Tourism feels slow economy

By North County Staff

After a $25 million remodeling, the L'Auberge Del Mar opened to great fanfare and full rooms in June, just in time for the U.S. Open golf tournament at Torrey Pines.

And just in time for high gas prices, escalating airfares and a soft economy.

According to the hotel's general manager Mike Slosser, in July his bookings were down 7 percent in July, matching "continued sliding markets" in the hospitality industry.

Occupancy at the Solana Beach Courtyard Marriott is down about 7 percent from last year as well, said general manager Julio Ongpin.

After a "very disappointing" U.S. Open in June, the 115-room hotel did not increase its rates for the peak-tourism season in anticipation of a slow summer.

"People are not coming," Ongpin said. "We have strong weekends, but weekdays are really soft."

The Marriott Del Mar, the largest in the cluster of hotels on El Camino Real in Carmel Valley, said that while the economy has hit the industry, it hasn't been a sucker punch.

"Business has been softer than we've experience in prior years," said Dennis Fraher, general manager. "We're still doing OK, the numbers are just not what we've seen in the past."

He said that while people are vacationing less, the hotel's business traveler numbers have remained stable. Despite the fact that fewer vacationers are coming through, weekends were still sold out in late July, thanks to overflow from events like downtown San Diego's Comic Con and some soccer business from the two-weekend long Surf Cup.

The Vigilante consumer

Robert Rauch, the owner of the Hilton Garden Inn and the Homewood Suites next door in Torrey Hills, said both hotels have stayed busy and have done well this summer but they are seeing a more active kind of customer. Rauch calls them "vigilante consumers."

"Travelers now are very rate sensitive," said Rauch. "They aggressively shop for the best price as opposed to the best hotel."

Between the hotel's global distribution center and the internet, they have been seeing about 5,000 denials a week - meaning people check the price, see that it is not their desired rate and move on rather than book a room.

As consumers are so rate resistant, Rauch said that the Garden Inn has not been able to increase their average daily rate, which this summer is $200 a night.

"For American citizens, travel is a birthright," said Rauch. "They will go but they are going to be much more cautious about where they spend their money."

All appears to be well at the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, the picturesque resort that's been around as long as the village has. The inn, designed by Lillian Rice, will celebrate its 50th anniversary in October. Last weekend, travelers enjoyed meals on the sunny outside patio and in their indoor restaurants. In the quiet lobby, Mary Eastwood, a visitor from Dallas sat on the cozy couches reading the paper.

"We are doing fantastic," said Kerman Beriker, general manager. "I think we are getting our market share."

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