with the potential guests besides just snagging a reservation, according to conference speakers. That can include luring visitors with spa and golf packages or personalizing services—practices OC resorts have already adopted.

Eliminate Stress

About 76% of U.S. travelers say they want to reduce stress on vacation.

“That’s why spas are hot,” Yesawich said. He said there are now twice as many people who want to go to a spa during vacation than who want to golf. 

Locally, The Island Hotel Newport Beach bucks that trend.

“Our packages continue to generate much interest—especially our new golf packages now available with the reopening of Pelican Hill Golf Club,” said Terri Reid, director of sales and marketing.

The soon-to-open Resort at Pelican Hill will offer a golf package that also includes spa treatments.

“We don’t want to force everyone to be golfers,” said Ellen Adelman, vice president of sales and marketing. “We’re going to treat the spa guest the same as the golf guest.”

Driving vs. Flying

Driving to a destination could become more popular as current air travel troubles don’t do much to inspire relaxation. Roughly 25% of all flights today are delayed or canceled, cutting into vacation plans.

“The experience is increasingly less than friendly,” Yesawich said. 

That’s pushed consumers to seek closer vacation spots—they now don’t want to spend more than about six hours to get to their destination. 

That bodes well for the county, which has almost 30 million people within a day’s drive.

In Anaheim, some hoteliers are reaching out to the traditional drive-in markets of Phoenix, Palm Springs and Las Vegas.

Local resorts also are looking closer to home for more business.

Bermingham said the Montage gets a lot of business from affluent OC residents and may see more as the economy cools. “They may stay closer to home,” he said, instead of stressing at the airport or battling rush hour on the freeway.

In San Clemente, a restaurateur said he and his wife were planning to spend their anniversary at the Montage instead of heading to San Diego or Santa Barbara as they usually do, because it would be less time on the road and less stressful.

Personalized Services

Resorts are also looking to “personalized stays” as a way to lure customers. 

Forty-one percent of Americans say they don’t have enough time to do what they want. Conference speakers suggested ways that resorts can help guests save time while providing a customized experience.

“This is the future of the business,” Yesawich said.

Most resorts already have fitness facilities, kid-friendly activities, spas and pools. Some have in-room spa treatments or Jacuzzis.  But travelers don’t come to a resort because of the thread count on the linens. 

“It’s not about the Jacuzzi in the room,” said Betsy Binder, associate professor at the University of South Carolina. What it is about is helping them plan the things they want to do while they’re there, she said. Resorts should consider having advance concierge services that do the planning for guests, Binder said.

After all, if a family has had a harrowing flight or a snail’s pace drive, the last thing they want to do when they arrive is to plan their next activity.

Resorts will score points if they offer to arrange spa treatments, restaurant reservations, tee times or shopping excursions when the room is booked. That mantra already is booked into the minds of local resorts.

Bermingham said Montage has always offered that service, but more people now are taking advantage of it.

Montage offers a family weekend that might include a private tour of the Santa Ana Zoo for the kids and a picnic on the beach along with a docent-led tour of the tidepools or a dolphin safari out of Dana Point. 

Not only are extra services soothing to the guest, but 38% of travelers say they’d pay more for a customized stay. 

“As we enter a more difficult financial environment, the only way to charge more is to personalize,” Yesawich said.

Ritz-Carlton makes “anticipation calls” to guests before they arrive to offer assistance, whether that means floral arrangements in the room or massage services, Brainerd said. The resort has a “Romance Concierge” who can arrange an aromatherapy bath, a gift from Neiman Marcus or a private dinner in the gazebo overlooking the ocean.

The Hilton Waterfront in Huntington Beach sends pre-arrival e-concierge messages to advise those with reservations about its pet-friendly policies, Disney tickets and other programs as well as to provide a direct contact to a staff member who can take care of special requests. The hotel also partners with Toes on the Nose for beach rentals and a beach butler service that can be charged directly to the guest’s room.

“We’ll even stock the pantries in the kitchens,” Pelican Hill’s Edelman said. “We’re 100% revolving around personalization.” 

Binder said such advanced concierge services go a long way toward building relationships with guests. “Toss aside the stupid resort fee and institute something like this,” Binder said. “You’ll make more in short-term commissions and build repeat guests.”

Environmental Advantage

If the resort is near a wetland, tidepool, coastal meadow, forest or other natural habitat, embrace that as part of the destination, said conference presenter Crist Inman, chief executive of La Paz Group in Escazu, Costa Rica. 

OC resorts don’t have any rainforests to embrace, but there’s plenty of coastline where visitors can learn about marine life and plants and flowers. And many of them partner with local groups to teach visitors about the environment here.

The Hilton Waterfront partners with Bolsa Chica Wetlands for bird walks. The Resort at Pelican Hill will offer a docent-led tour of Crystal Cove and the surrounding area that will teach guests the history of the area as well as both the indigenous and imported plants.

“We’re educating people about Newport Coast,” Edelman said. 

Montage partners with Ocean Laguna for a tidepool program to educate beachgoers about marine life. It also partners with the Ocean Institute in Dana Point for various programs.

Reason for Vacation

Hotels also can entice people by giving them a reason to vacation. 

U.S. workers average 13 days of vacation each year—far below the average in most of Europe and even some of Asia. Even so, 20% cancel some vacation plans and 20% of those who do go report higher stress in the office after a vacation. 

Resort conference presenter Terri Haack, executive vice president and managing director of Terranea Resort in Los Angeles, offered a simple solution: simply don’t use the word “vacation.”  “Give them a reason to take time off,” she said.

Resort packages that offer to reconnect families, provide an opportunity to do good, teach their children something or just create a good old-fashioned girls’ getaway will resonate with today’s consumers and drive more business to the resorts. 

And once they come, let them destress.

“We want our guests not to have to think,” Bermingham said. 
 

Sandi Cain is a freelance writer and contributor to the Orange County Business Journal and meetings industry publications. She specializes in hospitality, tourism and travel. Cain holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Kent State University in Ohio, where she majored in social studies. A former high school teacher, she has written for niche-market sports publications in the U.S., England and Australia and formerly worked in both the printing and high-tech industries. A Cleveland, Ohio native, Cain hasbeen a resident of Laguna Beach since the late ’70s. She enjoys travel, gardening, reading and spoiling her three cats.
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Contact:

Sandi Cain
Laguna Beach CA
949-497-2680

sdcain31@cox.net
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Also See: St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa Opening Adds to Competition in South Orange County California / Sandi Cain / Aug 2001
Two California Coastal Resorts, Newport Beach Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel Spending $100 million on Renovations / Sandi Cain / November 2004
Ritz, Surf & Sand, Vie With Beach Resort Newcomers Along California's Orange County Coast; Almost 1,000 rooms Set to be Added / Sandi Cain / Aug 2002
Montage Founder, Alan J. Fuerstman Sees Big Things for Laguna Colony Luxury Hotel, Acquired from Marriott International for $190 million / Sandi Cain / July 2002
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