Newport Beach markets itself as an escape from 'Carmageddon'

Capitalizing on someone's misfortune is not usually good business. But what if a catastrophe is forecast far in advance?

Travel marketing executives in Newport Beach have seized on the looming San Diego (405) Freeway shutdown this weekend. They've created package deals and launched an advertising blitz to lure Angelenos to Newport's "tranquil" hotels and resorts. As the leisure travel market continues to rebound, hoteliers are looking to fill rooms that might otherwise be taken, especially on a summer weekend.

"It was an opportunity that was handed to us," said Gary Sherwin, president of Visit Newport Beach, the city's travel bureau that conceived the "Escape Car-mageddon" promotion. "If there has ever been a motivation to get out of L.A., this is it."

Sherwin said he thought of the idea when he heard L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa say at a June news conference that people should "go on vacation" during the closure. His group developed a print and radio campaign that says heading south is "more than a vacation. It's a civic duty!"

Six of Newport's major hotels signed up. Each devised its own combination of discounts, free services and other incentives. From 40% off facials to complimentary breakfasts, hotels are mostly bundling perks, as opposed to strictly discounting stays.

"Gimmicks work," said Jeff Lugosi, a vice president with the L.A. branch of PKF Consulting, a national hospitality advisory firm. "It just helps offset some unoccupied rooms … Everyone can use a little bit more help."

As of May, Lugosi said Orange County hotels averaged 70% occupancy — up nearly 5% from a year ago, but still below historical averages.

This is peak season for leisure travel at Newport hotels, so executives were reluctant to give too much away, Sherwin said, especially when it came to room rates. Visitors are "willing to pay," he said, "but they have to perceive value from something."

The Fairmont Newport Beach hotel has its "Escape the LA Gridlock Package," with two free cocktails at its lounge or rooftop pool bar, complimentary valet parking, discounted spa services and 4 p.m. late checkout. Starting at $139 per night, rooms in this deal are also discounted about $20, said Fairmont General Manager Paul Ohm.

Since the promotion hit the Los Angeles airwaves and newsstands Friday, some people have called, but "it hasn't yet been overwhelming yet," Ohm said.

He is expecting more interest as people realize that the long-awaited closure is upon them this weekend.

Most of this weekend's deals mirror the closure dates — from Friday night until Monday morning.

The promotion fits into Newport's broader push to get L.A. visitors to stay longer. Many visit for the day — for a trip to the beach, shopping and maybe dinner — but often drive back up the freeway.

"We're trying to get people to think of us as more of an overnight destination," Sherwin said. "The more we can get our name into the L.A. market, the better."

Nearer the dreaded section of the 405, some resorts are also looking to lure stressed residents. Terranea Resort on the Palos Verdes Peninsula offered a 40.5% discount on rooms, although its website says the resort is fully booked Friday and Saturday nights. In Santa Monica, Shutters on the Beach and the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows are also offering deals.

Newport's concerted effort, however, appears to be unique. Visit Newport Beach placed ads in the Los Angeles Times, in the Los Angeles Newspaper Group's suburban L.A. County publications, and started a promotion on KOST 103.5 FM, Sherwin said.

It even went so far as to make a video with a narrator who, over a soaring shot of the coastline, says "Ride the waves instead of the brakes."

Participating hotels:

The Balboa Bay Club & Resort: Complimentary breakfast and valet

Hyatt Regency Newport Beach: Third night free

Marriott Newport Beach Hotel & Spa: Complimentary breakfast and valet

Fairmont Newport Beach: Spa discounts, complimentary cocktails and valet

Island Hotel: Complimentary breakfast and valet

The Resort at Pelican Hill: Resort credit

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