An Unwelcome Surprise From Yosemite Innkeeper

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Say you need a place to live. You find a dwelling in an unbeatable location and you make a down payment. But the seller has reserved the right to raise the price. Before you can move in, sure enough, he ups the ante.

Then he bumps it up again. And then he adds a utility surcharge. Your dwelling now will cost 2.5% more, or maybe 32% more, or perhaps even 70% more than it did when you agreed to the deal.

You might be perplexed. But at least you'd have company. Thousands of overnight visitors headed to Yosemite National Park this summer are going through a remarkably similar experience.

Saying it needs to keep pace with price increases in the hotel business and cover higher utility bills, the park's lodging concessionaire took two unusual extra steps this year in increasing prices on its 1,519 Yosemite units.

Reservations for lodgings at Yosemite, telephone (559) 252-4848, Internet http://www.yosemitepark.com, are typically accepted up to 366 days in advance and secured by a deposit equal to the first night's bill. Because 93% of the park's rooms and cabins are occupied on an average night, many visitors book several months in advance. Confirmation notices state that rates are subject to change, and in some cases, estimated rate increases are given.

The year's price increases, proposed by Buffalo, N.Y., concessionaire Delaware North and approved by Yosemite's superintendent in April and May, apparently haven't cut into demand for lodgings. But a Delaware North spokeswoman concedes that some visitors have complained and that company mailings mistakenly understated the biggest increases.

At least a few prospective visitors were scared away. One is Brett Franklin, 40, of Santa Ana. Franklin was planning to take his wife, Rossette, and five in-laws to the park for three nights in mid-July. Working on a tight budget, they reserved four Curry Village basic tent cabins, which last summer rented for $44 nightly, and paid a deposit of about $190, equivalent to about the first night's bill with taxes.

In late June they received a form letter from Yosemite Concession Services (YCS) Corp., the Delaware North subsidiary that operates park lodgings, announcing a price increase as of June 22.

"Tent lodging rates have recently increased up to 2.5%, cabins up to 39%," the letter said. "Also a $3.50 energy surcharge is applied per room night."

Franklin had difficulty getting through when he tried to call YCS for clarification. By the time he did, the family had begun to wonder whether other prices had gone up too. Indeed they had. Though the family didn't know it, the park service says it approved YCS price hikes of 6.7% on recreation such as golf and bicycle rentals, along with a 4.5% bump in food costs and a 1.4% increase in retail prices. The new nightly rate for the cabins Franklin had reserved is $52.50, about 19% more than last summer.

Franklin canceled. "We decided that overall it was going to be too much money," he said. "There are a lot of people who budget pretty tight for their vacations, and to not know what you're getting into, it didn't seem fair."

Among the other increases: Standard rooms at Yosemite Lodge and Curry Village, both $99.75 last year, this summer are $112.50. (That includes the utility surcharge but excludes the unchanged Mariposa County tax of 10%.) The peak-season (summer) cost for a hard-sided cabin without a bathroom rose by nearly a third, from $57.25 to $75.50 (including utility surcharge). The most dramatic increase is for the same units on weekday nights in fall and winter. That rate, $44.50 last year, will be $75.50 this year, about a 70% increase with the utility surcharge. (The 39% figure in the letters, a YCS spokeswoman said, was apparently a math error.)

The root of Franklin's discontent is the strange marriage that takes place when for-profit hotels do business on national park soil. Before any hotel-operating concessionaire can increase prices, it must get permission from the National Park Service, which conducts a brief survey among "comparable" lodgings to make sure the proposed rate is fair.

At Yosemite, for instance, the grand Ahwahnee's rates are compared with La Valencia in La Jolla, the Claremont Resort in Oakland, the Ojai Valley Inn and the Casa del Zorro in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

It may take the park service several weeks to rule on a rate increase. To protect themselves, concessionaires often do something that startles hotel industry veterans in the world outside our national parks: In accepting reservations, the hotels reserve the right to change rates later.

The concessionaire hotels at Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion national parks do just that, said Kevin Dillman, director of central reservations for Amfac Parks & Resorts. And in Yosemite, so does Delaware North's YCS.

That's not the case with non-park hotel groups. At the Beverly Hills-based Hilton chain, for instance, hotels pledge not to raise a customer's rates after a room is reserved with a credit card deposit, spokeswoman Kendra Walker said.

Typically, YCS proposes new rates early in the year, gets park service approvals in spring, then adjusts its rates, said Scott Gediman, park service spokesman. For the Ahwahnee this year, park service records show that YCS requested its initial increase Feb. 2 and got approval April 23 to raise nightly rates to $318.75 from $279.

This year, that was only the beginning. On April 23, YCS asked the park service to accept an unusual second price hike, a 2.5% across-the-board increase aimed at covering employee housing expenses and labeled a "comparability add-on." The park administration agreed in May, Gediman said. Park officials also approved the $3.50-per-night utility surcharge effective June 18. The resulting Ahwahnee rate, after minor adjustments to resolve other park concessionaire issues: $329 per night, excluding county taxes, for a two-person room.

In June, YCS sent notices to thousands of customers. Some, including people booked at the Ahwahnee, the Wawona Hotel and Yosemite Lodge, got personalized letters. But thousands of others at Curry Village and Housekeeping Camp got form letters citing cabin price increases "up to 22%," and about 900 others (including Brett Franklin) got letters citing increases of "up to 39%," leaving them uncertain about how much more they would have to pay.

At YCS, spokeswoman Karen Hales blamed rising utility costs for the extra increase. "We have 1,600 employees. We house the majority of them, we do not charge them utilities, and it costs us $3 million [yearly] or more to do that. Other properties [outside the park] don't have the onus of housing their employees," she said. She added that this is the first rate increase for basic tent cabins in Curry Village since 1992.

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Christopher Reynolds welcomes suggestions, but he cannot respond to letters and telephone calls. Address comments to Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, e-mail chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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