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 Orange County California Tourism Set to Hit Another High Mark; 
Disneyland's 50th Anniversary Boosts Attendance,
Hotel Room Rates
By Sandi Cain, Orange County Business Journal Staff
May 2006

Orange County’s tourism industry continues to ride the coattails of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, which has drawn record crowds to the theme parks and the county. 

Forecasts call for OC to continue attracting record crowds at least into next year, though Walt Disney Co. will end its party in September.

“The trend suggests this year could be better than last year,” said Disneyland Resort President Matt Ouimet, speaking at the California Travel Industry Association convention held in Anaheim in March.

Several factors play into the rosy outlook. 

Sixty-six percent of U.S. adults plan to take at least one vacation trip of 75 miles or more this year, according to a Travel Industry Association survey. And California is the No. 1 “dream” destination for 34% of those surveyed.

The popularity of TV shows “The O.C.,” “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” and “Real Housewives of Orange County” has generated buzz about the county nationally.

Laguna Beach alone has seen the number of visits to its Web site increase from 600,000 in 2004 to 1.5 million in 2005.

“Our name appears daily in papers across the country now,” said Judy Bijlani, executive director of the Laguna Beach Visitors and Conference Bureau.

OC saw 44.7 million visitors last year, with about 1 million of them attending conventions. Tourists spent $7.8 billion in OC in 2005.

Nationally, vacation travel is expected to increase this year, but by less than the 4% gain posted in 2005, according to Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry Association. 

The uptick in interest makes hoteliers happy. 

Countywide occupancy hit 75.5% last year, up from 71.2% in 2004. Disney’s hotels were 96% full. 

Occupancy was 69% through February this year, up 4% from the same period a year ago. 

During spring break, Disney hotels reportedly were sold out.

Higher hotel occupancy typically brings higher room rates and profits for hotel operators.

OC’s average daily hotel rate was $133.10 through February, up 10.5% from 2005, according to the Los Angeles office of PKF Consulting. 

Nationwide occupancy for the same period was 55%, with an average daily rate of $93.53, according to Hendersonville, Tenn.-based Smith Travel Research.

Occupancy in the Pacific region was 63% and the average daily rate was $110 for the same period, according to Smith Travel. And revenue per available room, a measure of hotel profitability, grew 14.9% in OC during the first two months of the year, compared to growth of 11.7% in the overall Pacific region.

Though Disney is winding down its anniversary, it will reopen a revamped Pirates of the Caribbean ride in June. The reopening will coincide with the “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” movie coming this summer. 

In April, Disney launched a Mickey Mouse hot air balloon tour that is making stops in Western cities to remind people that there’s still time to get in on the anniversary action.

On the last weekend of spring break, Disneyland and California Adventure were filled to capacity. Late-arriving visitors were given passes to come back another day. Typically, that kind of overflow only happens on heavy holidays like New Year’s Eve.

Disney also launched a series of California Food and Wine Weekends for spring that run until May 21. The program showcases chefs, winemakers and the resort’s restaurants. 

“It’s likely we’ll continue these types of events,” said Disneyland spokesman Bob Tucker. “Research is showing that consumers like customized, specialty events.”

In September, the Disneyland Resort and city of Anaheim will host the first Half Marathon Weekend. About 20,000 people are expected to attend the event’s health and fitness expo. The marathon is a sellout, with roughly 12,000 runners registered.

At Knott’s Berry Farm, Johnny Rockets will open in June at the Boardwalk area inside the park. A new tube slide called Pacific Spin will open at Knott’s water park, Soak City.

In Anaheim, the long-awaited Gardenwalk shopping, entertainment and dining complex along Katella Avenue in the resort district is set to begin phase one construction this month. Among the first restaurants on board: Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Roy’s, Cheesecake Factory, McCormick & Schmick’s, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Good Vibrations, a restaurant launched by the Beach Boys.

New rides and activities are important for tourist destinations. 

“There’s a ‘been there done that’ mentality among travelers,” said Peter Yesawich, managing partner of Orlando-based marketing consultants Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, at the California Travel Industry Association convention. 

Anaheim may be the heart of the visitor industry, but it isn’t the only player. Others are looking to attract tourists who live within three to four hours of the county—about 21 million for OC.

Huntington Beach plans to reach out to bird-watchers as the Bolsa Chica Wetlands are restored. About 5% of visitors to California—roughly 4 million people—take part in bird watching and other nature-related activities.

A new Web site for Laguna Beach will let people personalize itineraries. The site—expected to launch this month—will use interactive maps that allow potential visitors to see the location of galleries, restaurants and shops and print out Rolodex cards for each place they want to visit.

Costa Mesa is shifting its focus to theater and concerts in preparation for the opening of the Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in October.

“We’re shifting about 60% to 70% of our focus to partner with the Performing Arts Center to bring in more people for the theater experience,” said Thomas Smalley, president of the Costa Mesa Conference & Visitor Bureau and general manager of the Wyndham Hotel in Costa Mesa.

“With the prospect of simultaneous shows, we can create packages (for overnight stays),” he said. “We’ve not been able to do that before.” 

Focus on Leisure

In Anaheim, the focus is leisure.

“Everybody’s a visitor—business travelers, conventioneers and leisure travelers—so we’re directing all our marketing at leisure,” said Charles Ahlers, president of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau.

Anaheim’s visitor and convention bureau is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, with an updated Web site and marketing partnerships.

Another common thread among local tourist promoters is branding.

The OCeanfront partnership of 10 coastal resorts, shopping centers, golf courses and visitor bureaus is building on its inaugural direct mail campaign launched last year. A joint promotion of summer packages and events along the coast began in April.

The OCeanfront’s next major effort will be in 2007, when the U.S.’s largest convention of travel buyers, called International Pow Wow, comes to Anaheim.

“We think there’s a unique opportunity with Pow Wow and see that as our next major investment,” said OCeanfront spokesman Cormac O’Modhrain, president of the hospitality division for Newport Beach-based Robert Mayer Corp.

With an international base of travel agents and tour operators, the Pow Wow convention is considered a plum in the industry. When New York hosted the show last year, it generated $300 million in future bookings for the city.

“They’re the ones who can make a difference worldwide,” O’Modhrain said.

Fifty sponsors already are backing Pow Wow, with evening galas planned at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. The final night will be a “Club Anaheim” party at a still-undisclosed location that will showcase the OC lifestyle.

Huntington Beach took a giant step in branding when it received its trademark for “Surf City USA.”

“We’re launching the biggest advertising campaign ever to appeal to the leisure traveler,” said Doug Traub, president of the Huntington Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau. 

“The city’s No. 1 objective is to turn Huntington Beach into a destination economy,” he said.

Both Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach plan extensive merchandising programs. 

It’s a first for Laguna Beach.

“We’re taking advantage of the increased popularity of Laguna Beach,” Bijlani said. 

One twist for Laguna gear: Those who order shirts will be able to choose a custom typeface and place the city logo wherever they want it on the shirt.

All those efforts may be needed at a time when vacations are getting shorter and 41% of adult travelers say they feel like they don’t have enough time.

“Time poverty is very real,” said Gary Sherwin, recently named executive director of the Newport Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau.

It also affects the length of vacations.

Slightly more than half of all vacations last year were trips of four or fewer nights, according to Yesawich of consulting company Yesawich, Pepperdine. U.S. companies offer just 13 vacation days—few by world standards. 

Time constraints are “reinventing the way people vacation,” Yesawich said.

Yesawich recommended that cities develop two marketing strategies: one for Sunday through Thursday stays and one for Thursday through Sunday. It’s worked in the Las Vegas market.

Special packages also come into play, Sherwin said.

“A custom package is something that (convention and visitor bureaus) can do that others can’t do—not even Web sites,” Sherwin said.

Packages have worked for the cruise industry and may serve travelers who don’t have time to plan details.

“Consumers respond to that,” Sherwin said.

Disney Momentum

Tourism promoters also need to think about other developing trends, Yesawich said.

An increasing number of travelers are older than 65—58% are female, and 29% have taken a trip alone. And Generations X and Y are getting older—and they’re the ones who want personalized experiences that allow them to control the itinerary.

In looking toward fall and 2007, local tourism promoters might take a page from the Disneyland model used to roll out its 50th anniversary plans. 

At the California Travel Industry Association’s convention, Ouimet shared some of Disney’s strategies to build and keep momentum for the 50th anniversary.

Among them: start early to give people time to plan, repeat your message and get the community on board with your plan.

“Tell the story of tourism consistently and with discipline and ultimately it will make a difference,” he said.

Several things are in the works for fall.

Last year’s “50 Days of Fall” promotion from the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau gave hoteliers enough of a bump in business that the bureau plans a similar effort this year.

“We’ll try to sustain fall business,” Ahlers said. “But probably not with exactly the same program.”

Buena Park posts some of its biggest visitor totals in the fall, largely on the strength of Knott’s Berry Farm’s Halloween Haunt—the original theme park Halloween event.

In September, group business is strengthened by military reunions, said Pattie Davidson, managing director of the Buena Park Convention & Visitors Office.

Laguna Beach is looking at “girlfriend getaway” packages.

Beyond Disney: Tourism Marketers
Eye Arts, Sports Visitors

By Sandi Cain, Orange County Business Journal Staff

When travel agents met in New York last year for their annual International Pow Wow convention, Henry Segerstrom was on hand.

Segerstrom was there to represent South Coast Plaza. But he also was on hand to promote something else: the Rénee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, which is set to open in the fall.

Segerstrom and tourism officials hope the theater will be a draw in its own right, luring arts lovers from afar to see Placido Domingo or Richard Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung.”

“Having a world-class performing arts district will open up the possibility for families to spend more time here,” said Thomas Smalley, president of the Costa Mesa Conference and Visitor Bureau and general manager of the nearby Wyndham Hotel.

Some 118 million people nationally visit a historic or cultural spot on vacations, according to the Travel Industry Association of America in Washington, D.C.

“We at South Coast Plaza see the cultural travelers pointing themselves in our direction,” said Werner Escher, executive director of domestic and international markets for South Coast Plaza.

Dennis Szakacs, director of the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach and a New York transplant, said he’s run into former colleagues at galleries he’s visited here. 

“Absolutely, people are traveling for cultural events,” he said. 

The county’s museums and galleries could benefit from well-heeled visitors coming to the county’s lavish coastal hotels. 

More people have been coming to the county’s mainstay cultural draws, something backers say is helped in part by tourists. 

Laguna Beach’s annual Festival of Arts and Pageant of Masters saw record attendance last year. 

“The Pageant and Festival have always been appealing to tourists,” spokeswoman Sharbie Higuchi said. “It was created in 1932 with the hope of drawing tourists who attended the Olympics in Los Angeles and publicized as a post-Olympic event.”

The challenge is in getting the word out, said Rick Weinberg, spokesman for Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana.

“It’s imperative if you want to grow your numbers to make sure everyone who comes to town knows about your (facility),” he said.

Sports Tourists

Sports can be an even bigger draw. An estimated 75 million Americans attend a sports event while they’re on the road.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim lure die-hard fans who travel to see their favorite teams or those who try and see as many parks and arenas as possible. Playoffs and championship games bring even more visitors. 

Sports tourism is a “powerhouse,” said Tim Schneider, publisher of SportsTravel Magazine and organizer of the annual Travel, Events and Management in Sports conference.

Professional sports are glitzy, but amateur and youth competitions bring even more money from visitors. 

Irvine works to bring youth and amateur sports groups to town, according to Destination Irvine’s director of tourism Firoozeh Tahmassebi.

Sporting events help fill the city hotels on weekends, which usually clear out when weekday business travelers head home. 

“We’re not a typical weekend getaway city,” Tahmassebi said.

This year, 80 to 100 roller hockey teams are coming to town, Tahmassebi said. 

Huntington Beach grabs the lion’s share of local surfing, volleyball, skating and BMX biking competitions, hosting dozens of beach events each year.

Anaheim has hosted everything from Olympic gymnastic trials and world badminton finals to the World Series and NHL Stanley Cup games.

Earlier this year, Anaheim hosted a round of the inaugural World Baseball Classic. The city is set to get a new NBA Developmental League team at the Anaheim Arena. And talks with the National Football League continue for an Anaheim team.

“We could be the first city (of our size) to have all four major professional sports,” Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle said in a recent TV interview.

The USA Men’s National Volleyball Team in February agreed to make Anaheim its home through 2012.

In September, Walt Disney Co. is bringing a marathon to Anaheim with the Disneyland Half Marathon weekend. 

About 12,000 runners have signed on. 

Family Plan 

If there’s a tourism segment to be mined, Walt Disney Co. will do so. 

The Burbank-based company’s “Magical Gatherings” targets families getting together for reunions or just vacationing together.

The travel package lets families set up private meals, photo sessions, hotel rooms and activities online before they arrive in Anaheim.

Others are courting families, too. 

Knott’s Berry Farm Resort Hotel next to the Buena Park theme park has a Snoopy floor for families with small fry. 

Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach has a daily arts and activity program called Paintbox for kids 5 to 12. Teens have their own events. 

The St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa runs the Sandcastle Kids Club weekdays and Friday evenings.

Gasoline Concerns

Economic times always are cyclical, and there is some uncertainty in the air.

Most recently, gas prices have raised concerns about summer drive travel, which makes up about three-quarters of travel within California.

Though it’s still too early to judge the impact of fuel prices on travel, the Automobile Club of Southern California says summer vacationers are more likely to cut back on hotel or food costs rather than cancel a trip due to gas prices.

In Costa Mesa, which has offered drive and dine packages for several years, those who buy the package get gas and restaurant certificates with their hotel stays.

“Visitors seem interested in the $30 gas reimbursement more than food coupons this year,” said Smalley of Costa Mesa’s Conference & Visitor Bureau.

Other economic concerns, such as credit card and mortgage debt and job insecurity, may affect final visitor numbers.

But as long as those TV shows keep rolling, OC will continue to be on travelers’ minds. 

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.

Sandi Cain
Laguna Beach CA

Also See: Slim Growth in Orange County, California Hotel Room Count; Hoteliers Expecting a Very Strong Summer / Sandi Cain / May 2006
The Long-awaited Tourism Rebound Has Arrived in Southern California; Disneyland Said to be Drawing Thousands More Per Day than Expected / Sandi Cain / August 2005


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