Joining the tangle of arms, legs and shopping bags that crammed into opening-day festivities at the huge Ontario Mills regional outlet mall on Nov. 14 were six busloads of tourists, most from Japan.
Ontario Mills, which is owned by the Mills Corp. of Arlington, Va., drew more than 150,000 shoppers that day. The company, whose properties include four other "super-regional" off-price malls, predicts more that 15 million people will visit Ontario Mills during the first year of operation. Of that, more than 2 million will be tourists.
Mills Corp. is among a growing group of mall operators that are actively courting the tourist market. In nearly every state where they operate, a Mills outlet mall is the top tourist attraction, said Anne Lipscomb, vice president of marketing. (The only exception is Florida, where the Sawgrass Mills near Fort Lauderdale has to compete with an operation called Disney World.)
Mall owners have discovered that tourists are eager shoppers and are turning their properties into veritable theme parks for the traveling shopper. South Coast Plaza and Beverly Center are two other Southern California malls with aggressive tourism programs.
"We have always marketed ourselves as a tourist attraction rather than just a shopping center," said Lipscomb, noting that Mills executives travel the world seeking business.
Market research at Sawgrass Mills determined that 30% to 40% of its 19 million annual visitors are tourists, and half of those are from foreign countries, Lipscomb said.
"We know that the international tourists, from government figures, spend three to five times what the domestic tourist does and significantly more than the average shopper does," Lipscomb said. "It's a very lucrative business."
Like other Mills properties, Ontario Mills employs a full-time tourism director. Every tour bus is met by a Mills employee and the mall has a lounge for the comfort of tour bus drivers.
Special coupon books are handed out to loosen the bolsa strings of tourists, and brochures are printed in several languages. Some other Mills malls have currency exchanges, and Ontario Mills will probably get one eventually, Lipscomb said.
Ich bein ein Travel Agent
Los Angeles plays host during the next two weeks to an influential group of 600 travel agents from Germany, who will be schooled in the finer points of booking travel while becoming more familiar with what Southern California has to offer in the way of touristy delights.
Deutsches Reiseburo Travel Academy is expected to boost local business with Germany, which is L.A.'s third-biggest source of overseas visitors. The travel academy is being hosted by the California Division of Tourism, the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau, AmericanTours International, Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland.
Times staff writer Nancy Rivera Brooks can be reached via e-mail at Nancy.Rivera.Brooks@latimes.com or by fax at (213) 237-7837.