Newport Hoteliers Want to Put City on Tourists' Maps : Visitors: A new campaign is designed to make the beach town every bit as alluring as San Diego and Palm Springs as innkeepers cope with slipping occupancy rates.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While Newport Beach may be known for its outsize marina, scenic beaches and diverse dining, it is not well-known enough to tourists and business travelers, local hotel owners say.

Hoteliers here have banded together to finance an imaginative new campaign to market Newport Beach to the nation as a destination that is in the same league as Palm Springs, San Diego and Santa Barbara. It is an effort they are beginning none too soon: Hotel occupancy rates are slipping at the same time that 1,550 more hotel rooms are planned for development in 1993, just three miles to the south.

Members of the Newport Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau, whose roster includes most of the hotel owners in Newport Beach, have hired a new executive director, spent $200,000 on promotional materials and dreamed up a slogan intended to highlight the range of attractions that the city has to offer: "Newport Beach, the Colorful Coast."

Tom Limberg, general manager of Marriott Suites Newport Beach and chairman of the visitors bureau, hopes that existing hotels can carve out a niche before they face the competition to the south. "Those of us whose properties are more than 3 years old need to have our niche picked out," he said. "That is part of our strategy as an individual hotel and as a bureau."

Much of the hoteliers' concerns have to do with a plan by the Irvine Co. to develop at least two hotels on 9,500 acres it owns just south of Corona del Mar. The company announced in June, 1989, that it had signed an agreement with Marriott Corp. of Bethesda, Md., to build a 1,100-room hotel, which will be one of the largest resort hotels on the California coast when it opens in 1993.

In October, 1989, the Irvine Co. said the Hyatt Corp. of Chicago would build a 450-room hotel, also to open in three years. The developer has government approval to build 600 more hotel rooms on the parcel, but no operator has been named.

The Irvine Co. is also building 2,600 houses and two golf courses as part of the project that it has dubbed the Newport Coast.

From the viewpoint of some Newport Beach hoteliers, the addition of new hotels couldn't be coming at a worse time. Summer tourism is down throughout Southern California, and there is an acknowledged oversupply of hotel rooms in Orange County. Since January, Newport Beach hotels have reported an average occupancy rate of about 64%. And those low occupancy rates translate into room rates that are below what they might be otherwise, hotel operators said.

Besides the hotels that the Irvine Co. is planning for the Newport Coast, two seaside resorts recently have opened in Dana Point and the 300-room Waterfront Hilton opened Tuesday in Huntington Beach.

The Newport Beach hoteliers' marketing campaign has a three-pronged strategy: It is aimed at positioning Newport Beach as a relaxing site for small conventions, as a novel place for companies to offer as incentive vacations to their employees, and as a getaway weekend for upper-income couples who travel frequently.

The long-range goal is to raise occupancy rates to 80% and to raise room rates beyond what hotel operators consider the current bargain-basement levels.

"We're not a cheap date," Limberg said. "We want the right traveler in Newport Beach. That's not snobby; that's our niche."

To be sure, Newport Beach does not have to rely on snob appeal alone to lure visitors. After all, the area also offers inviting weather, scenic beaches, harbor cruises, dining, sailing, shopping and proximity to John Wayne Airport. And the visitors bureau has left none of those features out of its sales pitch.

In addition, Limberg views the beach city's 14-mile distance from Disneyland as more of a benefit to travelers than a burden.

"We're near Disneyland, but you don't have to walk down the boulevard in Anaheim at the end of your day," he said. "Newport Beach is peaceful. It's a setting you can enjoy when you're burned out from the Mouse."

The hotel trade will bring in a projected $5 million to the city during its current fiscal year. That money comes from a 9% occupancy tax that is tacked onto hotel room rates. About 1% of that tax revenue goes to the visitors bureau.

What is needed, said Newport Beach Mayor Ruthelyn Plummer, is to entice more visitors to spend the night in the city. "The purpose," she said, "is to fill hotels."

But competition from new hotels is not the only reason for the advertising campaign. The push is part of a larger effort by Newport Beach businesses to increase the city's recognition as a site for small conferences (generally under 800 people), incentive travel packages and weekend visits.

Limberg said visitors bureau officials began planning the campaign in late 1988 after the agency's former president quit.

In August, 1989, the bureau hired Richard Gartrell, a former lecturer on tourism at Michigan State University, as executive director of the bureau, which has 144 members and a budget of just under $1 million. Gartrell, who wrote a textbook on destination marketing, had been running a visitors bureau in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan and a city with a conservative outlook similar to that of Newport Beach, he said.

Hoping to add some pizazz and make Newport Beach attractive to conference planners from distant cities, Gartrell replaced the chatty visitors bureau newsletter with a glossy flyer. He changed the bureau's slogan for Newport Beach from "The California You Expect It to Be" to "The Colorful Coast."

Gartrell said he expects to compete with Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Irvine for small conference business. Newport Beach enthusiasts say the area provides a restorative atmosphere for weary conference-goers at day's end.

But Cathy Myers, general manager of the Anaheim Plaza Resort Hotel near the Anaheim Convention Center, said that isn't necessarily so. "In Anaheim, there's no need to even rent a car if you don't feel comfortable with our freeway system," she said.

As a site for attracting incentive travel business, Newport Beach lacks the name recognition of a San Diego or a Santa Barbara, said Wayne Wright, president of Incentive Associates Inc. in Laguna Hills. "People say, 'Where the hell is Newport Beach?' " he said. "So you lose a certain amount of motivational advantage. It's going to take some time and some advertising dollars to change that."

Lori Smith, convention sales manager for the Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Newport Beach's name is coming up more often among planners of incentive travel programs. "I hear Newport, but I hear it maybe not as much as San Diego," she said.

Gartrell is relying on a strategy of marketing the Newport Beach area as composed of nine "villages"--each offering different attractions--to entice incentive travel planners. They are: Fashion Island for shopping, Mariner's Mile for recreational boating, Balboa Peninsula for its amusement park and whale-watching cruises, Balboa Island for its quaint beach town atmosphere, Lido Marina Village for night spots and art galleries, the Upper Bay Preserve for nature walks, John Wayne Airport for travel convenience and nearby Corona del Mar for its scenic beaches.

Next year, Gartrell plans to boost efforts to attract well-to-do couples who live close enough to Newport Beach to spend a weekend trip there.

While some hoteliers are nervous about the impending competition from the Newport Coast development, not everyone sees it as a negative.

Suzanne Effers, sales director for the Four Seasons Hotel and a visitors bureau director, said she thinks it will help establish Newport Beach as a destination area.

"The temptation is to be very afraid of what's happening," she said. "But it will really only help to increase everybody's profile."

HOTELS BRACE FOR COASTAL COMPETITION

Hotels in Newport Beach, representing a total of 2,600 rooms, have banded together in anticipation of construction 1,550 new rooms just 3 miles south, in Irvine Co.'s Newport Coast development.

Source: Irvine Co. and Newport Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau

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