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Labor Day Wraps Up Grim Vacation Season for Tourism Industry

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the Goodman family of Tustin sets out for Big Bear this Labor Day weekend, they will join a caravan of budget-conscious Americans who are watching vacation dollars as never before.

With the economic outlook uncertain, millions of Americans put away their checkbooks this summer and took short vacations close to home, tourism analysts have said. Looking to save money, some families skipped vacations entirely, choosing inexpensive day trips to beaches or to parks.

The Labor Day weekend is expected to continue the trend, wrapping up a summer that the travel industry would rather forget.

For the Goodmans, the new thriftiness is leading them to an inexpensive lakeside cabin--a far cry from last year’s exotic two-week holiday at a Fijian coconut plantation. Though the recession hasn’t touched the Goodmans directly, “you sense this need to be careful, to watch your expenses,” said Barbara Goodman, a graphic designer.

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For the tourism industry, the new frugality on the part of consumers is the economic equivalent of a monsoon. Hotels, airlines, restaurants and souvenir shops all report significant drops in business despite discounts and other incentives put in place to entice consumers.

The picture won’t change much this holiday weekend, analysts said. Though 25 million Americans plan trips at least 100 miles from home, 91% will get there by car. While that’s not much higher than prior Labor Day weekends, a sizable number of travelers will visit inexpensive campsites or stay with relatives or friends, according to the American Automobile Assn. Many of those people are expected to cut vacation costs further by bringing their own food, instead of dining out at restaurants.

“People are traveling, but they are spending less,” AAA spokesman Jerry Cheske said.

People who follow travel trends say the recession has hastened shifts in American vacation habits previously under way. The U.S. Travel Data Center says weekend travel has jumped a dramatic 28% since 1984, as two-career families juggled the demands of work and children. The trend has helped shorten the length of the average vacation to four days last year from nearly six days in 1985, according to the data center, the research arm of the travel industry.

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“With dual-income families, it is much harder to plan time off,” spokesman Scott Dring said.

The recession forced even more people to consider shorter vacations, Dring said. And a surprising number of people--perhaps as many as 20% of all Americans, according to one Arthur D. Little estimate--planned no vacation this year.

For most families, though, the recession means making adjustments in traditional vacation plans. Gordon and Leslie Eckerling of Tustin are renting the same seaside cottage on Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach as in past years--but for one week, not two. And the family of six gave up their annual Chicago visit to Leslie Eckerling’s parents because air fares are not low enough.

While at the beach this week, the Eckerlings are cooking out, rather than dining at restaurants. And the children are roller-skating and swimming instead of visiting Disneyland.

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“This is as good as Hawaii--but it’s close to home and not so expensive,” Leslie Eckerling said as she sat under a beach umbrella, sipping a soda. Two of her children tossed a ball nearby, a third listened to the radio.

The drop in consumer spending has taken its toll on such establishments as the Stuff’d Bun, a luncheonette on Balboa Peninsula. The empty tables earlier this week signaled a quiet Labor Day weekend ahead. Owner Martin Strobel said sales this summer are off by one-third because of poor weather and the recession. “I don’t know what will change it,” he said. “We just have to hang on.”

The outlook was no better for local hotels or for airlines. In Southern California’s resort hotels, occupancy rates are hovering around 60%, below the break-even percentage for many of them. “I don’t see this shaping up as a banner weekend,” said lodging analyst Gary Wescombe.

The airlines took the unusual step of lowering fares two weeks ago, trying to capture business before the important summer travel season ends. By most accounts, the discounts were not big enough to encourage people to fly. An airline industry spokesman said air traffic fell 2% in July and is expected to drop another 1% in August. Meanwhile, the percentage of people using discount tickets climbed to 96% in July from 90% last year.

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Among those using fare discounts were Howard Smith and his wife, Judith Belt-Smith, who have mastered the art of the cheap vacation. With their two children, the couple flew to Santa Ana from their home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., entirely on free tickets earned from frequent-flier miles. Once in Southern California, the family spent a week with Smith’s parents, who live in Santa Ana. The family spent a second week in a house on Balboa Peninsula, rented with five other families.

The Smiths splurged and went to Disneyland once. But most of the time, they kept expenses down by “going to the beach and looking for shells a lot,” Belt-Smith said.

While visiting Balboa Peninsula’s Fun Zone, a 1950s-style amusement park, the two Smith youngsters found a great way to save money. Two coin-operated mechanical Sky Lab rides had apparently broken down and spun freely--no payment required. “Look at them,” Smith said, pointing to his whirling children. “I think they’ve been in there 15 minutes.”

Road Trip!

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The number of people taking Labor Day trips of over 100 miles. Figures in millions Year: 1987

By car: 23.8 million

Total: 26.2 million

Year: 1988

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By car: 22.5 million

Total: 24.0 million

Year: 1989

By car: 24.0 million

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Total: 26.1 million

Year: 1990

By car: 22.5 million

Total: 24.9 million

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Year 1991*

By car: 22.8 million

Total: 25.0 million

*projected Source: American Automobile Assn.

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