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Tourists looking to cut a buck

By   /   Sunday, May 10th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Tourists looking to cut a buck

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The line for Pismo Beach’s iconic Splash Café still wraps around the building; tourists crowd the city’s pier; and the hotel business is finally picking up. And this is all on an unremarkable weekend in April.

As it turns out, the Central Coast tourism business might be all right this summer after all. Eight months of clenched family budgets and nervousness seem to be easing, albeit somewhat cautiously.

“It’s that fear and that initial splash of cold water that really puts a cramp on travel,” said Mike Casola, general manager of Pismo Beach’s oceanfront resort, The Cliffs. “I think for the most part, we’re over that part of it.”

Area tourism officials agree. But they’re not standing by idly waiting for visitors to come — they’ve become more proactive than ever.

“The new tough realities of this current economy have really led travelers to look for real value,” said Kathy Jangega-Dykes, executive director of the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau. “This summer, we’ll be rolling out a new campaign called Compliments of Santa Barbara. The premise and the objective is to promote the numerous values that are available for travelers.”

Suddenly, an organization whose goal is to bring tourists — and their money — to the county is promoting things like hiking, beach-going and biking, all of which are free or inexpensive. But Jangega-Dykes said bargain-seeking visitors will eventually have to drop some cash on food and hotels. In 2008, travelers to Santa Barbara County spent $426 million on food and $417.5 million on lodging, the county’s visitors and conference bureau revealed in a recent study it commissioned.

And Jangega-Dykes is betting travelers will stick around an extra day or two to get more bang for their buck with all the deals around. “Part of this is encouraging people to stay longer,” she said.
With 8.2 million visitors to the county last year, longer stays could add to the $1.59 billion tourists spent there last year.

The San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau is also ramping up its efforts to tell potential visitors about what the area has to offer — especially discounted activities.

“We’re hearing that [travelers] will still come here but may be cutting back while they’re here,” said Carrie Head, the bureau’s communications manager. As a result, the bureau’s Web site features a deals section with coupons and package discounts. “We’re doing whatever we can to encourage them to travel,” Head said.

The San Luis Obispo County’s Visitors & Conference Bureau announced last week that by July 1, it will have completely restructured its organization to better attract tourists to the area. The main component of this reorganization is a remodeled Web site, as the majority of travelers now use the Internet to book their vacations. The bureau is also expanding its advertising efforts in Northern and Southern California as families look for less expensive travel options a car ride away.

To cap off its reorganization, the 23-year-old bureau is seeking a new executive director, and the application deadline ends May 22.

Overall, Head said, the bureau’s marketing strategy will mirror past campaigns, as San Luis Obispo County visitors usually have three main things in mind: “Hearst Castle, the beaches and the wineries,” Head explained.

These days, Hearst Castle attracts more than 673,000 visitors annually, making it the most popular museum by far in the Tri-Counties.

Meanwhile, wine continues to be an attractive pull throughout the region, Head and Janega-Dykes agreed. In 2008, nearly 17 percent of Santa Barbara County’s visitors went wine tasting, outnumbering 14 percent of those who engaged in cultural activities such as visiting museums.

In the past year, the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau has marketed the area aggressively as a culinary destination, with wine wrapped into the heart of it. Janega-Dykes said the campaign has seen strong results so far despite the economic climate. But while the leisure business has hummed along, conference and business-related aspects have dropped off significantly.

“What we’re missing is convention business,” The Cliff’s Casola said. “That’s performing down the most of any segment.”

Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort, which ties the Bacara Resort as the largest hotel in the Tri-Counties, has also seen a drop in its conference business. With 16 conference rooms and more than 48,000 square feet of meeting space, a drop in conference bookings has had a serious impact on its bottom line.

“In my experience, having been here for 20 years, I would say this is not a banner year for conference,” said Beth Olson, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. “It’s noticeable that the lead times are shorter and the group sizes are smaller.”

Casola added that California’s budget crisis has had a direct effect on his business, as government-related meetings and hotel stays have disintegrated.

“It’s not only in this area — it’s certainly been happening nationally as well,” Janega-Dykes said of the conference bookings drop-off. “There is a large national outreach program trying to encourage corporations to book meetings and book conferences to stimulate the economy.”

With 165 rooms perched right above the ocean, The Cliffs has only had to lower its prices slightly to stay competitive. Overall, Casola said, “this year is shaping up to be an OK year. It’s not a disaster but it’s not a great year either.”

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