A Mixed Suitcase : Tourism Picks Up in Suburbs, but Central L.A. Still Battered
The way hotel manager Rod Schinnerer describes it, the summer of 1993 was the best in years. “The last three months have exceeded the forecast,” said Schinnerer, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Irvine, where the occupancy rate ran 10% above last year’s levels.
However, 40 miles north in downtown Los Angeles, Jerry Simmons, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Los Angeles, had a gloomy view of the season. Business was below that of 1992--a lousy year to begin with--and the large and profitable Japanese tour groups began to migrate to Orange County hotels.
“Overall, summer has been real soft,” Simmons said.
The peak summer travel season left Southern California’s giant tourism industry with a mixed bag of results: Business was up in parts of Orange County, down in central Los Angeles and flat in San Diego. Italian and German tourists were seen in larger numbers. But the busloads of Japanese tourists--among the biggest spenders in years past--were in short supply.
“It was a modestly successful summer,” said Gary Sherwin, spokesman for the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There were some real peaks and valleys.”
After robust growth and profits during the late 1980s, the regional tourist industry has faced an uphill fight in the 1990s. The flow of tourists and business visitors--who pumped nearly $30 billion into Southern California in 1991, according to state tourist officials--has slowed in the face of economic weakness and the impact of last year’s riots and this year’s Rodney King civil rights trial.
Despite an uneven record this summer, there were signs of renewed life in segments of the battered industry. Statewide employment in the amusement park and recreation business grew nearly 5%, to about 179,000, in August from the year-earlier level, said Lynn Reaser, chief economist at First Interstate Bancorp.
“It’s one of the few increases we are seeing overall,” Reaser said. “That would be a very good indication that there has been a pickup.”
Southern California amusement parks, which depend on a mix of local and out-of-town visitors, reported good or satisfactory results this summer. Part of the reason is that many local residents decided to economize by taking summer vacations closer to home. And some parks launched aggressive discounts and promotions.
MCA Inc.'s Universal Studios Hollywood, for example, broke attendance records with the opening of its “Back to the Future” ride. Next to Universal Studios, CityWalk, an outdoor shopping and entertainment center, attracted more local traffic to the area.
Universal Studios spokeswoman Joan Bullard said the park attracted more local residents this year. While foreign visitor traffic was slow to start, it picked up over the summer with tourists from Britain, Canada and Germany leading the way.
Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia also hosted record-breaking crowds, said spokeswoman Bonnie Rabjohn. Magic Mountain also has a new attraction this summer that capitalizes on its motion picture parent, Time Warner. Its “Dennis the Menace Screen Test” opened earlier this year to coincide with Time Warner’s release of its “Dennis the Menace” movie.
With no new attractions to entice visitors, Knott’s Berry Farm said summer attendance fell 2% from last year. But the park was happy with the performance because “we thought we would be down even more,” said spokesman Bob Ochsner.
“One week was real strong for no apparent reason,” he said. “Then the next week was not so good.”
Disneyland spokesman John McClintock said the Anaheim park is having a “very good summer” and business is up for the year to date. The “most obvious factor,” he said, is the new “Mickey’s Toontown” attraction that opened in January.
In the battle for local visitors, Catalina Cruises lost ground to amusement parks, said Paul Sokolowski, passenger services manager for the ferry line. Cooler than normal temperatures for most of the summer also led to a decline in passenger traffic to Catalina, he said.
“As soon as we saw the sun come out in September, we saw the numbers go up,” Sokolowski said.
In a pattern repeated across the country, suburban hotels outpaced central city locations, said Michael Ribero, senior vice president at Hilton Hotels. In the absence of last summer’s 50%-off airline fare wars, many tourists this summer traveled by car and checked into suburban properties, where prices are often $30 to $50 a night less than more centrally located hotels, Ribero said.
“There was a lot more driving going on in 1993,” he said.
Despite the strength reported in suburban Los Angeles and Orange counties, the continued weakness in central Los Angeles is of great concern to tourist officials. The downtown hotels, which are among the largest in the region and command the highest rates, drag down the results of the major chains that operate them.
In July, the hotel occupancy rate for downtown Los Angeles stood at an abysmal 43.6%, according to PKF Consulting. Meanwhile, hotels in Orange County, the South Bay, Marina del Rey and Beverly Hills all enjoyed occupancy rates above 70%.
At Hyatt Hotels, for example, the increased occupancy rates at suburban properties failed to offset the decline of properties located in and around central Los Angeles, said Cheryl L. Phelps, regional manager for Hyatt.
“The larger properties are located in Los Angeles, and that skewed results,” Phelps said.
Barring any future civil unrest and economic troubles, many say the worst is behind for Southern California’s tourist-dependent businesses. The opening of the expanded Los Angeles Convention Center in November and the World Cup soccer finals in Pasadena next summer should bring substantial relief, says Reaser at First Interstate.
Times staff writer Jill Bettner contributed to this report.