"Your corporation may be able to afford the hotel bill, but you can't afford the PR hit," Freitag said.
"When you have a deep trough in business, you bring prices down," said Laurence Geller, president of the company that owns the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel and the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego County. Other inducements might be four nights for the price of three, a free spa treatment or breakfast.
The Montage has offered rooms on certain slower weekdays this summer at $425, down $100 from the cheapest room two years ago, and the St. Regis dropped its price to $325 a night for a few rooms on off nights. And though Pelican Hill won't cut its sticker price, if you shell out $795 for an 847-square-foot bungalow you get two rounds of golf or two spa treatments thrown in.
"From a consumer standpoint, there are going to be some wonderful values," Wise said. "And tee times are more readily available."
But price cutting is tricky for hotels that on weekends even now can command minimum prices of $600 to $800 a night for vacationers. Cheaper rooms at upscale resorts attract "a different demographic," as Wise delicately put it -- people who hoteliers fear might spend lightly in restaurants, damage the furnishings and perhaps alienate wealthier travelers.
In the meantime, encouraging signs are emerging at the resorts, hotel managers say.
At the St. Regis, occupancy occasionally fell as low as 15% during June as gloomy weather prevailed, said General Manager So. But last-minute bookings are now surging, he said, with weekends full and more than 70% of the rooms expected to be filled in August -- down from the mid- to high-80% range in summer 2006 but better than he had feared.
Pelican Hill, which declined to disclose occupancy rates, also reported a recent pickup in business. At midday in late July, about 30 people were in or beside the 136-foot-wide Coliseum Pool, with two of the 20 poolside cabanas booked, and Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad stopped by for lunch.
Ralph Griffo, president of resort operations for Pelican Hill developer Irvine Co., said the company reduced its financial expectations for the complex last fall because of the near-meltdown in the financial system just before it opened. The operation is meeting those expectations, he said, and pursuing its strategy of courting wealthy Southern Californians.
At the 250-room Montage, which also caters principally to the wealthy leisure crowd, "we're seeing a tremendous increase in people's confidence," said James Bermingham, the general manager.
Though business is down 15% this year, that is less than expected and better than the industry's average, Bermingham said. The Montage still requires weekend visitors to stay more than one night, though the minimum has been cut to two nights instead of three or four in better times.
Bermingham even expressed some optimism that pent-up demand would increase the number of business meetings at the Montage this fall. He said the hotel's loyal clientele was still drawn to its relaxed atmosphere and dramatic setting beside a series of coves, although the stays are noticeably shorter even among those fans.
"Instead of three weeks, it's two," he said. "Instead of four nights, it's two."
More in the seriesThis report is one in a series
of occasional articles on how Southland resort destinations are faring in the recession.