|By Marie Vasari, The Monterey County
Herald, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Nov. 8, 2008 - As Monterey County resorts go, it's not the most exclusive.
But with an acclaimed restaurant run by a top-name French chef, 400 acres of meticulously manicured grounds and a golf course nestled in the soft green curves of Carmel Valley, there's plenty at Carmel Valley Ranch to draw in the guests -- including incentives such as free 50-minute spa treatments, free tennis lessons, or daily $20 food and beverage credits toward breakfast.
These days, a shaky economy has hotel properties across the region struggling to retain valuable tourism dollars. To compete, they're looking for creative ways to add value to the experience, placing extra emphasis on service, enhancing guests' experiences and often throwing in additional amenities or opportunities.
Vacation travel slipped in September by its largest margin this year, and industry experts predict a challenging era could be around the corner for the hospitality industry in Monterey County.
Leisure travelers and corporate-driven group travel are being pinched. In recent months, some consumers have put vacationing on hold entirely, while others are shortening overnight stays or downscaling to more modest accommodations. And nearly everyone these days, it seems, is looking for value.
Which is why even Carmel Valley Ranch, with a glittering new restaurant and recently completed renovations, is making sure its guests feel they are getting true value for every dime, says general manager Joseph Violi.
"More now than ever before, people are doing a better job of shopping," said Violi. "They're trying to find value, trying to find a location that's going to satisfy all their needs."
That is pushing properties to look for ways to stand out from the crowd.
Service is key, as consumers cut back on travel and limit their restaurant dining experiences.
"What's going to set us apart is the service that people get," said Violi. "If they don't get the quality of food and the quality of service, no matter what their price point is, they won't return."
The resort is launching a free breakfast program for children under 10 this winter, and an extra room night promotion. That is in addition to spa and golf deals and other amenity credits.
"We've got a very aggressive offering coming out this winter to incite travel," said Violi.
Across the region, other lodgings are doing likewise. From spa treatments to aquarium passes and meal vouchers, hotels are rolling out the incentives.
In conjunction with Monterey Right Away, a recent Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau marketing push, more than a dozen properties were offering gas cards and gas rebates, trying to make potential guests a bit less skittish about spending hard-won dollars on travel.
In the midst of a season of high gas prices, the Convention and Visitors Bureau reached out to prime drive-in markets -- those close enough for travelers to drive -- with the slogan, "Take a short drive to a longer summer," promoting the region's "blue skies, warm beaches, big savings," and listing deals and discounts from members hotels, restaurants and attractions on its Web site, www.montereyinfo.org.
A cooperative marketing effort between the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, Hyatt Regency Monterey Resort and Spa and other local merchants, sings the praises of little-known local treasures and seasonally warm fall climates in a promotion called Monterey's Secret Season.
Joie de Vivre, which runs the Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur, is offering a Tax Relief for Californians campaign, paying the occupancy tax for California residents through Tax Day 2009.
Carmel Lodge offered gas cards this summer, and recently launched a Stay and Dine package with a $50 dining voucher for Kurt's Carmel Chop House, and a Carmel Holiday deal with discounted rates and shopping deals. The Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa is offering midweek discounts, with spa treatments, breakfast deals and aquarium packages as incentives.
For the holiday season, the Mariposa Inn and Suites, a 50-room property across from Del Monte Shopping Center, is pushing its Shop 'n' Stay packages, offering guests coupon booklets full of discounts and freebies for local retailers, appetizers and wine-tasting, and free gift-wrapping.
General manager Joy Hoang Anderson said everyone in the industry is acutely aware of the need to go the extra mile these days. So the hotel has started offering Parker-Lusseau pastries to guests, and in October finished a $1.4 million renovation.
Walk-in traffic is down substantially, she said, and those who call are often looking for deals and, increasingly, making last-minute reservations within a three-day window, which creates its own challenges for staffing, said Anderson.
She is promoting heavily through the Northern California market, particularly in Fresno and other feeder markets.
"We just know that because business is down, that we really have to spend more money in advertising and marketing, which is really hard to do for businesses, but we understand that you really have to step up the pace," she said. "We have to look at the long term."
Steve Wille, president/CEO of the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau, agrees that the economy is the biggest challenge for the region's tourism industry.
But he sees opportunity amid the challenge.
The changing economy led his organization to adjust strategies, with increased short-term focus on fly-in markets such as Southern California. It has started promoting a more value-oriented message to consumers in even closer markets, particularly the Silicon Valley and Sacramento regions, capitalizing on the trend toward "staycations" as consumers look for value in their backyards, said Celeste White, director of communications for the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
To that end, the organization plans to allocate additional resources in the months ahead to promote Monterey County to those close-proximity, drive-in markets.
In the midst of a summer of high gas prices, the agency promoted "blue skies, warm beaches, big savings" for drive-in visitors as part of its "Take a short drive to a longer summer" campaign, and a Monterey Right Away marketing campaign drove visitors to the organization's Web site, where members hotels, restaurants and attractions offered deals and discounts. Another marketing push revealed some hidden treasures in seasonally sunny fall months as part of Monterey's Secret Season.
"What we see operating in this market is not a price war but primarily added value, and the fact that we're close," says Wille. "If it's wise to be staying close to your backyard, then well, what a backyard."
Despite the economy's pressures, the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau isn't losing sight of its goal and plans to remain focused on its mission, said Wille, which is to put a face on Monterey County as a tourism destination and to make sure that message is heard in appropriate markets.
Pricing isn't being entirely ignored, but the message is more subtle: less driving, less gas costs, less commitment and a great vacation destination.
But for lodgings and attractions, cost and value are primary messages these days, and the bureau has created opportunities on its Web site for many to promote value-added specials as part of recent promotions.
"People are absolutely deciding where to go depending on the deals," said Wille. "We have to be able to play in that environment."
The leisure travel markets were first to show sluggishness from rising gas prices this spring, remaining tepid on shaky consumer confidence and contracting further in the financial meltdown of recent weeks. But consumers are still traveling, said Wille, even if they are changing their patterns, and that market is likely to bounce back.
Group travel markets, driven by corporate spending and incentive travel, were slower to react, because corporate retreats and conferences tend be booked further in advance. But the impact of the economy on the group travel market is beginning to be felt, said Wille.
"We were doing pretty well until September," said Wille. "Then consumers basically hit a pause button."
Yet even that presents opportunity, he said, particularly for Northern California corporations that may eschew high-end resorts in distant locales for more accessible Monterey County properties. Rather than flying its executives or top performers to Hawaii or the Bahamas, the companies could essentially slash their travel budgets and still host conferences or meetings that don't skimp on amenities. As a result, Wille said the Convention and Visitors Bureau plans an extra push for its share of that group travel market.
The fact that the MCCVB was proactive in its push, which started more than six months ago, is paying off: So far, group bookings are up 22 percent for October over goal and 66 percent over goals for the fiscal year to date, said Wille, and Web site traffic -- much of it driven by banner ads, e-mail blasts and other advertising outreach -- is up 50 percent over projections and on target to get 500,000 independent hits a year, he said.
While responding to the changes in the economy is essential to remain relevant, the Convention and Visitors Bureau is remaining focused on its primary message, said Wille. Within that umbrella message, there is plenty of opportunity for niche marketing: cultural tourism, food and wine adventures, eco-tourism.
Even with the downturn, Wille said, people still travel. For some people, it can provide escape or relief in the midst of economic worries, and while some consumers may modify their typical patterns, they still travel for work or pleasure.
Every downturn is part of a cycle that eventually shifts.
"We want to be there, ready to serve that market when it's not so price-sensitive," said Wille. "One of the most important things is being ready for the rebound, because it is going to happen."
Marie Vasari can be reached at 646-4478 or
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