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THE SAVVY TRAVELER

Gulf War Stimulates Discreet Travel Discounts : Bargains: Striving for customers, many airlines, hotels and rental agencies will grant substantial discounts, but sometimes only to those who ask.

January 27, 1991|PETER S. GREENBERG

While Americans ponder the question of whether it is safe to travel, vacant airplanes and hotels are prompting companies to create or extend bargains in an attempt to bolster business. Among the problems is how to offer price reductions that don't sound as if they are an attempt to profit from Persian Gulf strife.

"The drop-off in travel was started by the poor economy and then accelerated by the war in the Gulf," said Louis Richmond, spokesman for the Seattle Sheraton hotel. "And we have had to come up with sensitive programs to try to generate travel."

With more than 20 countries on the State Department's list of nations to be avoided, the traveler's world is shrinking. As a result of the Gulf conflict, the State Department list includes: Iraq and Kuwait, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Sudan, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Syria, northern Nigeria, Djibouti, Lebanon, Iran and Libya.

In past slowdowns, many airlines aggressively initiated fare wars and advertising campaigns to stimulate business.

Not this year.

After the war began, and airlines suffered an almost immediate drop in bookings, many actually pulled newspaper and television ads.

"We dealt with this in much the same way we deal with an airplane crash," said Continental spokesman Art Kent. "We just pulled our ads. But we didn't pull them because of the drop in traffic, which we think was just a brief hiccup, at least for domestic travel. We pulled the ads because we didn't think it seemed appropriate to advertise leisure travel and vacations at a time of war."

But many companies are reducing prices in an effort to make travel attractive.

"There are lots of extraordinary fares available at this time," said Don Ford, head of the British Tourist Authority in North America. "There are good hotel rates, great air fares."

A sampling:

--Virgin Atlantic is offering a round-trip New York-to-London fare for only $249.

--A discounted fare from LAX to London on British Airways, through a company called Flight Coordinators (800-366-3544), now costs $427. The normal fare for that route on the same airline is $700.

--Flight Coordinators is also offering a fare of $659 to Vienna on Pan Am or TWA. The regular fare is $836.

--The usual Egypt Air round-trip fare between Los Angeles and Cairo costs approximately $1,320. Now it is as low as $980 through R&H Voyage (818-246-9356; reservations must be made with R&H through travel agents). And some tour operators can now get it for even less.

--Extending a cut rate that was in place before the Gulf War began, anyone flying on Alitalia from the United States to Italy can take along a companion for just $50 each way, or $100 round trip.

--Some airlines have dropped the price on special tour packages. Cathay Pacific is now offering a special tour package: six nights in Hong Kong, air fare and hotel for just $999. In 1990, the price was $1,999.

--Pan Am and TWA have reintroduced triple mileage madness for frequent fliers.

--Even the cash-starved Trump Shuttle is now offering passengers 5,000 miles for each flight taken on the short routes between Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York.

On international flights, many foreign carriers have also been hurt by the severe downturn in traffic. As a result--and again, without advertising--most airlines flying internationally have begun to waive restrictions on discount tickets. By doing this, they are effectively, and substantially, lowering their fares.

For domestic air trips, waiving of restrictions is being decided on a case-by-case basis in response to written requests to consumer affairs departments of the individual airlines.

In Hawaii, even before the war, a drop-off in tourists had prompted the state to authorize an emergency $1.4-million advertising campaign. Outrigger Hotels, for example, reports that reservations are down by 20%. Other hotels report similar drops in bookings since Jan. 17.

A number of Hawaiian hotels have accelerated the introduction of special packages, and have decided to keep them in force through 1991, instead of applying them seasonally. The Four Seasons Resort Wailea, in Maui, now offers year-round packages.

"With the recession and now the war, we decided to start the package now and run it all year, rather than wait for the traditional soft travel periods," said spokeswoman Carol Zahorsky.

Other than extensions of seasonal discounts, don't look for big ads offering hotel room discounts. Yet the discounts are there.

"No one is officially discounting," said Sheila Donnelly, spokeswoman for the Rafael Hotel Group. "But they'll all cut deals. It's become a free-for-all because their occupancies are so low.

"The real problem with the war is that the hotel business runs on seasons, and war isn't one of them. No one could plan for this, or bounce back quickly enough. In a situation like this, you can't simply go after another segment of the travel market to fill rooms. It's just plain trouble."

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