Shot in Arm for San Diego : Conventioneers Bringing Their Spouses Along for the Fun

Times Staff Writer

San Diego's already booming tourist industry--benefiting these days from air fare wars and fears of international travel--is getting a shot in the arm from a new customer--spouses of conventioneers.

While conventioneers explore the intricacies of computer microchips or the latest trends in term insurance, their spouses--or what are increasingly referred to as "significant others"--are usually busy exploring the attractions that have made tourism the third largest industry in San Diego.

But rather than visiting the tried-and-true attractions, these tourists are being shepherded around town by tour companies that count on spouse tours to generate a significant part of their revenues.

Corporations that hold conventions here are increasingly counting on such tour companies to provide often exotic, often off-beat entertainment for both the conventioneers and their spouses--at costs that can reach up to $4,000 per person. "Our goal is to make them happy so they'll have a great memory and come back next year," according to Philip Lee, president of California Leisure Consultants in San Diego.

Typically, having spouses accompany convention goers adds about 20% to the costs of the tour.

Although tour groups historically have catered to women--and included fashion shows, teas and shopping sprees in La Jolla--the changing makeup of conventions has forced tour operators to reprogram their offerings to appeal to both sexes.

That change was forced by convention holders instigating stronger incentive programs with enticing convention locations that appeal to both sexes.

"One of the biggest attractions here is the zoo because of its reputation, but what we do is give a private tour behind the scenes. We try to explain what the regular public doesn't see. We think things like this appeal to both men and women," said Gary Church, administrative vice president of Patti Roscoe & Associates, which plans convention tours.

While they are visiting, the conventioneers' "significant others" want to enjoy "out of the ordinary" attractions, echoed Lex Lyon, vice president of Enjoy California, a company that conducts spouse tours and other tourist activities.

Sea World, the San Diego Zoo and Cabrillo Point are not enough to keep such tourists happy. "Visitors no longer want to visit just the leisure sites . . . if they've been here in the past," Lyon said.

In 1985, there were about 1,500 conventions in San Diego, with more than 546,000 delegates. An increasing number of the delegates are women, and they're bringing their mates along to enjoy the outside entertainment. Within the last decade, about 40% of business conventioneers visiting San Diego have been women. Among the women, about 20% are bringing their male companions, according to Lyon.

"Females are now high up in the corporate structure," Church said. "Years back, the husbands were winning the trips and bringing along the wives. Today, more women are in the work force and their husbands or significant others are coming along for the ride."

The ride can be expensive.

"It's not unusual for the company (holding the convention) to spend $250 per person (on spouse tours) for a special lasting memory so they'll come back and do it again next year," Lee of California Leisure said.

For bigger spenders, Lee will provide "helicopters, limos, violins, flowers everywhere" and will film the goings-on for those who want a souvenir.

JADA, a new charter boat operation specializing in whale watching, has become a popular tourist addition in San Diego. Corporations such as IBM, Bendix and Goodyear have chartered the JADA to hold corporate meetings on board.

Although it cost JADA more than $400,000 last year to acquire U.S. Coast Guard permits to carry passengers under pure sail, or without engines, the firm's whale watching tours are doing "marvelous business," according to Dennis Detjen, director of marketing and a partner in the firm.

And if watching whales isn't enough for the tourists, a large East Coast electronics firm last year spent more than $4,000 per person for four days of elaborate dining and entertainment in the desert, Lee said.

For the event, California Leisure renovated a deserted school house, added silk drapes, repoured concrete floors and restored the school into a ballroom for the 44 guests. They dressed in Western attire, including boots, 10-gallon hats and fringed shirts.

The tour company also concocted another theme party that recreated the set of the television show MASH. The set included army tents, actual MASH sound tracks and old army tanks obtained from warehouse supplies.

They even had the presidents of corporations brought in by military helicopter, had them dress as General Patton and be escorted by Hot Lips and Hawkeye look-alikes.

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