Our Laguna: Putting our city on the tourism map

Once upon a time, Laguna hotels were filled in the winter with Canadians. But the snowbirds from the north began flocking to Las Vegas, leaving Laguna's hotels with more vacancies than visitors from the end of summer to the beginning of June.

What to do?

Frustrated Laguna's hoteliers came up with the notion to publicize the city as more than a day at the beach — a destination resort — and turned to the Chamber of Commerce for funding. Led by the late Claes Andersen, hotel owners and managers originally saw themselves as a committee of the chamber, but a series of increasingly uncooperative meetings convinced the rebels that the chamber was not on the same page.

In 1986, the group incorporated as the Hospitality Assn. of Laguna Beach, which does business as the Laguna Beach Visitors and Conference Bureau. Andersen served as president for the first two years. Jerry Siegel and Surf & Sand Chief Financial Officer Manager Gordon Carter were the board members.

"Laguna Beach a la Carte," a weekend event from Thursday through March 13, will kick off a year of recognition of what the bureau has accomplished in a quarter of a century.

"Our goal for 25 years has been the promotion of Laguna Beach," said Karyn Philippsen, bureau president for 20 years. "We think we have done it well. This year, we are up for an Art Stars Award, which shows how we work with the community."

The bureau members are hotel, restaurants and galleries, represented by board members in the business of catering to tourists and shoppers.

Philippsen represents Casa Laguna Inn and Spa. The 2011 board also includes Vice President David Shepherd, general manager of Inn at Laguna; Secretary Bobby Fader, June Neptune's right hand at the two Tivolis; and Treasurer Rob Quest, owner of Sundried Tomato. Blaise Bartell is general manager of Surf & Sand Resort and Carol Leenerts is chef concierge at Montage Laguna Beach. Mark Orgill is the managing partner of [seven degrees] and Sunset Cove Villas. Bonnie Wolin owns Fiori Gallery on South Coast Highway.

They are dedicated to bringing to town tourists who will stay at least overnight, eat in the city restaurants and hopefully do some shopping, particularly in the off-season, and to the preservation of city's charm and natural beauty.

Their goals are embodied in the slogan, "A Resort for all Seasons," adopted in 1995.

One of the bureau's most effective tools for reaching its goals is the Business Improvement District.

About 2001, Andersen, then-Mayor Paul Freeman and Laguna businessman and arts patron Sam Goldstein convinced every hotelier in town to voluntarily tack 2% on top of the transient taxes, also known as bed taxes, set by the city and paid into the general fund.

Then they had to convince other members of the City Council to approve of the district, an annual exercise. It must be re-upped every year.

The BID, created under the California Street and Highway Code, is the fruition of the goals set 25 years ago to fund the promotion of the city.

All of the funds collected by the district are placed in an account separate from the general fund and must be used only for tourist-related activities, said city Cultural Arts Manager Sian Poeschl.

Half of the 2% goes to the bureau to promote the town. The funds cover about 92% of the bureau's expenditures. The remaining 8% is funded by members' dues. No funding comes from the city.

The rest of the 2% is divided between arts groups. Thirty percent goes to registered nonprofit or cultural organizations that have been in town for at least five years with professional management and other requirements. Ten percent goes to the Arts Commission for projects approved by the City Council and another 10% is divided among arts organizations, which also must be approved by the council.

The funding allowed the bureau to step up its adverting and public relations efforts in 2010, even though the economy was less than robust, with just a slight uptick in visitor traffic over 2009.

"Take Me There," a new advertising campaign launched late last year, is illustrated by photographs of some of Laguna's hidden gems, such as the view from a bench at Treasure Island Park.

And in February, Laguna was one of just seven locations featured in "Sports Illustrated" iconic swimsuit edition — and the only one in the continental United States.

"It was a top secret for 10 months," Philippsen said. "We had to sign a contract."

The bureau also produces an annual visitors' guide, available at the Visitors Center at 381 Forest Ave., which opened in 2008 after more than 15 years on Broadway.

Executive Director Judith Bijlani, who was hired in 2005, heads the staff, assisted by Marketing Manager Ashley Johnson, Concierge Supervisor Lorna Piercy and part-time concierges Deena Harros and Diane Debilzan.

They are the faces and voices of Laguna for the visitors who come into the center or call for information. Services at the center include walk-in hotel reservations, recommendations about things to do and places to go to eat and shop. Maps, bus schedules, event calendars, and information about wedding, banquet and special event facilities are available.

The bureau has also undertaken the creation of a crisis communication plan for visitors, which is really thinking outside the box.

"As someone in marketing, I have to say we are so lucky to have Karyn and Judy," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson.


'A la carte' with wine, food

The Laguna Beach A La Carte event will feature cooking demonstrations by local chefs, wine and cheese tastings and special deals by local restaurateurs.

Ticketed events will begin with wine and food samplings at Laguna Culinary Arts from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday.

Twenty wineries will be participating. Tickets are $50. For information, visit LagunaCulinaryArts.com.

In addition, La Casa del Camino will host a rooftop cocktail party from 7 to 10 p.m. March 11. Tickets are $75, with a portion to be donated to charity. For more information, call (949) 497-2446.

The Surf & Sand will showcase its new Pooldeck at a no-host bar mixer from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. March 12. Admission is free, but reservations are required; e-mail ssconcierge@jcresorts.com.

Tivoli Too! and the Laguna Board of Realtors will offer champagne and jazz at a brunch to benefit the Laguna Beach Animal Shelter from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 13. Betty DeGeneres is the guest host. Tickets are $75, $25 of which is tax-deductible. Call (949) 497-2474.

A three-course dinner at Montage on March 13 is already sold out.

Detailed event information is available at http://www.lagunabeachfoodies.com.

For more information about the bureau and its services, visit http://www.lagunabeachinfo.com or call (949) 497- 9229 locally, (800) 877-1115 toll free.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Write to Barbara Diamond, P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, 92652; call (949) 380-4321 or e-mail coastlinepilot@latimes.com.

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