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TRAVEL INSIDER : For Now, Hotel Rooms Are a Buyer's Market : Accommodations: Hoteliers seek to cut costs and keep rates down without eroding their images.


You can run. You can hide. You can sleep on relatives' sofas or hop from hostel to bed and breakfast. But sooner or later you're likely to find yourself standing at the check-in counter of a hotel, hoping the receptionist will charge you a reasonable rate.

To get such value, of course, it helps to ask about discounts, to know whether there's a convention in town, to have an alternative in mind, and to ask one more time about discounts. But in a broader sense, it also helps to know what's going on beyond the counter, in the manager's office. These days, the conversation there could touch upon anything from airline tie-ins to water recirculation schemes.

Here's a briefing on some of what hoteliers are talking about these days, and how it could affect you. Among the topics: How much business American hotels did last year, how veteran travelers rank those hotels and how lodging industry leaders are likely to behave in the next couple of years.

The 1992 numbers. After falling to 60.2% in 1991, occupancy rates in U.S. hotels last year rose to 61.7%. That positive sign for hoteliers might not have been possible, except that construction of new hotels has slowed to a tiny trickle, allowing demand to catch up with supply. By estimates of Tennessee-based Smith Travel Research, the average room rate nationwide rose from $59.03 to $59.82.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 14, 1993 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Column 5 Travel Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong Ritz--A March 7 Travel Insider column incorrectly identified a hotel voted in a Zagat survey as a top value in the Los Angeles area. It is the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel, in Pasadena. There is no Ritz-Carlton in Huntington Beach, as the story said.

Still, Mark Lomanno, executive director of Smith Travel Research, estimates that the average U.S. hotel lost more than $1,000 per room last year; that the industry as a whole hasn't posted a profit in seven years, and that, for the last six years, average room rates have risen more slowly than inflation.

All indications, say industry analysts, suggest a slow recovery--slow and precarious enough that room rates are likely to rise only modestly in 1993, probably less than inflation. Lomanno's guess is an average increase of 2%-3%.

A survey says ... The Zagat U.S. Hotel, Resort and Spa Survey, a 14-year-old annual publication that last year drew on more than 7,000 well-heeled, well-traveled folks (the average respondent spent 38 nights in hotels in 1992), this year carries a simple advisory: "It's a buyer's market."

Survey co-author Tim Zagat, who does not vote himself but does spend 50-60 nights a year in hotels, suggests that "there's been so much attention focused on the downside of the industry--the industry as seen by the developer, the bank and the bankruptcy court--that it seems to me that there hasn't been as much attention paid to the consumer." For the consumer, Zagat argues, the United States in 1993 may be the best place ever to find a good hotel room, and get it at a good price.

"I grew up believing that when you went to a hotel, you paid what you were asked to pay. It was unthinkable to ask for a better rate," Zagat continues. But now, "if you're the kind of person who's embarrassed about looking dumb or looking pushy . . . you look like you're a farmer from Iowa. The person behind the desk says, well, this person doesn't know what he's doing."

That said, consumers should nevertheless be ready for big bills at the very favorite hotels of Zagat's travelers. The top three are the Windsor Court in New Orleans (average double-room cost: $201.90), the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas ($218.20), and the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles ($268.40).

For those who want to spend less--that is, most of us--Zagat asks its sources to rank hotels by the value they offer for the money. Another helpful element of Zagat's approach is that instead of listing the often-inflated "off-the-rack" rates charged by hotels, he uses the average rates paid by his veteran travelers, probably after a brief rate-cutting negotiation.

The Zagat survey's five "best value" hotels in San Francisco: Hotel Bedford ($96), Hotel Vintage Court ($117), Villa Florence Hotel ($121), Beresford Arms ($98) and the Prescott Hotel ($156).

In San Diego: Horton Grand ($122), Pan Pacific ($123), Doubletree Horton Plaza ($124), Catamaran Resort ($117), and the Embassy Suites downtown ($121).

In Los Angeles County: Warner Center Marriott, Woodland Hills ($127), Industry Hills Sheraton ($112), Westin Hotel-LAX ($125), Sheraton Los Angeles Airport ($116), and the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Beach ($183).

What to expect. Many hoteliers, expecting to subsist until things really improve around 1995 or 1996, are looking for ways to keep rates down and reduce costs--all, if possible, without eroding their images. Which makes an interesting spectacle.

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