Prices Are Putting a Cork in New Year's Travel Plans


Despite expectations that travel over this New Year's holiday could hit national and even global highs, many Southern Californians are opting to stay close to home for the dawn of 2000, travel industry observers say, largely because of perceived price gouging by hotels and tour operators looking to cash in on the fervor surrounding the much-ballyhooed changeover.

Fears over possible computer problems arising from the rollover to 2000 could also be tempering New Year's wanderlust because a number of companies are requiring many of their employees to report in or stay on call to respond to possible glitches and breakdowns over the holiday weekend.

Yet despite Y2K computer concerns, domestic travel at year's end is still expected to top last year's record of roughly 45.2-million vacationers. A healthy economy, coupled with the sense of history surrounding the holiday, should be enough to push this year's levels to new highs, said Dexter Koehl of the Travel Industry Assn. of America, a Washington, D.C., research and lobby group.

"The foundation is clearly there for a record no matter how you look at it," Koehl said.

But not necessarily for Southern California. With 5 1/2 months to go before the new year, the region has failed to emerge as a hot spot for out-of-town revelers.

Nor are Los Angeles and Orange counties shaping up as places that New Year's ringers-in want to get away from. In fact, many hotels are reporting brisk reservations for the holiday from Southern Californians who have decided to usher in 2000 close to home.

Even with a constant drumbeat of hype over the event, Southland travel agents report widespread apathy toward venturing forth during the Dec. 31-Jan. 1 holiday.

"I think people are really scared off by the prices," said Janet Szabo, with West Hollywood's Passages Travel, which has had inquiries but few bookings for the period.

Susan Dushane, an agent with Travel by Greta in Northridge in the San Fernando Valley, agrees: "For the most part, people are saying, 'Let's just stay home this year.' "

Southern Californians are expected to make up the lion's share of the region's hotel bookings over the period, said Michael Collins, who tracks the area's hospitality industry for the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"Occupancy is going to be high, but it's going to be mostly local," he said.

In Orange County, many people are planning to stay at or near their homes on New Year's Eve.

When the Waterfront Hilton Beach Resort in Huntington Beach began promoting a three-day, two-night Y2K getaway last month, a few frequent guests from outside the area expressed interest. But nearly all the inquiries about the promotion, priced at $1,999 per couple, including room, food and entertainment, were from within a 20-mile radius, said John Gilbert, the hotel's general manager.

Y2K bookings also have been slow so far at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel, where three-night packages range from $4,500 to $100,000.

"We think it will pick up in September as we start getting near the actual date," spokeswoman Suzanne Willis said.

Demand was higher at Walt Disney Co.'s two Anaheim hotels, where all 1,638 rooms quickly sold out for the millennium, spokesman Ray Gomez said.

The basic package at the Disneyland Hotel and the Disneyland Pacific is three nights at $449 per night--$1,347 in all--for two people sharing a room. Included are three days and nights at Disneyland, hotel parking and Disney collectibles--but no food. Disney is still adding names to a waiting list in case of cancellations, Gomez said.

At Los Angeles-area hotels, bookings are strong despite a raft of first-time restrictions on reservations over the holiday. The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Peninsula, for instance, are requiring minimum stays of two nights and also are requesting full, nonrefundable payments up to five months in advance of New Year's Eve to ensure that guests remain committed to their reservations. Rooms at both hotels over the period are running between $340 and $3,000 a night.

The Regent Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills is also asking a two-night minimum with a deposit of 25% at the time of booking. Despite the restrictions, more than half the hotel's 395 rooms have been booked for the period, with 80% of those going to guests living within a 90-mile radius, said Bill Doak, the hotel's director of marketing.

A few miles east, the Four Seasons Hotel receives about a call a day from locals asking about New Year's availability and prices, reservations manager Greg Velasquez said.

"I don't think we're going to have people from out of town," he said. Los Angeles "is not truly a destination for New Year's Eve as far as we know."

Although some hotels, such as the Regent Beverly Wilshire, are counting on strong contingents of foreign guests, overall international bookings to Los Angeles are sluggish, said Lars Borg, with New York-based Travel Professionals Inc., which makes domestic travel arrangements for roughly 200,000 foreign visitors a year.

"As far as confirmed business for New Year's, it's a soft year at this point for Los Angeles."

For some, celebrating is not a choice. Bank of America, for example, has scheduled its entire technology and operations division, about one-third of its 170,000 employees worldwide, to stay on call near their homes or assigned workplaces over the period.

"We want the year end to be a nonevent for our customers, and to make it a nonevent requires a lot of work on our part," bank spokeswoman Sharon Tucker said.

Southern California Edison also plans to have 500 technical and support employees at work Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, utility spokesman Steve Hansen said. Normally, only a skeleton crew of 84 comes in over New Year's. Edison employs nearly 14,000.

Nevertheless, those who can and want to travel over the holiday are to a large extent opting for traditional vacation destinations. A survey of nearly 500 members of the American Society of Travel Agents, or ASTA, ranked cruises as the No. 1 choice, followed by Las Vegas, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Florida, New York and Europe.

L.A., on the other hand, didn't even crack the list of the most frequently booked destinations for the period.

"Los Angeles is not the destination for the millennium traveler that New York would be, obviously," Velasquez of the Four Seasons said.

Indeed, two of the three busiest air carriers at Los Angeles International Airport, United Airlines and American Airlines, report that reservations to fly into and out of the region over New Year's are no higher now than they were in recent years at this time. Southwest Airlines, the airport's No. 2 carrier, has not yet started taking reservations for the period.

"For the most part, it's business as usual," United spokesman Joe Hopkins said. Domestic locations shaping up as hot spots for United include Florida, Las Vegas, Hawaii and Phoenix.

Although United did not provide exact figures, spokesman Matt Triaca said bookings for the New Year's period overall "are ahead of last year" at this time.

American Airlines reported that domestic bookings for the period were up 4% over last year, with Florida largely driving the increase. Reservation rates for Los Angeles, however, were pretty much in step with previous years at this time, spokesman John Hotard said.

But if people aren't coming to the Southland, they aren't necessarily leaving in droves either.

High prices and refund restrictions on tour packages, air fare and cruises have rubbed many would-be local travelers the wrong way, said Ada Brown, owner of Seaside Travel in Long Beach.

Although she has booked a number of clients on cruises and European getaways over New Year's, Brown said she expected reservation rates to be stronger by now. High travel costs, she said, appear to be the main culprit dampening demand. With some cruise-ship packages going for $60,000 and Las Vegas hotel rooms fetching up to $2,000 a night, Brown said, many clients "really have been turned off by the rates."

Stanley Malamed, a San Fernando Valley anesthesiologist, is among them.

"Everything is just about three to four times more expensive than it is normally," said Malamed, who decided to stay home after checking into a Caribbean cruise for him and his wife. "The rates are just incredibly outrageous."

In its June survey, ASTA found 80% of the travel agents polled reported that prices for travel over New Year's are up more than 30%.

But Brown believes some of those prices will start coming down in the next several weeks in an effort to spark more demand among tourists.

"Come the end of summer, I think we'll see them offering more affordable rates," she said.

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